Within the Christian subculture is this overwhelming message of the importance of community. I agree. Having friends who can encourage you in your journey of faith, who can challenge you, and help keep you focused is a huge benefit. We need people. We need to know that we’re loved, unconditionally, and that there isn’t anything that we could go through that someone else hasn’t faced, too.
I love the idea of small groups. Small groups for moms, for dads, for people who work out, for people who play music, for people who have been divorced, addicted, broken, etc. The possibilities go on and on. It’s group therapy. We’re not alone and communities can provide a safe place to unearth emotions, fears, struggles, and failures. We can encourage each other and that safe space of honesty can be really healing.
These communities can also be really damaging. They’re damaging when they’re more about conformity and less about the Gospel. They’re damaging when they’re more about appearance and less about the heart. They’re damaging when they’re no longer about honesty in weakness and more about the illusion of almost perfection. They can tear a person down when you have to filter your relationship with God through the opinions of those in your group.
In all of the good, there is potential for something really traumatizing. The nature of Christian relationships is built on complete openness and letting the depth surface so that it can be healed. The only way this is possible is through the unconditional love of God. People expect His love to be played out in the lives of His children, in this context: through their relationships. However, people make mistakes with each other and focus more on His demands for right living and less on His command to love and offer restorative grace.
When people are wide open like that, the hits don’t have to be hard for their impact to be paralyzing. We tear down our walls in church, so there is nothing to protect us from the pain of rejection. Any group that focuses on grace is accused of being soft on sin. What we need to be reminded of is that grace makes it possible to be completely honest about our sin. We don’t have to dumb it down or justify it to deem it forgivable. Honesty sets people free from the weight of self-justification. When people open up in honesty, sometimes their community can focus more on the sin, forgetting that they wouldn’t even know about it unless the person was honest.
Sometimes people in churches can make the Gospel feel like a ‘bait and switch’ con. They tell you to “come just as you are”, but don’t make any mistakes. It’s hard to watch a group of people go half way across the world to tell people that God loves them, that Jesus can forgive anything they’ve done, but then deny it in their personal relationships at home.
I know this isn’t the case in all Christian communities. People who know how to love others do exist. They’re just kind of hard to find. I think that if you’ve been hurt in your Christian relationships, then it’s hard to trust. For some, the word “Christian” does not conjure up visions of warm people with inviting arms. It conjures up visions of cynical judgements and cold shoulders. It’s damaging when you go to church thinking that you can find a community that won’t crush you with what you’ve done wrong, but find a community that won’t let you be an active participant because of your failures. It’s like finding out that the One who will always take you back, won’t. It feels hopeless in condemnation. It feels like a message of complete rejection from God.
If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, then the message of condemnation is absent of Christ. It’s a fight of faith to believe the still small voice of truth over the overwhelming rejection of community.
Here is an interesting quote I ran across recently:
“People who attend services regularly but lack friends in the congregation are worse off [mental health-wise] than those who do not go at all.”-Sandra Upson
That quote isn’t about spiritual health, it’s about mental health, and I think it’s an interesting observation. I think that a lot of people can attest to that.
No matter what, the Truth wins. There isn’t a person in your own personal jeering section that can take the truth of God’s love from you. It would be a good time to consider who your ultimate relationship is with: God, or His people? No person or group of people can be enough for you and they will all fail you, just like you fail them.
We all mess up with each other. Just don’t let your experience turn you away from God. He’s not like that. Build up the truth in you and then, when the timing is right, get back in there. Be the difference for someone else. Until then, don’t beat yourself up about no being a part of a physical church. Grow in your wilderness. You’re still part of the spiritual church (the real church) and it’s much bigger than you may think.