The Paradox of Community

Why church members often run from community despite their attraction to it

In a book called The Different Drum, M. Scott Peck suggests that while we want intimacy, we often run from it. Perplexing, isn't it? We want to be honest and open, but we are not willing to risk being ourselves in a group of sisters and brothers.

As an example, let's say that Greg is upset over his teenager's recent experimentation with smoking pot. He wants help to sort out his feelings but is reluctant to say so. Brandy notices Greg's ambivalence when he tells the group he had a "routine week." But when Brandy inquires, "You sure you feel okay today, Greg? You seem a little down to me," Greg answers, "No, everything is going fine, really!" Unable to be honest, Greg fools only himself and agonizes in his own silent world.

If and when we are honest with ourselves, we know we need other people. While the rugged individualism of our time surely runs counter to this reality, there are additional issues that we often overlook. Here are four factors that influence our paradoxical need for, and fear of, community.

The Issue of Confidentiality

Lack of trustor the issue of confidentiality—is one factor that helps us explain this push/pull paradox. Fear of exposure can prevent people, particularly those who live in small towns and rural areas, from joining koinonia groups in the first place. Grapevine communication is so pervasive in many small communities and rural areas that people guard themselves against revealing personal information with virtually anyone. Why should we in the church expect to be any different from the community at large in risking self-disclosure?

Overcoming such a deeply ingrained and often well-founded fear is not an easy accomplishment for planners of community. Assurance of confidentiality is needed before many will even consider joining a small group, and it is a ground rule that groups should adopt and follow right from the start. Even so, it may take a long time and considerable evidence that trust is warranted before many church members choose to risk self-disclosure.

The Issue of Truth

A second factor influencing this push/pull dynamic of intimacy is the difficulty we human beings have in facing the truth about ourselves. How often we wear masks and try to cover our tracks. How easily we deceive ourselves and others and try to justify inappropriate behavior. When we are afraid to face our true selves, and when we deceive others, we tend to flee relationships—with God, with ourselves, and also with others.

This urge to go it alone is not the only result of our deceptions; they can also prevent us from developing trust even if confidentiality is assured and practiced. If we conceal rather than risk disclosing our true selves, and if we deceive rather than trust others, we prevent the two necessary conditions for experiencing intimacy in our relationships: risk and trust.

What gives us the freedom to face the truth about ourselves? The Christian gospel affirms that it is okay not to be okay. Jesus came preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sin. Repent and believe in the gospel, Jesus taught. God's unconditional acceptance of us is what can give us the freedom to face the truth about ourselves—to be our true selves, warts and all. Rather than flee from others, then, we become free to reveal our shortcomings, to acknowledge our need for others' acceptance and support and care, and to change our ways. Rather than deceiving others, we can risk opening ourselves so that trust and intimacy can develop in our interpersonal relationships.

The Issue of Church Size

Besides confidentiality and facing the truth, church size can also be an obstacle that keeps us from realizing our desire to experience authentic Christian community. Our culture overly enamors a bigger-is-better mentality.

When a church is small, say with fewer than 30 members, it may be able to function as one large relational circle. But when a church gets much bigger than that, there isn't "room" for everyone to experience the openness, acceptance, warmth, and personal growth possible in the smaller community. This means that as a church increases in size, leaders must be intentional in planning and taking necessary steps to develop multiple smaller groups to maintain a sense of Christian community.

Numbers do matter. We cannot develop sufficiently close personal relationships in large groups. Relational development literature, in fact, tells us that it is difficult to experience intimacy in our interpersonal relationships in groups of more than six to ten people. Consequently, unless we plan and develop new or additional opportunities for group life, we severely curb both our Christian koinonia and our outreach to others.

The Issue of Time Management

Our crowded schedules may also limit the creation of Christian community in our congregations. Unless we drop some current commitment, project, or amusement, many of us simply cannot add another meeting to our schedules.

Rearranging time commitments is a challenge that needs to be confronted if community is to become a priority. Again, desiring community is only half the equation—the need or "pull" to intimacy. The "push" away from intimacy can be as simple as an overscheduled calendar.

Excerpted from Small Groups in the Church: A handbook for creating community, © 1995 by the Alban Institute.

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