Talking with a friend this week whose journey has been impacted significantly by really unhealthy communities of faith, I began to think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book titled Life Together. You’ve got to get it and read it. Bonhoeffer names essential practices and disciplines that make for authentic community, along with things that violate the tender conscience of community and destroy its viability. In that spirit, I think of “sins of community” are as grave and deadly as personal sins of commission or omission. It seems to me that sins of community are pressing today particularly because they are not typically recognized as morally corrupting and destructive to individuals and groups.
Here are 13 sins of community that I can readily name and briefly describe. I’m pretty sure I can root each in both Old and New Testament precedents and practices. I have observed these in some settings of which I have been a part. The flipside of each are corrective, reconciling, healing, connecting choices and actions that “cover over a multitude of sins.” May contemplation of these during the last week of Lent offer an opportunity for repentance and readiness to walk--ever via grace--the way of the cross in Holy Week and beyond.
1. Taking for granted. Community is given but it is not a given. I love this statement: “we believe that in the church there exists a fellowship that cannot otherwise be known.” This can easily be reduced to a clique or club. Community requires recognition and personal energy. When community is assumed it will likely be short-lived.
2. Treating community as commodity, thing or tool. Beware those who think of community in terms of markets, affinity groups, outlets, numbers, blocs, polls, voters. If community is a tool to be used or a means to an end, then its participants are merely objects to be influenced or manipulated or set aside. Preachers and politicians are often guilty of this sin.
3. Disregarding another’s needs. “Mourn with those who mourn.” If we enjoy the benefits of life together, if we dare sing God’s praises side by side and give ourselves to the Word together, then the sufferings of our neighbor become like our own. Ignoring or disregarding or not responding in some way to the known plight of one in our community undercuts it and devalues one’s own spirituality.
4. Failure to celebrate. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” Don’t disregard invitations to weddings, graduations, birthdays, and other celebratory occasions of those with whom we are in community. Encouragement, connection and breakthrough are frequently the fruit of rather low-grade occasions of celebration. When you participate in a celebration, discipline yourself to go in an anticipatory and celebratory frame of mind.
5. Drawing the circle too narrowly. Exclusivity and rot begins when we define our community’s boundaries too firmly or closely. Apathy, prejudice, fear and hatred is borne of drawing the circle too narrowly.
6. Self-preoccupation. Graciously grafted into a community, we learn to balance attending to its life and to our own. Community is different than joining an organization. Community invites us to lay aside our preoccupation with our own needs in order to find ourselves more fully alive than ever before as we serve alongside of others toward transcendent purposes. It also calls upon us to “not think too highly of ourselves.” The ground at the cross and in community is level.
7. Absence. When you aren’t present when a community agrees to gather in common life, all are reduced in some way. “They can do without me” or “I don’t need them” or “I can get what I need via TV” or other rationalizations simply fly in the face of the truth about authentic community and personal spiritual development. Community is not about joining and paying dues and only showing up whenever you feel like it. Some organizations can function like that. Community dies that way.
8. Not listening. Communities, small or large, formal and informal, are full of people with hurts and hopes. The extent to which these are shared, listened to, acknowledged and sincerely responded to is an indicator of the health of a community. Listening is the number one discipline and offering of all who would seek and engage in community.
9. Choice to not yield. “To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” Relationships that are alive and growing call for continuous mutual yielding. Bit by bit, more usually in smaller things than greater, we learn to tune into each other and so, while remaining distinct and separate, we learn also to pull together strongly toward common purposes. We miss this possibility when we choose not to yield.
10. Unforgiveness. Forgiveness is the most basic discipline and grace of community, whether it is a friendship, a partnership, a marriage, a congregation, etc. Hidden hurts, grudges and resentments create thinly-veiled landmines which routinely decimate communities and maim people emotionally and spiritually. Where unforgiveness holds, community folds.
11. The choice not to reconcile. Forgiveness precedes any hope for reconciliation. Without freely offered and received forgiveness, reconciliation is impossible. With it, reconciliation—bringing estranged people together, one of the most profound manifestations of God’s future toward which we are called—can become a hallmark of community.
12. The choice to not be compassionate. Sometimes compassion is just neglected or those with tangible needs are not seen. Authentic communities revive themselves by frequently “calling the question” on compassion. Sometimes, however, compassion is specifically resisted or turned into an organization-serving carrot-and-stick response to persons in need: “You do what we want and we will give you what you need to survive.” God is not glorified in such schemes.
13. The choice to assert law over spirit. Maybe it is appropriate that this is the last “sin” to be listed here. Communities suffocate themselves and their participants when they stridently codify and then slavishly enforce their “rules.” Community is a dynamic that degenerates into mere organizational or institutional life when rules trump spirit. Breathe life into your community by reversing this trend.
In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility.