December 16, 2017

“Wish Dream” Community

By Chaplain Mike

The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1935

When you think about “Christian community,” what are your perceptions? When you read, “They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, The Message), how do you picture in your mind what that was like? What does it mean for Christians to live “the life together”? What is the nature of genuine Christian fellowship? What do you imagine it to be?

One of the classic books on fellowship and intentional community as a way of Christian life is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. This is no theoretical study; it grows directly out of his experience of living in intentional community with other believers.

In 1934, Bonhoeffer planned to return to Germany from London as the new director of the Confessing Church seminary there. How would he prepare? First, by conducting a personal study tour of various Christian communities in England. Second, he planned to fulfill a long held dream of traveling to India to visit Gandhi and observe the communal setting in which he lived.

In any case, he had long felt that Gandhi could provide some clues for him. Gandhi was not a Christian, but he lived in a community that endeavored to live by the teachings set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer wanted Christians to live that way. So he would travel to India to see it practiced by non-Christians. (Bonhoeffer, p. 248)

All this was taking place as Hitler was increasing in power and dark clouds were gathering ominously on the horizon. Bonhoeffer was motivated to seek a more profound discipleship not only by his understanding of the Scriptures, but also by his perception that the church was failing to be the church in the midst of the growing crisis.

Christianity…has become so westernized and so permeated by civilized thought that, as we can now see, it is almost lost to us. (Ibid)

And so, he took the opportunity of leading a seminary in order to train pastors in a “new” way—

Bonhoeffer had in mind a kind of monastic community, where one aimed to live in the way Jesus commanded his followers to live in the Sermon on the Mount, where one lived not merely as a theological student, but as a disciple of Christ. It would be an unorthodox experiment in communal Christian living, in the “life together” as Bonhoeffer would so famously put it. (Bonhoeffer, p. 262f)

He made his tour of English communities, never made it to India as planned, and eventually, the (illegal) seminary was started in April, 1935 on the island of Zingst in the Baltic Sea, moving after a few months to Finkenwalde. Bonhoeffer applied the insights he had gained from Scripture and observing other Christian communities.

Daily life was carried out in the seminary according to a strict routine.

  • Each day began with a 45-minute service around a large table. The service consisted of hymns, Bible readings, praying the Psalms, and then a prayer offered by Bonhoeffer according to their needs that day.
  • After breakfast, all went to their rooms and meditated in absolute quiet on a text of Scripture given for the week.
  • Scheduled academic and practical work interrupted by common meals combined to fill the day until afternoon and evening, when time was reserved for recreation and sports. Music was an integral part of all aspects of daily life in this seminary.
  • After dinner and recreation, the day closed with a service, followed by silence and sleep.

Bonhoeffer’s approach is detailed in Life Together, and may be summarized in the following quote:

Theological work and real pastoral fellowship can only grow in a life which is governed by gathering around the Word morning and evening and by fixed times of prayer. (Bonhoeffer, p. 261)

What interests me at this point is not so much how Bonhoeffer organized this community and its daily activities, but rather the theological bases upon which he believed Christians ought to relate to each other as they share the common life in Christ. He had a specific concept of what “life together” is about. And what I love about Bonhoeffer’s understanding is how Jesus-shaped it is.

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 Christ Jesus. (Life Together, p. 7)

Bonhoeffer warns us that our conceptions of Christian community may be flawed. Many have a strong desire for “something more” than what Christ has established—an extraordinary social experience, some wishful, utopian ideal of ecstatic experiences, lofty moods, constant joy and peace, and profound piety.

He urges us not to love our dreams of Christian community more than the reality. If we insist on our dreams rather than on what God has actually given, we will become proud and demanding, turning against our brethren and ultimately against God himself. A Christian community that springs from our own “wish-dreams” rather than from the reality that we are sinful human beings brought together only by God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ will lead only to disillusionment.

God has given us this: brothers and sisters “who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace.” The key to genuine Christian community is learning to give thanks for the actual brothers and sisters who are related to me in Christ. Even when my fellow Christian sins against me, it should cause me to give thanks, for it reminds me that neither of us can live or relate to one another in any other way than through Christ and the Cross.

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. (Life Together, p. 17f)

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer warns us that we must not think that relating to one another in Christian fellowship is a matter of mere human or psychological connection. Christians do not relate to others directly or “immediately,” that is, without mediation. All humans long to form intimate bonds with others. But believers form those bonds only through Christ, not directly with the other human being. As Paul said, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2Cor 5:16)

Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my human desires—all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. What love is, only Christ tells us in his Word. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is. Therefore, spiritual love is bound solely to the Word of Jesus Christ. (Life Together, p. 26)

Much more can and should be said about this. However, at this stage, let us be content with the main point Dietrich Bonhoeffer is trying to communicate to God’s people—

  • Christian fellowship, Christian community, our “life together” in Christ must not spring from some utopian ideal we have in our minds or a longing in our own hearts for human connection.
  • It is a spiritual reality, already created for us in Christ, here for us to receive with thanksgiving.
  • We go into every relationship, every interaction, with our eyes on Jesus first, and with the realistic perspective that we can only relate to others by means of grace, forgiveness, and trust in the Word of God. We relate to one another through Jesus.

