Community is a word that is bandied about a fair deal. It’s a word we like, a feel good word, a word that makes us feel included. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community? Especially when all those other people know your name, give you a high five, or a nod and a smile, as you pass them in the street; invite you to all their parties; listen gravely to your concerns and attentively to your advice; compete to get you the best present on your birthday.
But then again what if it’s not like that? What if I’m part of the community but not loved, not respected, not listened to, not remembered? What if I’m part of the community but nobody knows my name? What if no one likes me?
When we think of being with people we are dominated by two equal and opposing forces; the desire for connection and the fear of rejection. Whilst we know all about our desire for connection we are often unaware of how much our fear of rejection affects us. A fear that is very real because of our extreme vulnerability. It is these two forces and the way they affect our church life that I would like to look at.
We all want to be connected, we want to be known, loved, liked, admired, respected, cherished, adored. We want to belong and whilst there might be a thousand different ways of saying it, the root is always the same, it is a meaningful connection to other human beings. It is one of our primary drivers and affects us at every age of our lives. It is the glue that holds communities and groups of people together. It ranges from full blown, passionate love, through friendship and down to mates, or work colleagues, or even just a smile and a nod from someone we pass in the street. It’s all connection and it all feels good and yet at its heart it illuminates one of our greatest failings and that is our fear of being vulnerable.
It is impossible to connect to another person without a degree of vulnerability, even our gift of a smile to a stranger - which is a very small thing – can be met with a scowl or expletive and this rejection from someone we don’t know can run so deep that it can cast a shadow across our whole day. Some of us might be able to objectify the experience with the knowledge that they didn’t know us so therefore weren’t in a position to reject us (if they knew me they would actually realise that I was a very nice person) but if a stranger can do this, then what can those close to us do?
Whichever way you look at it, and no matter how good you get at dealing with it, you can’t get away from the fact that we bruise easily. That the exposure needed in order to be loved is a price that is too high and too damaging. And so most of us, all of us, put our real selves in a safe place and interface with the world using a modified version of the person we think the world would like to see. We attempt to develop meaningful connections through this new improved version of us by engaging in activities with others, who themselves are the new improved version of the person they would like us to think they are. It sounds complicated because it is, it is also ridiculous and at the very least we need to talk about it. However, even this isn’t easy. We live in a society which is so terrified of vulnerability that everything about it has become shallow. We assess someone’s worth on the way they look, the car they drive, their job, where they live, what they wear, how much they earn, what music they like, their age, their skin colour, their accent, their education, their weight, what they own. The list is as endless as it is damaging and yet we all know that all of these things are meaningless.
And whilst this attitude is prevalent in secular society, it is also a real issue in church life. Many people go to church and come away again feeling disconnected. We too tend to hold up a mask as a way of guarding our vulnerability. We wear the Sunday morning smile, exchange greetings that we don’t want to go any further, be nice when we would rather not. We have done this for so long that it is almost de facto Christianity but it is not honest and it is not the real us. And because we all tend to play the game our churches develop a “vibe” of nice and inoffensive, of being out of touch with reality, of being “happy clappy.” To be fair one of the principle reasons we do this is because we want the church to appear in a good light. We want it to be a warm welcoming place where people feel safe. We want the world to look at us and say. “Hay, they’ve got what we want” but that’s not what they are saying. They’re saying they would, pretty much, rather do anything than set foot in a church. It’s our fear of vulnerability that is framing our churches not our love and so we have created an artificial environment.
M. Scott Peck a Christian Psychiatrist who wrote the very popular and very good “The Road Less Travelled” (Section on Love of the abridged audiobook: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BF9f4EWd2fs&feature=channel&list=UL) back in the 70’s refers to this artificial level of community as Pseudo community.
