Life Together: Community Driven Ministry

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s excellent book, Life Together, stands as an excellent devotional reading for Christians of all generations.  As one who experienced the gallows under the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer stands as an inspirational light to those who experience the darkness which life can often bring. It is his contention, however, that life is not meant to be isolated and individualized. It is meant to be done within the community of the Church. It is meant to be done together.

In Life Together Bonhoeffer notes the following:

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

He continues,

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

 

There are two things to pull from this. First, the community which we must try to stimulate must be placed within reality, not a dream. The Christian community is not one of happy-go-lucky Christians frolicking with each other in fields of flowers. It is not a utopia where dreams–and prayers–come true merely because we have a communal sense of the Spirit. It is a community that situates itself within the real world both with Christians and non-Christians, in the context of pain, apathy, death, financial difficulties, war,  depressions, etc. We must not be oblivious to the world in which we live and we should not set up a community that ignores that world. I am reminded yearly in my work with Summit that the community established between staff members is only a taste of the kingdom in the present, but it is not to serve as an excuse for an escapist mentality. It is a blessing to be in seminary amongst others, but the Christian call of the gospel is to live amongst others, not to live in a bubble. The community will never be ideal, but that does not cease it from being divine.

Secondly, this community itself must be loved more than the idea of the community. A seminary President must love the students, faculty, and staff more than he does the seminary itself. Non-profit organizations must love those they seek to help more than they do the catalyst for the help. A pastor must love his congregation more than he loves the building, name, and job. Too often, I have seen those within ministry care most about their own welfare, their own ideas, their own popularity, and–dare say it–their own paycheck. We must never sacrifice the community itself for the idea of community.