“It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

Authenticity is the aspect of community many of us crave most, especially in our current culture where lasting relationships are hard to find, even within your biological family. Humanity was meant to be known, welcomed, and loved, not only by God, but also by one another.

We instinctively know that following Jesus cannot happen in isolation or in a vacuum void of relationship. Life must be lived out with others and sitting in a pew one hour a week is not a complete shared life. In fact, Christian community is confusing without authenticity. How do you carry someone’s burden with them if you don’t know them? How can we be authentic if no one knows our name?

The hole of belonging is growing rapidly. This is usually why churches create small groups, and why people are attracted to small churches. It is to be known. However, even within these small structures, there remains a void, not just having space to be known, but to be safe to be knowable. Authenticity comes from a security knowing other people love you. You are not their safety blanket, you are their brother and sister. You are safe to be authentic when, fundamentally, you know they love you because God loves you. They love you not for anything you bring to them, but for everything God has done to save you. This is the foundation of God’s family: his love.

Community as Family

The dominate metaphor for Christian community throughout the New Testament is family. God is father, we are adopted by him through Christ, we are brothers&sisters, we are heirs, and we have received every spiritual blessing. From Abraham onward, God’s purposes of blessing and salvation are worked out through a family. From Jesus’ death and resurrection onward, the Church becomes a diverse family of belonging to a community and belonging to God. The family of God is characterized by the Father, who is loving, compassionate, gracious, merciful, patient, and just. Those who have been adopted into salvation are no longer orphans because of sin, but belong because of God’s love.

It is from this place of experience and knowledge of divine love that anyone is able to love others within community. It is from the receiving of grace, that we extend grace to our brothers in Christ. It is from knowing God’s patience and mercy, that we live patiently and mercifully with our sisters. Christian community is authentic, generous, and caring because God is truth, grace, and love.

Notice this is a clear difference from community as a way to find fulfillment, relationship, and care. This is a community that lives as an expression of the fulfillment, relationship, and care that has and is being received from God. The first kind of community is one driven by need to experience what only God can give. The second is driven by the receiving of grace. The first is consumeristic, the second is true. The first has community as the hero, the second has God as the hero.

Within this familial community, each of the  “one another commands” makes sense:

Through these “one anothers” we become family in experience. These command are the process and action toward an authentic life of community where people care for one another. They are also commands that say unequivocally that community is a place of giving of your self. Lets turn to Colossians chapter 3 to see what kind of giving we must give for community.

The One Another’s of the New Testament

Being a member of God’s family requires death to self. You must die. As the Apostle Paul write in Colossians 3:9, put off the old self. (Col 3:9-11):

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices  and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

Here Paul is telling us exactly the way toward community as family: becoming new through God, being formed in the image of God. Now, all of this sounds very utopian and pleasant. Who wouldn’t want to be ‘fixed’ and experience a caring and authentic community where your burdens are carried, you are not alone, and you are known? We all would, but a community like this is costly. It requires a death to you. It requires a leaving your identity in yourself, what you do, what you have, where you came from. In it is place you will cling to the new self which is being formed by God and is in the image of God. They way toward an authentic community is God recreating us. In Christ, we are not known by our culture, ethnicity, status, resources, and even roles. Those labels do not fit within a gospel community, because we are all defined by Christ now. He is recreating every aspect of our hearts.

Paul, then, goes on to describe the cost and fruit of this new identity in Christ:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:12-17)

We exchange our self-interested, self-defined, and approval seeking lives for one where we know where are approved of and chosen by God. The new life is one in community where we live with pure and loved hearts. Now, we clothe our lives with kindness, humility! This is how we bear with one another, how we forgive with one another: by being made new by God, by receiving new hearts of compassion.

Here is the foundation of community: forgiveness. You will not hold grudges, judge others, snicker behind others’ backs, figure our what their problem is and hold it over them, or force them to earn your acceptance through right living. No, you don’t get to do any of those things and you don’t want to. Instead you forgive.

How can you forgive? You have been forgiven. Or, in other words, you received compassion from God who did not snicker at you or make you earn his approval. With a first hand knowledge of being accepted, welcomed, and forgiven, you extend it to others. This will stretch you. The pattern of life in this world, is to use others’ mistakes, errors, and missteps against them and for you: our sins define us and their sins define them. However, in Christ, we are defined by the love God poured out on us to forgive us our sins. We are defined by that love. This love rules in community. This love overcomes burdens. This truth brings peace amidst all kinds of suffering. This grace produces thankful hearts. This is the love of Jesus. Paul says, this love rules community.

The Love that Rules Community

You can pick up any of the Gospels and know unequivocally that Jesus is the epitome of love—love for God and love for others. He is also the community builder. He builds community around himself with love. This is, perhaps, most clear in his words during his final meal with his disciples before his passion. In his words from John chapters 14 through 17, Jesus outlines what it means to be his follower, and how we are to live and grow. These chapters are foundational. However, we will focus one paragraph: John 15:12-17  example and command John 15.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

You could sum up all of the one-another commands in the New Testament into this one: love one another. But what kind of love? The greatest kind of love: self-donating or self-giving love. The loved exemplified by Jesus on the cross, where he gave his life: body, presence, and future. On the cross we see the love that is required within his community. We see on the cross the commandment lived out. Jesus doesn’t ask us to live out an ideal for our sake, or require us to do something he will not do. Jesus is calling us to be conformed into the image of the “creator.” To be like Jesus, is to love like he loved. To extend that love to one another. What are the implications of letting this love rule our hearts as we live alongside others?

We don’t give from the margins.

We don’t give from convenience.

We don’t give from comfort.

We don’t give our left-overs.

We don’t give from insecurity.

