As we move into a new year, our little community of Jesus followers is taking some intentional time to individually and collectively reflect, evaluate and consider the implications of committing to each other and God to our shared life in Golden Hill for another year. One of the practices we have committed to in this time is to confront the unhealthy or unrealistic expectations we have of each other. We have found that dreams, visions and hopes for our community are good, beautiful and necessary. While that remains true, they can be the very things that destroy community before it starts.
When I was going through seminary, I talked with countless leaders who had had big visions for the type of community they would lead, yet most didn’t last past 8, 9 or 10 months.
What keeps many communities from sustaining for the long haul?
We all carry ideals and expectations with us into community and when they aren’t realized, we often assume our community isn’t “real” or that it is a failure. If we can identify the myths we carry into community, we can confront our unrealistic expectations and choose to willingly submit some of our personal one’s for the larger mission God has for our community.
Here are 6 myths we have identified over our years as an intentional community committed to follow Jesus together:
Myth #1: Perfect Harmony
This myth says that we’ll all get along really easily and naturally with little to no conflict. After all, we all showed up here, so we must all be on the same page, right? This myth means that we assume that we will all be naturally interested in each other’s lives and we’ll discover things about each other with which we strongly connect. We also assume that we’re in similar places in our maturity, experience, and readiness, and since we’re all equally committed to the same things, we’ll all be willing to make similar sacrifices.
However, the reality is we’re not all at the same place, and we may never be. That’s okay, though. There will always be some dissonance in a community. Dissonance doesn’t mean you don’t have community; in fact, it might actually mean you do! Or, as we saw in the stages of community, you’re at least on your way there.
Myth #2: Absolute Agreement
This myth does not refer to harmony in relationships, but to harmony in decisions and direction. It is the myth that we’ll always agree or arrive at a consensus because that’s what happens in community. This myth is the naive belief that no one will ever have to yield their opinion to the group because we’ll always end up on the same page if we just talk long enough. It is the belief that if we’re yielding enough to each other and to the Spirit we will never have to agree to disagree. There’s another assumption in this myth that’s a little more subtle but pretty significant: it’s the assumption that we won’t need distinct roles or responsibilities because we’re a community and everybody will decide on everything together, and we won’t move until we do. When we do that, we flirt with a denial of the gifts and roles with which God has gifted his church. The reality is, there will always be disagreements and differences in perspectives. There will be differences in gifts and responsibilities. In our communities, we’ve found that the answer isn’t agreeing on everything; it’s finding a way to go forward even when we don’t agree.
Myth #3: Raw Pleasure
This is the myth that being honest, raw, or authentic means we have the right to say whatever we’re feeling whenever we want and thinking that people will actually appreciate that. This myth leads to thinking that unbounded authenticity is always good and welcomed. In fact, it is thinking that unbounded authenticity is community. Further, the myth of raw pleasure is the belief that now that we are in community, the door is wide open for us to say whatever we’re feeling whenever we’re feeling it—because healthy community requires complete honesty 100 percent of the time. It’s concluding that messiness and confusion are the reality of community life and that people actually prefer messiness over harmony, peace, and light-hearted adventure.
The reality is that community is not—and never has been—a green light to be mean or insensitive. Chaos is not synonymous with community. In healthy communities, love and kindness will always trump raw, self-serving disclosure.
Myth #4: Truth At All Costs
While raw pleasure is more about personal disclosure, this myth is more about the idea of speaking “truth” to others. This is the myth that in community, we have a duty to point out people’s faults as soon as we see them. It is the assumption that we need to deliver the truth that we know as soon as we know it. It’s the belief that people want and need to hear truth more than they want and need to feel loved. This myth assumes that we can freely share our convictions and opinions at just about any time because being in community gives us a green light to address people’s “ignorance” or their personal issues at any time.
But, the reality is there is still a right time and a right way to share convictions and people will always have different convictions . . . and you may even be wrong!
Myth #5: It’s All Fixable
This myth is the common assumption that communities are miracle workers—that if a need is shared in community, the community must have the ability to fix it. Those who hold this belief often assume that if we need help beyond our community, we’re not a “true” community. Believing this myth also leads us to jump to the conclusion that people share things openly because they want us to fix their problems. Maybe they do, but maybe they just need us to listen and empathize with them.
The reality is that we’re human and we won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs. There are many great resources outside of our community (pastors, counselors, spiritual directors, coaches, and so on) that we would be foolish and arrogant not to access.
Myth #6: True Community Is Always Communal
When people visit our community, they are often surprised that we don’t all live in one house. The assumption seems to be that true community requires a common roof. Many communities have chosen that form, and it has worked well for them. It certainly brings people together, and we agree that proximity is vital to organic community. There are also obvious environmental and economic benefits to shared living that should not be discounted. However, there are downsides to communal life as well: the biggest negative is probably the time and energy that are required to maintain peace and order in communal space. Sharing space is not the same thing as sharing life.
We have opted for a slightly different approach while still valuing proximity and a sense of shared space. We made the decision to live close to one another (all within a ten-minute walk) and to inhabit the same neighborhood rather than the same house. Some of us do share houses with each other, some of us live in separate apartments in the same building, and some of us live in our own homes. We share our lives, we share our neighborhood, and we share a common covenant to do life in a particular way. For us, making these choices has created real community.
Note: The majority of this post is an excerpt from my book with Rob Yackley, Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community