What We Need for True Community

Photo by  Alexis Brown  on  Unsplash

In a recent LifeWay Research study of 2,500 Protestant churchgoers, 65% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “I can walk with God without other believers.” While people bring their own interpretation to the questions asked in studies like this, this finding seems to fit with the day-to-day experiences of many believers. We may consume a sermon, read our Bibles, get a dose of a spiritual pick-me-up from Instagram, and think we’re good. Ours is an age of “expressive individualism,” an ideal that cannot coexist with the biblical mandate to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Not surprisingly, we’re experiencing what some have deemed a “loneliness epidemic,” with a 2018 study showing that 22% of adults in the U.S. say they “always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated.”

We want to be seen, known, and valued. But no number of social media followers can meet that desire. And a Christianity that places us side-by-side in pews without ever being face-to-face around the Word fits right into our consumer culture, but misses the all-of-life picture we see in the church of the New Testament.

My daughter and I have been reading through 1 Corinthians at night, thanks to the encouragement of our student ministries pastor, Tyler. We got about eight chapters in before she said, “This church is a mess.” And she’s not wrong. But I was struck by the fact that, even in their problems and sin, they knew what was going on with one another. They weren’t practicing accountability, they were plagued by class struggles and pride and in-fighting, but these problems arose as they were assembling together and, to use a phrase I find greatly annoying, “doing life together.”

On a more pleasant New Testament church note, we can see the church at Colossae being commended for their love for one another, and charged to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:15-16).

It’s this “one body” spirit that we’re called to, with fellowship and community coming out of the word of Christ dwelling in us, flowing out in teaching and admonishing. The picture is one of really knowing each other well enough to admonish each other to follow the teaching of Christ.

But, we could be part of a church body for years without experiencing this kind of community. What is it that breaks through and brings that deeper fellowship?

In his fantastic book, Life Together, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

The antidote to loneliness and expressive individualism is found in confessing sin to one another. It’s this act of opening ourselves up that breaks down barriers, places us on a level playing field, and draws us together in our common need for grace and forgiveness.

I’ve written about my own struggle to open myself up in this way in my book, Real: The Surprising Secret to Deeper Relationships. But, like so many things, once I finally experienced it, I realized how vital it was and how desperately I needed this kind of community. And, as I’ve traveled and share these ideas with others and forced women out of their comfort zones into times of confession and prayer, I’ve been told the same thing again and again, and it’s the exact response I had when I was first forced into it:

“When you told us we were going to do this, I was nervous and wanted to leave. But I’m so glad we did it, and we’re going to incorporate this into our small groups now.”

It’s not magic, and it’s not anything new. It’s something the church has been doing for thousands of years—James 5:16 says, “…confess your sins to one another and pray for one another….” But confession doesn’t happen accidentally; we have to be intentional about it.

So, as we enter the fall season and new small groups and Bible studies are starting up, I encourage you to consider incorporating times of confession and prayer into your group time. Here are a few tips I’ve found to work well:

  • Keep it small. If you have 20 people, divide into groups of 3 to 5 if possible. True openness will not happen with loads of people.

  • Ask good questions. Most people new to this won’t know what to do if you just say, “Confess your sin.” Some good starter questions are:

    • What’s something that you seem to struggle with over and over, feeling like you just can’t beat it?

    • Is there anything you feel compelled, but afraid, to share with us?

    • How do you sense God working in your heart?

    • How can we intercede for you against sin this week?

  • Pray immediately. Don’t give tips, advice, or tell your own similar stories. Instead, take pray for one another, reminding each other of the grace we find at the cross.

  • Don’t excuse it. When someone is courageous enough to open up and share something so deeply personal, we can be sure that it’s something the Holy Spirit is convicting her about. So, the worst thing we can do is to wave it away, saying, “That’s okay.” The most grace-filled words this person can hear are, “I’m sorry you’ve been struggling with that. There is forgiveness at the cross, and we’re here to help you fight this.”

  • Keep it close. Commit as a group to keep secret the things shared in confidence (unless, of course, they are matters where someone is in imminent danger). True unity comes when we can trust each other.

As we implement these things, I believe we’ll see more and more of what Bonhoeffer describes below. I pray it will be so.

In confession occurs the breakthrough of the Cross. The root of all sin is pride, superbia. I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God. Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride...In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother - which means, before God - we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation. The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together