Working out community in community
This post was originally published on Substack in June 2022. To receive this content early and join a community of people discussing issues around faith and community candidly, subscribe to Courage & Candor here.
The class looked collectively baffled as a man discuss with the teacher how a small community would share a lawnmower. “What if it breaks? Who would pay for that?” the man said unable to hide his anxiety. It was a simple illustration the teacher used of what it could look like to live in an intentional community. The conversation continued between the man and the teacher as the rest of us witnessed what I now notoriously call the lawn mover conversation. Many of us were mystified over why it was so difficult for this man to understand how to share a lawnmower with his neighbors. But if you are new to the idea of living on mission, it’s hard to accept what it means to invite people into your life, let alone allow them to use your stuff.
When my husband and I first joined the small community, Bread & Wine in Portland Oregon, we were also newbies to understanding a decentralized model focused on building missional communities. Bread & Wine was a church plant from an organization called SOMA that taught the model and we were excited to learn. We signed up to take a class called “The Basics”, dedicated to teaching the decentralized model and what it meant to live on mission. And it was literally that: basic. We talked about the Gospel, Jesus, his church, and what being on mission meant. For Bread & Wine, being on mission meant we were all missionaries sent into our neighborhoods to share the love of God through intentional community. It meant we didn’t focus on gathering in a building on Sunday mornings but meeting primarily during the week: in homes, breaking bread with other Christians, and inviting the spiritually curious to join us. It meant knowing the names of your neighbors, the barista you get your coffee from and learning their stories. It was praying for your neighborhood and looking for ways to practically serve the community. It could also mean sharing a lawnmower with a family who isn’t able to afford one.
Though living on mission seems biblically ideal, it’s actually quite hard. What the man had picked up in class hadn’t even occurred to our eager minds. How does this actually work!? But regardless of our blind idealism, we knew we needed something different and our communities needed something different from the church. If it took sharing a lawnmower, we were willing to figure it out.
That’s what we committed to do: figuring it out. Who would pay for the gas? You can’t answer that question in a classroom, you have to answer it in community, staring into the face of another human. Though the sad part is many of us are not willing to make ourselves uncomfortable to have those kinds of conversations. When you commit to living in an intentional community, you’re signing up for the beautiful mess that it is. People will be cared for but will also hurt one another. You will laugh and drink beer. You will also shed tears and feel like giving up. You will hold each other’s babies or grieve the ones never born. You will share bread, break dishes, go on airport runs, clean your kitchen (a lot), and go on group campouts. You will also hear the Word of God spoken through human lips and taste the Goodness of communion with warm hands.
This kind of community doesn’t come naturally to us however, it’s only possible through our mutual indwelling in Christ. Henry Nouwen states:
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.1Henry HOUWEN: Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Pg. 21
This is why Christian community must begin with the basics. If we try to do community without the anchoring love of Christ, we are sure to get swept up in the tedious logistics. We would force others into our ideal Christian community and not the one God has already given to us. Jesus has done the work of building his church, we are simply invited to participate in it. But we don’t always want this, because it’s messy. We have less control over the outcome when we don’t get to set the perimeters. Sunday church is easy. We have control over that space, adding flare here and coffee there. But getting to know the single mom down the street, that’s hard and uncomfortable. So we put a ton of our missional effort into Sundays which isn’t bad or evil. If you have ever prepped a sermon, it’s a lot of work! It just feels unbalanced because when most of our energy for mission is funneled into a single weekly event, there isn’t a ton left over. Living on mission requires us to create space in our lives for people. It asks us to invite their messy selves into our homes and be okay with it mucking up our pristine tables. This is terrifying to us because it also requires us to do the same. Our mutual indwelling in Christ, however, offers ample room for our collective brokenness. Figuring out who’s going to pay for the gas of a shared lawnmower is just the tip of the iceberg.
About a year into planting our first missional community, a significant argument broke out between my husband and one of the leaders. It was a shame spiral of epic proportion for both and hurtful things were spoken. At the time, our core group of six attempted to resolve it by discussing it as a group but it did not go well. My husband was still hurt and it felt like there was no going back. After about a week, they decided to grab some beers, just the two of them. Nothing truly profound happened during that conversation, they simply committed to figuring it out. Forgiveness occurred, clarity came and our group was better for it.
Who is going to pay for the gas? How do we work together? What if there’s conflict? What if people are difficult and selfish? Where do I find the time for community?! How will mission work? Who is my neighbor?
Working out the details of living in Christian community happens only in community and only through Jesus Christ. Missional living is sacrificial, uncharted, and requires us to “go and do likewise”, offering mercy as we ourselves have received mercy. This doesn’t happen in a building, it happens on our front porch, at our tables, and in our neighborhoods. It happens in breaking bread and sharing lawnmowers. It is not something we force or coerce, it’s something we step into and invite others to join us.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day the church celebrates when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they were empowered to preach the word of God. Many see the Holy Spirit’s arrival on this day as the birth of the Church and I can’t think of a better day to talk about living on mission. We don’t make missional community happen by sheer will or great planning, it is only through the residency of the Holy Spirit that can turn a bunch of misfit individuals into a movement that offers the world hope. We have the ability to figure out this messy stuff through the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. My prayer is that the church begins to choose everyday messy community over a polished singular event. And we choose to ask the hard questions and stay long enough to figure out the answer.