The one who loves his dream of a community more than the community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. … The one who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself or herself. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge the brethren and God themselves accordingly. ... They act as if they are the creators of the Christian community, as if their dream binds people together. When things do not go their way, they call the effort a failure.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This is one of those rare quotes that has stuck with me and my spaghetti-strainer memory for years. I first read Life Together in 2014, and I remember highlighting this section and writing “Wow!” in the margins. Since then, I’ve been assigned to read the book twice for two different classes, gone through it with a church small group, and taught it as part of a discipleship class. It was one of the small handful of books I chose to put in my limited baggage space when I moved overseas. It’s been almost two years since I last read it, so it’s definitely time for a refresher; but even so, this quote has always been in the back (if not the front) of my mind.
By nature, I tend to be an idealist - once a vision is in my head, I run with it and don’t easily give it up. I think it’s part of being an ENFP on the Meyers-Briggs test.* I also tend to have very high standards and expectations of myself and others, which may be linked to being an 8 on the Enneagram. Lastly, I’m a total extrovert - I tested 95% E on Meyers-Briggs - which means that community is also extremely important to me, so all of this usually includes a strong vision of what I think my (emphasis on my) community should look like. (The personality tests aren’t really important to this article, just thought I’d include them for those of you who are into that sort of thing.)
Being a high-standards, high-expectations idealist (and did I mention a natural pessimist?) means that disappointment and frustration come naturally to me, which is why this quote speaks to my heart so much. I’ve had to come back around to it many times over the last several years, but each time I find it becoming more natural to shift my thought process into simply loving the people around me, instead of loving my dream of what we should be.
How to destroy a community
I can’t recommend Life Together highly enough. It’s one of the most transformative books I’ve read, and I’ve heard the same from so many others. Since Bonhoeffer has already done enough work on showing how to build a beautiful and healthy community, I figured I would contribute what I am clearly far more qualified to do: how to kill it. I just listed four key aspects of my personality that, without careful monitoring and balancing, make up an excellent toolkit to start the process. Since I know them well, let’s use those as the outline for my little curriculum. This toolkit will be useful in many places, but specifically I’m thinking about new churches, small groups, and especially so-called “intentional communities” - where people live with/near each other and choose to share a large part of their life and time and ministry, i.e. “doing life together.”
1. Become an unbalanced idealist
This is the cornerstone of the whole program. Bonhoeffer says loving your dream of the community rather than the community itself is the best way to kill it - and as a bonus, he says you don’t even have to have bad intentions to do so! So we can skip the unnecessarily long and difficult step of trying to convert our intentions from good to bad. All we need to do is make sure we have a solid vision and stick to it no matter what.
There are lots of ways to develop your vision for the ideal community, but a great place to start is reading some good books about thriving ones. Life Together and Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution are great ones to start with, or you can just go classic and stick with this description of the earliest church in Acts 2:42-47.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
That’s an excellent place to get started for your vision! Meeting daily to study, talk, and eat together. Sharing all of your possessions, and expecting those who have more than they need to sell them and put the money in a common account. Rapid expansion. And of course, constantly being happy, worshipful, and viewed with respect and even favor by the world around you.
You might want to consider tailoring your vision a bit to your own context, but try not to do this too much. Considering the realities of the situation and the individual personalities of those involved usually only leads to compromising on the ideal - and we can’t have that! Balancing is for checkbooks, and nobody even uses those anymore.
2. Have unrelentingly high standards
Steps two and three are crucial substeps to the first one, and they actually overlap to the point that the line between them sometimes becomes rather blurry. Let’s talk about standards first. It’s important to keep them high and unrelenting. Of course everyone is welcome to our community. We’re not trying to be an exclusive, elitist club. But once they are in, they need to be all in and play by the rules.
Where you get your standards from depends on what exactly you’re trying to do. Within the context of Christian community, this will generally include moral restrictions, which vary based on your context. There are two styles of approaching this step, and both are equally effective:
The first variant is to make the standards extremely clear from the beginning, and make it very clear how unrelenting they are. The goal is to create a sense of fear and extreme guilt among those who have broken or will break them. Most of the time, this guilt will cause them to hide their failings from the community instead of being transparent about them, which is a key ingredient of health and maturity.
