I’m afraid of community.
This hit me one night as I tried to sleep on a friend’s couch. I had come to Washington, D.C., for two weeks to visit my friends after living in Liberia, West Africa, for six months. In Africa, I felt lonely and forgotten. I struggled to find a community — or even to be welcomed into one. I inwardly pouted because only a few of my friends kept up with me all the way across the world.
That night I cried myself to sleep. I thought about how unfair it was that God would send me to a war-torn country and not open up a community group where I felt included. I thought about how unjust it was that I soon would be leaving my friends and returning to Africa alone. And I thought about how real community — where people know you deeply and hold you accountable — scares me.
I knew I desired some level of community. But I wasn’t staying in either place — D.C. or Liberia — to give real community a chance. I just kept leaving. And that scared me too. I did feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do — to write about the plight of the Liberian people — but I also didn’t want to end up all by myself, alone and unhappy and bitter because I couldn’t stay long enough in a community to actually make it one.
A good friend of mine recently described me like this: I’m the kind of person who never stays long enough in a group to let it become exclusive. He’s right. I have lots of friends, but only a few deep friendships. I hop around through different groups, meeting new people and reaching out to those who feel awkward. I always thought it was a redeeming quality — so much better than people I knew who just hung out with the same old people all the time.
I’ve long despised cliques. I’ve seen plenty of groups of friends that consider themselves a “community” when they are really part of an exclusive group that intentionally (or unintentionally) snubs certain people and doesn’t take the initiative to form new relationships.
But as I’ve evaluated the flaws of my own community-building skills, I’ve realized there are positive attributes to both ways of building community. While my communities may be diverse and welcoming, they aren’t always deep or safe or stable. And while exclusive communities may struggle to reach out to new people, they often are filled with people who are loyal and wise.
Jesus and His early followers embraced a balance of both types of community-building. While He was able to form close, deep relationships with people, Jesus was a member of many different communities. He ate with sinners. He sat at the temple with religious scholars who despised His views. He defended the honor of prostitutes. He even placed ordinary guys in His inner circle.
At the same time, He didn’t let everyone into His inner circle. There were, after all, only 12 disciples. Peter, James, and John were the only ones who got to go up onto a mountain to see Jesus transfigured (Matthew 17:1-13). Mary Magdalene, a redeemed woman, was the first to see Him resurrected (John 20:1-18).
I haven’t been able to completely figure out how Jesus had deep relationships with people but was still part of such big, diverse communities. But I think part of it has to do with His purpose for a community: to equip believers to fulfill the Great Commission and to encourage them to press on along the hard path of Christian faith. With His mission in mind, He was able to invest deeply but also was willing to leave a community once it was fully equipped to carry on His work.
What’s the ultimate point of community?
When I think about the purpose of some of the communities I’m involved in, I don’t always see significant purpose. Sometimes the purpose of my community is just to have some people to hang out with on a Friday night. Sometimes my community’s purpose is to make me feel comfortable. And included. But Jesus didn’t build communities for comfort alone.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you,” He tells the disciples shortly before ascending into Heaven (Matthew 28:19-20). His communities had a specific mission.
And while communities should be places where believers are encouraged and comforted — I think of the early church, where believers were always praying and breaking bread together — we run into trouble when we forget the main purpose for community. Jesus called us into community to build the Kingdom and to bring Him glory. I don’t bring God glory if I remain in a community where I’m not furthering His purpose to draw others closer to Him.
That can happen in a static community in which we get too comfortable and when we stop reaching out to people who need to know Jesus. It’s true that not everyone can be included in a community. If that were so, then a community wouldn’t be a group where people could build deep friendships and learn and grow from one another. But that’s even more reason to eventually break apart long-standing communities and build new ones.
There’s a point that most communities reach when it’s time move from an old community and into a new one. When the time is right is different for each community member, but there are signs we can be looking for.
Are you willing to leave?
Jesus left when He knew the disciples could carry on His work. He had fulfilled His purpose — to redeem a dying world — and He was confident about His followers’ ability to go out and make their own intentional, diverse communities.
“I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father,” He said (John 16:28).
Jesus healed a man possessed with a demon (Luke 4:35-36) and then immediately went to the home of Simon’s mother-in-law, who was suffering from a high fever. He healed her too (Luke 4:39). Jesus didn’t stop there. As the sun set, He healed many more people who were sick with previously incurable diseases.
He understood that He couldn’t stay in just one community all the time. After healing so many people, He went to a secluded place. The crowds followed Jesus, but He told them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).
Jesus always knew that His purpose wasn’t to remain. It wasn’t to wait enough time until He got comfortable in a community. And it wasn’t to feel included.
