Twenty years ago community changed my life. A lot of people know that drugs and partying are part of my testimony, but I don’t often talk about the reason I fell into the party scene so many years ago. It was simple, really.
I wanted community.
I went to the most expensive, exclusive school in Macon, Georgia, and I didn’t fit in. When I transferred to a new school in seventh grade, I discovered a community that was far more welcoming. It just so happened to be the drug community.
One of the harshest realities of turning to Christ and abandoning the drug scene was the loss of my entire community. I cut ties with every friend in my life simply because my recreational pursuits had changed. I didn’t go to the parties anymore. Or throw them. But by then I recognized the power of community. I knew I’d never be able to walk this road alone. So I invited a random group of guys over, and I started a Bible study. Once more, community changed my life. This time, for the better. It was my first experience of a Christian small group, and I didn’t have a clue what to do! But God grew us. And somewhere along the way, He lit a fire in my heart. I told God that one day I wanted to lead more people to Him than I had led away from Him.
Why Do We Avoid Community?
If community is so influential—whether for good or evil—why do we get skittish at the thought of Christian community? In my experience, it usually boils down to these three reasons—the biggest drawbacks to Christian community:
Reason #1: It will cause you to be uncomfortable with your sin.
I get it. When you join a group of people to talk about Jesus, it can get uncomfortable. Community has a way of exposing inadequacies that are hard to stomach. I remember the first time Jeanne and I joined a group of believers in a small group as a newlywed couple. One of the couples shared how they never raise their voices when they fight. I left that meeting thinking two things: I will never go back and how is that even possible?! We went back and realized we aren’t as holy as we thought we were. But we also learned that everyone struggles. The same couple who doesn’t shout during fights, eventually shared their struggles in other areas.
It’s hard to grow in holiness alone. Hebrews 10:24-25 urges believers not to give up meeting together, and to spur one another on to love and good deeds. Community is the place where we speak into each other’s lives, challenge sin, ask questions, listen, encourage, and grow.
Reason #2: It will cause you to be vulnerable.
There is a difference between transparency and vulnerability. Transparency means you open up about your life. This is fairly easy to do. It’s easy to talk about going through a difficult time five years ago. But vulnerability is different. When someone is vulnerable, they open themselves up for judgement. They talk about the things that are currently going on in their lives, or the things that continue to hang over them to this day.
Years ago professor John Powell created a chart of five levels of communication ranging from social pleasantries, to reporting the facts, to sharing personal opinions, and then feelings, and finally what Powell terms “peak communication” where there is total openness and honesty. When you avoid vulnerability, you forgo awkward, potentially embarrassing moments. But you also forgo the chance to be truly known and loved by others. The reason the #metoo movement grew to viral proportions is because there is power in those two words. Few things are more comforting than sharing that vulnerable, painful, dark, confusing thing and hearing someone else say, “Me too.”
Reason #3: It will cause you to sacrifice.
Finally, spending time with others for the purpose of discipleship is costly. Everybody is busy. Everybody has multiple commitments and priorities in life. Still, every week across our campuses, countless people open their homes, pay for babysitters, cook, clean, and say “No” to other things in order to be part of a Grace community. It’s a sacrifice, but it’s also an investment.
The truth is, we’re always willing to sacrifice for investments we deem worthy. We sacrifice immediate comfort to invest in future retirement. We sacrifice freedom to invest in child-rearing. Sometimes we sacrifice our marriages to invest in our careers. Or we sacrifice our reputation to invest in our sin. Sacrifice and investment go hand-in-hand, so the real question is—are your investments worth the sacrifice? Are they wise or are they backwards? Are you sacrificing eternal rewards to invest in temporary fulfillment? Or are you sacrificing temporary rewards to invest in becoming more like Jesus?
Jim Elliot is famous for saying, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And boy, did he put his money where his mouth was. Elliot died a martyr, seeking to reach the lost. He gave his life—something perishable that he couldn’t keep anyway—to gain something imperishable—eternal rewards that will never be taken from him. Jim Elliot was no fool.
What about us? Community is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard and even costly. But then again, the best things in life always are.