The second variant is to assume the standards are known by everyone - which generally means assuming that they agree with you and the other leaders. When it becomes known that someone has gone over the line and transgressed a standard, you want to make them feel as much shame as possible. There are many ways to achieve this, using direct language or just passive-aggressive comments and behavior; the point is that they end up feeling a sense that the community is not a safe place for them to be honest.
3. Have impossibly high expectations
Once you’ve got the framework set up in your mind, then it’s time to raise your expectations as high as you can. First and foremost, expect everyone to be fully on board with your vision. Expect them to accept it without reservation and to be just as excited about it as you are. Of course, we can’t be totally unrealistic and expect that there will be no questions or discomforts; but we should expect that everyone will have no trouble voicing their concerns clearly, coherently, and respectfully at the very beginning. Then we can expect that we’ll all be able to work everything out in a way that is fully satisfying to everyone and leaves no discomfort whatsoever.
We have to expect that the community will be vibrant and life-giving to everyone from the very beginning. Everyone will be fully on board - open, honest, transparent, encouraging, and ready to work out any of the (rare) conflicts maturely and smoothly. Everyone will participate in all of the events and gatherings, and even the introverts will find themselves drawn from their wicked ways to join us every time we are together. (I should mention that all of us pious extroverts know that being “introverted” is just an excuse for selfishness and not really wanting to be part of a community. The only thing we can do to care for them well is to push them and nag them to be like us and want to spend as much time as possible with the group.)**
Basically, we should expect the community to be everything we want and more from day one. After all, with such a great vision and such high standards, how could it not be?
4. Let your pessimism run wild
Steps 1-3 were all preparation for step four, which is the killing blow for communities everywhere. The first three steps can and should be completed before you get the ball rolling and have a more realistic idea of what the situation will look like and what the people (including you) are capable of. But step four needs to be set in motion after things have started up - and preferably as soon as possible.
If you’ve laid the foundation well, then things will quickly take an unexpected turn. People will fail to live up to your standards. Reality will fall short of your expectations. Things will be far more difficult and take far longer to achieve than you planned for or even anticipated.
Now you’re ready to get extra pessimistic and be as negative as possible. Allow your disappointments and frustrations to have free rein. You can stuff them down and let them make you bitter and calloused, or you can do even better and spread them through gossip (call it “venting” if you want to make it sound better).
Whatever you do, make sure you hold onto the original vision, standards, and expectations! Don’t be willing to compromise them or give into those people who want to reevaluate them and make a course correction. As Bonhoeffer told us, the best way to kill the community is to love your dream of it - not the actual community itself.
A short, more serious conclusion
Now, coming to the end and stepping out of the sarcasm. I assume that when we think about things in this way, it is obvious to us how unhealthy these attitudes and behaviors are. Like all parody, though, the goal of this article is to shine light on things from a different perspective and point out just how crazy the obvious really is.
It’s easy to read this and nod our heads. The real challenge - and I hope you take it seriously - is to search our own hearts for evidence of these unhealthy attitudes and make the choice to do something about it.
*Some people decry Meyers-Briggs for being unscientific and not psychologically accurate. A lot of people say it makes no sense to them or doesn’t help them at all. That’s fine with me. Many say the same thing about the Enneagram, yet millions of people swear by both tests. I don’t really care if it’s scientific; it helped me understand myself and gave me new insights into why I choose to do and say the things I do. It gave me tools to do some healthy introspection and helped me mature in many ways by becoming aware of how people perceive me and what my real strengths and weaknesses are. (Hint: they usually overlap.) I’ll say to you what I say to everyone: if it helps you, awesome; and if it doesn’t, then chuck it. It’s a tool, not a labeling machine or a fortune-teller.
**Hopefully the sarcasm is clear here, but I freely confess that I have felt this way about some of my introverted friends before, judging them and pushing them in ways that weren't helpful to them. There's a difference between healthily inviting/encouraging someone to take part and unhealthily shaming and guilting them into just showing up. Sadly, I've done the latter too many times.