On Authentic Community: Why Believing Without Belonging Won’t Change Behaving

This is a guest post by Jim Van Yperen, director of Metanoia Ministries


There is a deep longing in every human heart for relationship — for unconditional love, trust and acceptance. We long to belong. Belonging is one side of the human condition. But there is another, incongruous, side. Seeking community, we also crave autonomy. We long to be free, to be independent from the rule and constraint of others. This internal tug-of-war is the source of much conflict and confusion. Our yearning for intimacy is trumped by our coveting self-rule. Yet grasping sovereignty leads to bitter isolation and loneliness. These conflicting desires summarize the human condition.

Christianity enters the story with the claim that Jesus can put this war to end once and for all. “God,” Christians say, “created you for relationship.” God’s infinite love, revealed in Jesus Christ, became human to break down the wall of separation between divine and human, between human and human and between “me and myself.” Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the grave provides a pathway for you and me to believe and, in believing, for our desires to be transformed.

This is the Christian claim, but is it true? That is, does it work this way? Does believing in Jesus really change behavior? I suggest that the answer is both “yes,” and “no.” Before I explain, let me offer some perspective.

Over the years we have served far too many churches whose pastors or leaders had been caught in adultery or in the practice of pornography. In one church, a pastor had extramarital affairs with two married women in the church over a 14-year period. When we confronted the pastor and urged him into a restoration process, he accused us of lacking grace. He left the church and eventually assumed another pastorate in another part of the country. Three years later I received a call from an elder in his new church. The elder had tracked me down with some effort to ask what I knew about his pastor’s history. I told him. There was a long silence. It had happened again.

Unfortunately, believing does not equal behaving. Sadly, it is all too common for Christians to be unchristian. Look at our own desire. How did my life change after I “asked Jesus into my heart” when I was eight years old? How has your character been transformed after you “became a Christian?” Was saying a prayer, or claiming a belief, sufficient to change your desire? I think not. Salvation is not so much an event in time but an ethical and dynamic process over time. In other words, our conversion is continuous.1

I suspect that the extent of your transformation of character and mine is directly related to how authentic our life has been lived in a faith community since we professed faith. Why? Because believing without belonging has little power to change behaving. Or, put another way, character is shaped not by what we know but who we are with others.

Is your church a place where other people truly know you? where you can admit weakness and doubt? where you can celebrate true joy? where people walk with you through failure, heart ache and hardship? If your answer is “yes,” I suspect that your life has been, and is being, transformed. If not, my guess is that your inner self is stuck and still at war. Further, your prayer for Jesus to set you free may be digging you deeper into the mire, if freedom is your desire.

Authentic Community

Authentic community is where the three-way relationship between you, God and others may flourish for emotional and spiritual growth. This is God’s intent and the church is the place He appointed for this to happen. Unfortunately, this may not describe your church. In fact, the place where you worship may not be particularly safe and not an easy place to get to know others. While people talk about community, it may be superficial and, well, fake.

Authentic community is built upon the trust of people being genuine; where people are learning more and more about God and one another — not because everyone is mature or wise or perfect (far from it) but because they understand that God will help them grow up in Christ as they learn to speak the truth in love with one another. But this can happen only as we give up our claim to self. Desire is the enemy of authentic community.

Desire is revealed when we view the church with consumer habits of thinking and patterns of practice. When “my need” demands a transaction to get “what I want” out of God or others, the object and subject is “me.” God and the church become commodities to satisfy our consumer tastes and desires.

Contrast this way of thinking with Paul’s description of the church as a people who gather for and with others at the foot of the cross:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:3-8

When the basis of our coming together is selfish desire, not common life, our needs are placed in competition with others. Instead of looking out for the interest of others, we think and act for ourselves. Instead of serving, we want to be served. Instead of deeper relationship, we have greater desire. The Apostle James says as much,

"What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.”

James 4:1-3

God calls us into relationship with Him and with one another in order to redeem our desire. God wants to radically alter our thoughts, feelings and actions toward others. But this requires the discipline of living in authentic community.

Question: What does authentic community look like?

Answer: People gathering around and practicing the one another commands.

The one another commands are reciprocal commands. By “reciprocal,” we mean mutual. All must enter into and practice with one another. By “commands,” we understand that the commands are neither good ideas, nor options. They are imperatives and indicatives — both prescription and description — of authentic community. Discovering how to live in authentic community will redeem your desire, change your mind and transform your character . . . while satisfying the deep yearning of your soul.

Metanoia Ministries provides innovative products and services to diagnose need, reconcile conflict, nurture one another community, and equip spiritual leaders with Christ-like competency and character.  Since 1994, we have served more than eighty-five churches in thirty-three different denominations.

For information visit http://www.restoringthechurch.org/

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