When Jesus had accomplished His purpose — to show someone the power of God by healing or to challenge the person in a way that motivated him or her to turn to Him — He put on His sandals and began walking.
Are you intentional about diversity?
Jesus was intentional about making His communities diverse. As soon as he entered the bustling city of Jericho one day, He called up to the deceptive tax collector, Zaccheus, who was perching in a tree and watching Jesus move through the crowd.
“Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house,” Jesus told him (Luke 19:5).
The Bible says that many in the crowd began to grumble because Jesus had chosen to go eat at the house of a sinner.
But Jesus didn’t care. He had no problem hanging out with people who weren’t believers. His mission was to bring them closer to the heart of God, to help them turn from their old lives and to accept the new life that only God can offer.
When a skeptical Pharisee asked Jesus to dine at his house, Jesus went willingly. He entered the house and immediately reclined at the table (Luke 7:36). When a woman who was thought to be a prostitute entered the house and began weeping and anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume, He fully accepted her and forgave her sins.
Jesus was just as comfortable dining with men and women of high societal status — the Pharisees, the religious scholars, the rich tax collectors — as He was with people who were considered outcasts such as the unnamed perfume woman and people who were sick with diseases.” It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick,” He said (Luke 5:31).
And while Jesus built certain communities in order to bring people to know the Father, He also allowed people who rebelled against God into His community. Judas and Simon Peter are two examples.
Not everyone always got along or had the same opinions. Many of the disciples were from diverse backgrounds. There were fisherman (Andrew, James, John, Simon Peter, and Philip). There was a nobleman (Nathaniel) and a doctor (Luke). There was a tax collector (Matthew) and an accountant (Judas). There was a tentmaker (Paul), and even a rebel (Simon).
I write this only to show that Jesus was open to building friendships with different kinds of people. He was also intentional — drawing people who needed to know Him, people who hated His views, people who thought He was a liar and a fraud — into a deeper community where they could get to know His heart.
He took risks with people and put Himself in situations that probably were very uncomfortable. How could He feel at completely at ease in the days leading up to His death when He knew that Judas would soon be betraying Him? Yet Jesus embraced both the pain and the beauty that can come from a diverse community.
How exclusive are you?
While Jesus had diverse communities, He also did practice a measure of exclusivity. His inner circle was filled with mostly loyal disciples. All were professed Christians. He valued meeting regularly with His inner circle to pray and to encourage them and to teach them.
There is a reason there were only 12 disciples. Jesus had a plan to empower and equip disciples who would go out and make more disciples. He chose to invest in a few, who would go out and invest in even more.
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus’ exclusivity with His disciples was accepted because He made Himself so available to so many people. Even though people knew He had an inner circle, they also knew they could come to Him and He would embrace them.
After Jesus departs the earth, His followers continue to hold fellow believers close. They did not bar people from entering their community because they were afraid or apathetic about forming new friendships. They didn’t bar people because they felt like being snobby or didn’t think someone was popular enough to hang out with them. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say anything about early believers barring anyone from their community.
It does say that daily people were being saved. And when they became Christians, they entered the community. Acts says that “all those who had believed were together” and that every day they pressed on “with one mind in the temple.” They broke bread from house to house, “praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:44-47).
Believers do need community to bolster their faith, to help raise Christian families, and to encourage each other in the workplace. I’m not opposed to regular, close-knit communities. They provide stability and build trust in a world that often lets us down on both of those points. But those regular, close-knit communities do become a problem when they become so exclusive that they stop fulfilling the Great Commission of reaching out to new believers, when they stop showing others the love of Christ because of fear or discomfort or apathy.
Jesus standards for communities aren’t complicated. But they do require great sacrifice.
He asked that we form community with purpose — to build His Kingdom and to bring Him glory.
He valued intimacy but not necessarily comfort. He was willing to walk away from His community once it had fulfilled its purpose and its members were equipped to carry on His message.
He was intentional about relationships with diverse people. He met with people from all walks of life and valued the differences that people could bring into community. That didn’t mean everyone always got along. But it did create authentic community, where people could learn from one another and build trust.
He practiced a measure of exclusivity, holding believers closest to Him, but He didn’t bar people from His group based on fear, apathy, or trendiness.
The more I think about returning to Liberia, the more I don’t want to leave. It’s hard to uproot yourself from the place where your feet are comfortably planted. But I also take comfort in knowing that even though Jesus walked away from His communities to build new ones, He also promised His followers that He would be with them always (Matthew 28:20).
As we step out into a frightening world and reach out to those who need to know Him, He promises to never leave us.
As I return to a broken country, where I still don’t have a solid community, I will be thinking about Jesus, the master community-builder, and how I can emulate His legacy in my life.