Nothing I have read describes Jesus-shaped Christian community better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

______

Books quoted:

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Comments

  1. great post Chaplain Mike! “if we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty……”
    This is where REAL community comes into play.
    we must constantly see Jesus in each other & do our best to give grace to one another as God has given grace to us. OR we see the sin in each other & know how fallen we are & how great God’s love was to forgive us. community is a constant observation of sin & grace. peace

  2. A few years ago I began to pray that the people in my life would only be the people that God wanted in my life. That means then a change in attitude. If I have prayed that God would put the right people and relationships in my life then I must trust that he has and act accordingly. Some of those people may be “difficult” some may be “easy to get along with” but all are there because God put/allowed them to be there. This means that I must prayerfully examine each relationship to see (if possible) what God’s purpose is in it. When I look at my “community” (in which I include those non-Christians with whom I share my life and have real relationships with) I know that it is where God has placed me and that I am to thrive there not just survive.

    As we (husband and I) are in the midst of leaving our church I would say too that while it is vital that Christians dwell in community (I would argue that communion with one another is one of the ways we reflect our Triune Creator) it is not true that every community is right for every Christian. There is both a strong need to believe that having prayed for God to reveal his will we must trust that he has done so and seek to build up the community we are in. At the same time when a community is no longer functioning as a community (bickering etc.) we must ask if we are called to remain there. Sometimes we are and we must then seek to heal and mend what is broken, sometimes we are not and we must then seek for another community and build it up. Sin and humanness will always be factors, grace will always be necessary only together can we help one another to repent of sin and seek grace.

    “Bless all those whose lives are closely linked with ours, and grant that we may serve Christ in them and love one another as he loves us.” (Prayers of the People Form IV Book of Common Prayer)

  3. David Cornwell says:

    This is a wonderful post. Some short thoughts just from reading without time to totally think it through:

    1. The importance of the Sermon on the Mount to Bonhoeffer. Do we today really take these basic teachings of Jesus seriously? Many people I talk to seem to think they are not really practical. It seems to me we have to take his words seriously in order to have any chance at real Christian community. We need to study the gospels, the the life of Jesus, and the teachings of Jesus as a priority and as we study ask ourselves questions about the meaning and application. Community is the best place to do this.

    2. This might be a utopian dream, but I wonder what a seminary organized around these principles would look like today. There is a lot talk about how ministers/pastors should be trained for this day and our culture. Many students who attend seminary today commute back and forth and/or study at a distance from the site. I fail to see how this encourages community. Pastors who had the necessity and opportunity to attend such a seminary (or whatever you want to call it), where principles like the ones mentioned above are practiced might be far better prepared to deal with today’s world. So often in our culture/consumer driven Christianity we see just the opposite. Maybe we have some places that do this already that I’m not aware of. Students taking these practices into the church could help bring radical change that is needed.

    Just thoughts and I hope I’m not off in some strange direction.

  4. No better book on Christian community. Jesus shaped all the way. I shutter to think what the church would be like if they took Bonhoeffer’s words to heart and formation. It aims high but keeps us from having our heads stuck in the clouds. Deeply spiritual but earthy, simple and profound.

    Why do we long for yet shy away from devoting ourselves to the life together he so poingantly describes?

  5. Who is the artist of the painting included with this post, Chaplain Mike?

    I need to read some Bonhoeffer soon. Great post!

  6. I’ve got to read this book.

  7. For me, Christian community is the freedom to pray with your brothers and sistes in Christ at the drop of a hat, even in “nonchurch” environments. It’s staying up all night groaning in prayer over some hardship a friend is experiencing. It’s sharing meals together as often as possible, not in a banquet kind of way, but in a family kind of way. It’s getting together to go bowling or golfing or fishing or to see a movie or to just hang out at someone’s house. It’s knowing from experience that those in your community really do have your back and that you have theirs, as well. It’s talking together and working together and praying together and worshipping together and just being together as much as possible — and in spite of this hectic, autonomous, isolationist culture we live in. Basically, it’s a circle of friendships centered around Jesus and held together over the long haul by His love.
    I firmly believe that Christian community is something we all can have — and I don’t think the obvious lack of real community in the modern church can be wholly blamed on impersonal institutional structures or rock concert-style services or limelight-hogging preachers or clergy-dominated liturgies. I think the primary culprits are individual Christians who are afraid or unwilling or just too darn busy to open their lives and hearts up to their brothers and sisters in Christ. And who said that those in a Christian community necessarily have to be members of the same church institution or even attend Sunday morning services in the same building? Who says you can only be part of one Christian community at a time? Who said Christian communities have to jealously hoard their people and hold themself aloof and seperate from other communities? Who said that large communities can’t contain numerous smaller communities within it — and even some that lap over into entirely different communities?
    Honestly, I believe the possibilities and opportunities for Christian community are dang near endless. And I believe that if you truly and earnestly seek community, you will find it.

  8. Bonhoeffer’s book was written in about an isolated setting, apart from the world. But while it is nice to retreat, aren’t we supposed to be out in the world, and not “of the world”? Shouldn’t the Christian community be where our roots are located, but our branches and leaves are out in the world?

    • Yes, Tony. Bonhoeffer’s community was organized for a specific purpose: to train pastors not only in theology but also in true discipleship. However, the principles of Christian fellowship apply more broadly. Some may be called to live in intentional communal settings like this; all are called to “devote themselves to the life together” (Acts 2:42).

  9. Just this weekend started reading “The Pursuit of God in the Company of Friends” by Richard Lamb. So far, I’d say it is excellent, devoid of cliche’s and formulas. I’ll e-mail a quick review when I’m done in 4-6 weeks (you know how that goes). I think it’s going to be very similar to Bonhoeffer, I know Lamb has real community and discipleship joined at the hip.

    Greg R