December 5, 2020

iMonk Classic: What Have I Learned from Living in Community?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted March 1, 2009

When you’ve lived in an intentional Christian community for almost 17 years, you’re a pretty sorry excuse for a person if you haven’t thought about how your life has affected that community or how that experience has shaped you as a person. You live together on the same campus, eat together for most meals, live by the same rules, worship together, serve one another, labor together, suffer together, counsel one another, sin with and in proximity to one another and offer your particular gifts and ministries together. You make an impact and the community impacts you.

It’s not like church. Many a day, when times have been tough, I’ve longed for the old days when I worked on church staff and I spent only a few hours a week with members of the congregation. A couple of hours on Sunday morning and, unless there was an emergency, that was it for the week with most of them. I could even have friendships that were outside of the congregation and no one noticed!

But in intentional community, all of that sort of thing is offered up. I see my students and co-workers for many, many hours a week. And they see me constantly; ad nauseum, I fear. Sometimes when someone will be having a social occasion and we’re invited, I think to myself “These people see and hear me so much, if I show up for this, they will all be depressed.”

The past couple of weeks, my experience of community has been diminished by the loss of a friendship that meant a lot to me, and my reaction is to look at my life and ask “How did I fail?” Answers aren’t hard to find. If I were counseling someone else, I’d also say that’s a good question, but don’t go overboard with it. It’s likely I contributed to the failure of the friendship, but it’s also likely that there are entire sides to the whole business that I’m not even aware of.

But 16+ years of community is a different matter. If I were to leave this world tomorrow, what would I have contributed to this particular attempt to live together on the reality of the Gospel? What did I learn from God and how did I apply it? How did the whole experience make me more like Christ? Where did it show me how I’m not like Christ? How did it make me want more of Christ?

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had as I’ve considered my own experience of Christian community the past 16+ years. Obviously, some of these lessons are found other places than in intentional community, but community is where I’ve found them.

1. It’s amazing how important it becomes to simply speak to another person; to give them the grace and dignity of a friendly greeting. It can become legalistic (there have been times I’ve waved at the same person 20 times in a day), but I don’t know how to over estimate the value of treating another person like they are THERE. Some of the biggest obstacles come when you feel people are doing small things that amount to “You don’t matter.” I’ve sinned a lot in this area, but God has put it in my heart to be more open in this area, and I’ve made slow progress.

2. Kindness. The most convicting sentence ever spoken to me in this ministry was an out of the blue comment by an older person who has been a mentor and grandparent to me. With sadness, but with firmness, she said “You aren’t a very kind person.” It was a lightning bolt. I wanted to defend myself a dozen different ways, but I’m convinced that would have been missing the point. Now, I pray for the kindness of Jesus over and over and over. My students know it is important to me. Of course, I’m deeply aware of the failure in my life that made that observation necessary on the part of my friend. How can I say Jesus is my God when I am not kind?

3. Staying with people who are not easy to relate to. In community, a person with chronic personality flaws has no place to hide. Christian community is about change, but not everyone has the same possibility of change. Some brothers and sisters are going to be challenging to love, to befriend, to include, even to sit and eat with. But over and over, God has pointed out those people and said two things to me. 1) You, Michael, are every bit that obnoxious and I love you. 2) That person is Christ to you. The conviction I carry over this one is heavy. The hard edges and difficult seasons of relationships are extraordinarily easy to walk away from, but I cannot. God hasn’t walked away from me, and people have loved me when I’ve been rotten. Did I learn anything from all that love?

4. Accepting criticism….from all sorts of directions. I’m an only child. Criticism doesn’t appear on my menu. I’m constantly surprised at how difficult it is for me to process criticism without the argumentative, defensive instincts I developed growing up with my dad coming to the surface. Don’t get me wrong: I have always felt a lot of criticism in the Christian community was unnecessary and hurtful. Still, no one living in community can declare him/herself immune from criticism, or determine where it’s going to come from. A fundamental of Christian community, at every level, is a recognition that the Holy Spirit can and will shape us with the tools available in community. If we declare ourselves above any work of the Spirit done through a brother or sister with their own flaws, we are refusing Christ himself.

5. Surrendering your own agenda. If you come into Christian community with your own plans and agenda, one thing is certain: you are going to be frustrated, and quite possibly disillusioned to the point of giving up. Community is not an effort to fulfill the plans and agendas of every member of the community. It’s a mutual embracing of the missio dei, the mission/Kingdom of God. Wow….has this been my adventure. I’ve always been a person with a clear vision and plan B was always a carbon copy of plan A. Whatever else happened, at the end of the day, I was going to do what I wanted to do. Now I sit here with absolutely no idea what I could possibly ever do beyond what service I perform for Christ in this community. I have held on to my agendas and fought for them. And God has sent the angels to tackle me, pry those agendas out of my fingers and toss me the Gospel. This is one area where I have the answers for you, but I’ll punch you in the nose if you try to do a reverse and apply it to me.

There’s more to this “curriculum” and I may write another post sometime in the future. For now, a prayer….

Father, I thank you for the privilege of living in community with other Christians for most of the past two decades. This calling has been a gift to me from your hand. I confess that I have been a stubborn project, but you know my heart, my flaws and my journey to who I am today. You understand far, far more of me than I do of you. You know why this community is the place for me, and I know that, in your love, this is your place to prepare me to be a vessel for your glory. I am grateful for the friendships I’ve enjoyed here, and I grieve those that have failed because I did not love like Jesus. I can see in my life the evidence of my sinful resistance and of your overcoming grace. I claim your promise to finish in me what you started, and to vanquish every enemy, even my own ridiculous refusal to allow your hand to shape me into the image of Jesus. I ask for a clear vision of Jesus, and his love for all of us in this community. Help me to love as he did, to love the people he loves, and to love with his willingness to sacrifice, suffer and do your will. As long as I can be useful to you, let me be exactly where you want me to be. Where I am grieved and disillusioned, renew my calling and commitment. When I need you, send me someone who can incarnate your presence, your words and your healing compassion. And may I be that brother for others as well.

For your glory and the Kingdom of your Son I pray. Amen. So be it.

Comments

  1. This is a beautiful and, for me, necessary read. Point number 2 especially.
    Thanks very much for posting it.

  2. I thought this was a great post in 2009 and it is still just as powerful. And like Pilar, I find #2 about kindness to be most poignant.

  3. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    If I were to leave this world tomorrow, what would I have contributed to this particular attempt to live together on the reality of the Gospel?

    I’d wonder what how Michael’s community would answer that. Not that it’s any of our business, of course.

  4. When folks talk about not having community, they usually complain about the state of their neighborhood or their church. But when Michael describes community, I don’t see a description of any neighborhood or church – I see a description of a workplace. Maybe those of us who wish we had more community are looking for it in the wrong places. Maybe it is really to be found among all those often difficult people we spend the nine-to-five hours with, and our wish that we could find it in off-hours is a byproduct of our wish that it would be easy and recreational.

  5. What a wonderful post! I thought these three were particularly true for me,

    2. Kindness.

    3. Staying with people who are not easy to relate to.

    4. Accepting criticism….from all sorts of directions.

    I live in a secular intentional community and these things are just as important and the results truly rewarding.