We give ourselves with joy.

We give ourselves with generosity.

We give ourselves with truth.

We give ourselves with humility.

We give ourselves with forgiveness.

We give ourselves with confidence, not allowing our community to live in sin, worship idols, and disregard Jesus as savior.

We give because God gave Christ.

We love because Christ loved us.

We give ourselves in the caring for others in both suffering and celebrating. This is how the very early church loved one another. They sold their property to ensure no-one had need, because this love ruled their hearts. This is the mark of Christian community, this is how the world knows we follow Jesus: we love one another. Jesus says, in his final speech in John 15: “I love you, I chose you, and I am sending you out to bear fruit, be my witness.”

Authenticity, Belonging, and Love as Mission

The greatest apologetic for the gospel, the greatest evangelistic tool for spreading the gospel, and clearest articulation of the gospel is our love for one another because that love is rooted in Christ’s love for us. Every time we give ourselves and lay down our lives for our gospel family, people get to witness, in a small but tangible way, Christ’s giving himself for us. In seeing our love for one another, people see God’s love. We even see this in Acts 2, as the church in Jerusalem cares for one another, those on the outside see and experience the gospel and join the family. The church was always meant to be known by God’s love. May it be so in your city, town, and neighborhood. That your neighbors and co-workers would come to know God’s love.

Tools

How do you develop an authentic community? What can you do to create an environment where authenticity can flourish?

Sharing Your Stories and Hearing Your Stories

Story is a gateway to the soul. Sharing our stories (the good, bad, ugly, and burdensome) is exposing our souls. It takes a brave person to tell another how they truly feel, where they’ve truly been, and share their scars. However, if you hope to be an authentic and caring community someone will have to share their story with that sort of courage. You will also have to create a safe environment for that to happen. Which will require a love in hearing the true stories of others. Here are some tips on story sharing in community:

Set-up the time as something substantial and vulnerable. As you establish a culture of authenticity you will want to combat gossip, curiosity for curiosity’s sake, and nosiness. You are not sharing stories just to figure out what is “wrong” with everyone but to care for them and know where they are.

Leaders share first. Leaders get to set the mark on authenticity. If a leader models vulnerability and honesty, others will follow.

Keep stories short, hitting on what we call the “stars” and “scars” of a person’s life, but not having to get into the nitty gritty details.

Don’t feel like the story needs to end in a nice bow.

After the story, you will want to encourage the listeners to ask questions related to what they shared, but not just to get more information, pray for the person sharing, and bless them with words related to what they shared. When someone shares something honest you thank them for being honest, acknowledge their bravery, and avoid becoming a problem solver. You want to ask the story teller how you can pray for them and then pray for them.

Finally, you don’t want this to be a one-hit wonder, but want to continue sharing story and learning more about each other. Not just isolated to “story-time.” Encourage meals with each other and it to be a regular thing to ask each other how they are doing and follow up on what they shared. Note: you cannot care for one another in a time-slot.

Great Resource: Sharing your Story in 10 Minutes.

Share Needs and Let People Help

Set aside time in your organized community gatherings to ask if anyone needs help, whether it is yard-work, house work, finances, car care, etc. No matter what it is, let people share their need for help and then help each other. Use whatever skills, talents, or money you have to care for each others’ felt needs. This stuff, over time, will lead to deeper needs being shared. Showing up to weed a yard is actually a good sign you might show up at the hospital to sit and pray. If you notice that there are people who are regular helpers but never the receiver of help this is a sign they don’t see themselves are part of the community yet. Or, they are carrying burdens they don’t think the community can help with. Either way, as a leader this gives you something to pray about and something to ask the person: “I’ve noticed, you guys never ask for help why is that?”

Suffer Together

There are many needs that we experience where the community is helpless. One of the marks of a community that truly cares for one another is the sharing of burdens that cannot be solved by community. For example, terminal cancer, the loss of a parent or child, mental illness, infertility, job loss. In each of these things there are tangible ways in which a gospel family can serve and care for the person suffering. However, it doesn’t remove the suffering. You can’t serve it away. These are opportunities to come alongside those suffering and join their suffering. You simply weep as they weep. You listen as they share. You become physically and spiritually present, without a hint of expectation that you can ‘fix’ anything, except allow the other person to know they are not alone, they are seen, heard, and loved.

This is radical in our culture. We usually hide from the issues we mentioned above, hoping the grieving or hurting person just gets over it quickly. We may be there with meals the first few weeks, but then we don’t know what else to say. When you get to the point where you don’t know what to say, just be present and suffer alongside them. Don’t offer hallmark cards or platitudes, but cry with them and share simple truths about God’s character. Don’t offer explanations for why terrible things happen, offer yourself as a person who wants to walk through their pain with them and as someone who will point the the pain that Jesus carried on our behalf to make all the sad things untrue.

Love Without Control

This means you love others, sacrifice for others, and accept others without control the outcome. For example, I loved them and thought that would end their addiction. I loved them and they should be Christians. I love them and thought they would get better. This is love with control. Love with you and your vision at the center. Instead, love them with dignity, boundaries, and confidence the God is writing and creating a good story.

Important Questions

How could your community sacrifice in caring for one another?

How could your community be a place where people share their crises, heart-ache, and tangible needs without needing to solve them?

How can your community be a place where grace, mercy, and generosity are extended to those within your community who have need (emotional, relational, physical)? Has anyone ever expressed need in your community?

What can your community do to both care for the needs of the group and speak the truth to each other out of love and not duty, judgement, or savior complex?

Brad A. Watson serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon where he develops, coaches, and trains leaders to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is passionate about helping people live lives that reflect their belief and hope in Jesus. He lives in southeast Portland with his wife and their three kids.