"For many groups or organizations the most common initial stage, pseudocommunity, is the only one. It is a stage of pretense. The group pretends it already is a community, that the participants have only superficial individual differences and no cause for conflict. The primary means it uses to maintain this pretense is through a set of unspoken common norms we call manners: you should try your best not to say anything that might antagonize or upset anyone else; if someone else says something that offends you or evokes a painful feeling or memory, you should pretend it hasn't bothered you in the least; and if disagreement or other unpleasantness emerges, you should immediately change the subject. These are rules that any good hostess knows. They may create a smoothly functioning dinner party but nothing more significant. The communication in a pseudocommunity is filled with generalizations. It is polite, inauthentic, boring, sterile, and unproductive."
Excerpt from the book A World Waiting to be Born by Scott Peck (Bantam Books, New York, 1993)
And the crazy thing is that we live out our lives in this impoverished soup whilst longing to meet real people and be real ourselves. If we are going to make an impact on the world then the greatest thing we can do is not start another program or pray for revival, but start being real. In this way we can invest in something that outstrips everything the world has to offer. In a society that is obsessed with celebrity, with image, with people being admired for having the right look, being in a film, having a good voice, and the desperate clamouring for a place in the lime light that it produces. How many people are actually known for being good? We Christians have never been told to be like everyone else. We have a saviour who is the image of vulnerability and strength. Who wasn’t just imprisoned as he fought for our freedom but died for it. Who said “take up your cross and follow me.”
I recently found a TED talk by a researcher named Brene Brown called the Power of Vulnerability. If you get a chance you should watch it. (Brene Brown - the Power of Vulnerability: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o)
She was looking for the secret behind why some people seemed to have, what she termed “whole hearted lives” and others didn’t. It was whilst carrying out this scientific research that she discovered the common feature was that they were all prepared to be vulnerable. They didn’t see vulnerability as a weakness but as a strength. And as such were much more prepared to be real with people and so they came across as real, had better relationships and were much easier on themselves.
The church needs to love well and we can’t do that without coming to terms with our vulnerability? I think the first thing to recognise is that you can’t deal with vulnerability on your own, because, by its very nature it is a relational issue. At some point you have to be vulnerable with those around you and those around you are your community. It’s not some bloke we’ve just met, or someone in a chat room, but it’s the people we’re journeying with, people we are committed to and who are committed to us, in short it is other Christians. The church needs to provide the space in order for community to develop and it needs to get this right. In fact Christ took it so seriously that he said “All men will know that you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” Paul said “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another”. John writes in 1 John “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
Many churches have recognised that this level of relational interaction cannot be achieved before and after the sermon on a Sunday and so have home-groups or cell groups, which are more intimate. Despite this we still don’t think of our fellow cell, or home group, members as people we would sell our possessions in order to help. We don’t think of them as people for whom we would be prepared to suffer, well not very much anyway. So the question is not what system should we set up, but what would make us love one another to the point where we would be prepared to pay.
The only way we would do the sort of things that the believers did for one another in Acts 4 - when they shared their belongings - is if we honestly, genuinely loved each other. That means we need to know each other - we need to know how others are when they lose their temper, how they treat their children, their partner, their friends, how they deal with pain and loss, are they honest, cheerful, courageous and humane? What is their attitude towards work and money? And we need to engage with these things and have them engage with us. This is knowledge that can only be learned from seeing someone in the day to day, nitty gritty of their lives. It is how we develop the myriad connects of relationship. But how can we do that when we live busy lives in geographically separate places? How can we integrate when our lives are in essence isolated? How can we build anything more than superficial connections when we only meet in meetings? Well, we need to do what it takes.
It’s a strange thing, but I have worked on building sites with tradesmen who have talked about nothing more important than TV and football and have felt closer to them than other Christians I have talked to for months. I quoted John earlier as saying “let us not love with words” it is my experience that you can’t love with words, they just don’t go deep enough.
We need community that costs. It is at the core of what Christ came to give us and it is the only thing that our wealthy society cannot buy but desperately desires. Given the odds which are at stake, isn’t it time that we dealt with our vulnerability and started to invest in loving one another?
Tags: A World Waiting To Be Born
, Brené Brown
, M. Scott Peck
, Ted Talks
, The Road Less Travelled