Along Together: An Epidemic In the Church?

Why is it that so many church people feel so untransformed? So stuck in patterns that they don’t understand or don’t want? Why in their most reflective moments do they often feel alone, misunderstood, disenchanted or at the very least, out of place in regard to their community experience with others, even in the church? Certainly many reasons feed this epidemic of noncommunity, but the church hasn’t helped solve this quandary. Perhaps a fresh look at what incarnational community is and aspires to be might be an antidote for our current malaise.

When Sherry Turkle[1] wrote Alone Together, her deep and thoughtful book describing how technology is affecting social interactions in our present world, little did she know that her book title gives voice to a much bigger problem shared even within our own sacred communities. This “alone together” dilemma is more pervasive than the power and influence of social media affecting our relationships; it is a very real disposition for many Christians in the church today. I have to confess right out of the gate that this issue is important to me both on a professional level as a pastor (and now professor who trains pastors) and as a disciple of Jesus who believes that our current hyperindividualism and consumerism is crushing our ability to be the church whose best witness to Jesus is local groups of people (churches) who have become genuine, loving communities. My experience has taught me that I am a better person when I live within a context of other disciples who love me, who know me, and who have genuine connectedness and insight to help me grow when I can’t see straight or even see myself in a healthy way. In other words, I’m not at my best when I am isolated and alone. You see, community is a critical means for your transformation and mine. But we’ve lost our muscle memory of what it is, though the dull ache in our hearts still remains. No matter what our particular temperaments and personalities, God created us as communal creatures in spite of its complications and challenges. If anything else, the Gospels are beautiful and messy portraits of community where we watch Jesus apprentice a diverse array of disciples as he taught, modeled, and formed them into a community shaped by his agape love. If you doubt this intended outcome, reflect again on Jesus’ words the night before he was taken to the cross, “A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”[2]

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[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[2] John 13:34–35 NIV.


O Taste & See

And he took a cup,” we read in Matthew, “and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ’Drink of it, all of you.’”[1] Mark’s account adds, “and they all drank of it.”[2] Every one of them: the distracted, the dismayed, the baffled, the puzzled, and the one who was to betray him.

Da Vinci’s rendering of this moment reminds us just what a motley group of followers they were. Gesticulating hands point in every direction. Faces register varying degrees of shock, dismay, and confusion following the announcement that one of them would betray Jesus. Their bodies tilt in various directions, like leaves in a whirlwind. Only Jesus sits calm and upright, centered and centering, an anchor in the midst of his followers’ roiling anxieties.

If we imagine this little band of twelve followers as an inscape and mirror of the church, we can see in this mirror vivid, unsettling, even comical reminders of how we, too, turn away from Jesus, how we get caught up in our own dithering in moments of crisis, how we splinter into factions, how many of us fail to keep our eyes trained on the one who is the Light we live by.

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[1] Matthew 26:27.

[2] Mark 14:23.


Christian Community: More Than A “Wish Dream”

Editor’s Note: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), best known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and for his martyr’s death in a Nazi concentration camp, gave significant thought and time considering the meaning of Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer earned two doctorate degrees. His dissertation for the first, written at age 21, was entitled Sanctorium Communion, or “Communion of Saints.” About eight years later, in 1935, Bonhoeffer started an underground seminary during the time of the Nazi occupation, which the Gestapo closed in 1937. In that short time, Bonhoeffer and his students and colleagues practiced intentional monastic-style, communal living based on the principles Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Life Together, the book from which this article is adapted, was written based on those experiences.

Dr. Bonhoeffer, would you please describe for us how Christian community is different from other types of community?

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. (21)[1]

“Brethren in the Lord,” Paul calls his congregation (Phil. 1:14). One is a brother to another only through Jesus Christ. I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him. This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance. Not only the other person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal with in fellowship. My brother is rather the other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954). Page numbers are set off in parentheses at the end of each quotation.


Breaking Into Community

I love a good redemption story. But I couldn’t have imagined that our house getting burglarized would end up being a good thing.

Well, it wasn’t, actually.

It was scary and violating, made me angry, and tapped into fears I didn’t even know I had. My husband, who is sometimes annoyingly able to find the silver lining in things, said that we should be grateful the burglars really didn’t take much. He even joked he wasn’t sure if we should be upset or offended our TV wasn’t among the items stolen. (We were the holdouts on one of a few remaining tube televisions. The thing probably weighed 150 pounds, and Jason was actually sad the thieves didn’t haul it off for us!) I think I remarked that it was “too soon”—and that we should go back to being upset.

The break-in occurred during the day, when most of our neighbors were at work. Not that we knew any of our neighbors. We’d just gotten married and bought our first home, a 1930s bungalow in a historic neighborhood near downtown Atlanta, a few months before. Our “plan” was to be in the house for maybe four or five years, then move to the ’burbs and start a family. Both sets of parents had warned us about “big city” living—and simply couldn’t understand why we’d want to live in town. The break-in would surely shorten the countdown to the suburbs.

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The “Strange Practices” Of The Practice

An Interview with Aaron Niequist

Conversations Journal: Aaron, we wanted to interview you for many reasons—your depth of character, your integrative musical talents, your delight in the work of spiritual formation. But for the purposes of this article, we want to focus on the ways you have been integrating the formation of community and the practice of the spiritual disciplines, or, as this section is called, the classical spiritual exercises. Could you tell our readers a little bit about how you’ve been integrating those things? I’m thinking specifically of the launching of The Practice at Willow Creek Community Church. What is it, how did it come about, how is it going? (I like to jam as many questions into my first question as I can.)

Aaron Niequist: Wow, first of all, thanks so much for those incredibly kind words. I’m honored to be a part of this conversation.

Over the last ten-plus years, I’ve been on a bit of a journey—both as a Christian and as a worship leader. And I’m coming to find that much of modern Christianity is wonderful and true and beautiful, but a little too thin. It is a profoundly helpful invitation into relationship with God, but doesn’t always address the deeper, more complex questions of life, doubt, and faith. And it doesn’t always help us move beyond beliefs into the “abundant life” that Jesus offers.

And so both in my personal walk with Christ, and as a worship leader in two different evangelical churches (Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Willow Creek in Chicago), some friends and I have been trying to learn from other Christian traditions and embrace a more formation-oriented, grounded, ecumenical, historical, robust way to follow Christ. Basically, instead of saying, “Our tradition has all we need,” we’ve been saying, “Our tradition is a wonderful part of the story, but we desperately need the wisdom and insight of our other brothers and sisters.”

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The Grace of Mowing Grass

By Jeff Crosby

“A safe place. A shrine. A setting for worship.”

To a refugee or a person fleeing violence or oppression, the word “sanctuary” captures a sense of hoped-for safety and provision.

To a birder, it’s a specially set-aside area on which a long-sought-after species just might be seen, even if at a distance.

To a person in a religious community, the word conjures up images of stained glass, icons, men and women in robes and vestments, sacred texts and hymn books in the backs of uncomfortable wooden seats.

But the seat of a John Deere lawn tractor? Can that be a sanctuary?

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