By Mike Cope
My wife will tell you I’m “relationally challenged” when it comes to expressing my feelings. But a while back, I decided to tell a friend of mine what I was feeling. He and I have been through so much together over the past decade. We’ve prayed together, laughed together, hiked together, shared good books together. He’s more into Shakespeare; I’m more into Grisham. He likes to watch movies with subtitles; I like movies with Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford. But, remarkably, we’ve tended to find much common ground and to teach each other to appreciate something different.
But not long ago my buddy moved. I encouraged him to. It seemed clear to me that God was calling him to a new job.
This particular night, however, I was feeling his absence. So I summoned up all my “I-can-too-describe-my-feelings” courage and dropped him a four-sentence e-mail. I just told him that I missed him and that I felt unprotected without him. Then I thanked him for the thousands of times he’d guarded my heart and soul.
That night, he responded. He said, “I thought of how you had introduced me to Larry Crabb and his idea of the church being a place of true safety, ‘the safest place on earth.’” Then he reminded me of a story we’d discussed before: of the Nazi survivor who had a test for friendship he learned during World War II.
He and his family knew they would need protection when the Nazis came, so they would speculate about their Gentile friends. They wondered, Which ones would protect us? Who would hide us? Years later this man used this question as his litmus test of a true friend: Who would hide me?
Then my friend wrote, “Of course, you and I have settled this once and for all, haven’t we? We have seen each other at our greatest points of peril and vulnerability. I know you would hide me, and that is a comfort beyond words.”
Community Means Connecting
What I’m describing here is a taste of community—a word that gets worked pretty hard today (AOL community, gay community, green community, yoga community, Muslim community), probably because of the absence of the real thing.
True biblical community grows out of our convictions that God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—lives in perpetual communion and that he created us to be in communion with him and with one another. It means we connect at the deep levels of life with one another—praying for one another, confessing to one another, encouraging one another, guiding one another, protecting one another.
For this to happen, we have to believe something about the church that many no longer believe. Larry Crabb, a well-known Christian psychologist, has helped lead a revolution by writing about the healing power of God’s people.
To imagine the seismic shift he has in mind, picture an automobile accident in your city. Emergency vehicles whiz to the scene and rush the victims to the Emergency Room, where the real healers, the physicans, can take over.
Unfortunately, in this therapeutic culture we have come to believe that the real healers are counselors and ministers. About all ordinary Christians can do when people they know have wrecked lives is try to rush people to the experts.
In his books Connecting and The Safest Place on Earth, Crabb urged Christians to move away from this unbiblical way of thinking. It would be better to see ministers and counselors as the trained emergency workers who seek to get people to the real healers–their friends, their small group, their elders, mature Christians—who will enter through the power of the Holy Spirit into their lives.
We must get past thinking, “Whew! Thank goodness we finally got them to a therapist. Now they have a chance.” Crabb—a therapist himself—doesn’t discount the value of a Christ-filled counselor. But his greater focus is on the church. It’s there that we find deepest truths: that we are made in God’s image, that sin is our deepest problem, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. It’s there that we find cross-shaped stories of courage, covenant-keeping, strength-in-weakness, forgiveness, and nonviolence.
Again and again Crabb points the church to the transforming potential of spiritual friendships. Because we’ve been created in God’s image, redeemed by Christ, and filled with the Spirit, we are able to enter into one another’s lives in ways that are healing and sustaining. We are able to remind one another of God’s unconditional love; we can gently and humbly point out sinful thoughts and behaviors; we can offer the counsel of Scripture and the forgiving word of grace. He makes the radical claim that the person best qualified to talk wisely and meaningfully about our deepest battles and our painful memories and our secret sins is the person filled with Christ. “Qualifications to effectively counsel have more to do with wisdom and character than with training and degrees.”
It is in the safety of friends who will hide us and who will be honest with us that we can survive. Crabb asks us to imagine two men. One is enjoying a good relationship, including a satisfying sex life, with his wife, but has no close male friends. The other has a tough marriage and a lousy sex life. But this second man is deeply connected with other men who serve as mentors, fathers, brothers, and friends in his life.
In a time of sexual temptation for both men, Crabb says he’d bet on the second man to be faithful. “You can manage some difficulties in your marriage and sexual relationship with your wife as long as the deep longings of the soul are being touched in relationships, centrally with Christ.”
Community Is Possible
My mind races back to our own spiritual friendships, including our little covenant group. When Diane and I could hardly breathe after our daughter, Megan, died, this group intubated us and breathed for us. They listened, they wept, they held, they prayed, and they spoke words of grief and hope. When our sorrow at times alienated the two of us from one another, they bound us back together. The healing balm was Christ.
The big question, of course, is, “Where do I get friends like that?” They don’t sell them at Starbucks. They don’t seem to be available on eBay.
Undoubtedly, the place to begin is in solitude and prayer. We are ready to engage in deep community with others only after we have found our deepest rest in God alone. Otherwise, we’ll try to get people to fill places that only God can fill. Ask God to send you a friend or two with whom you can be spiritually connected. (And while you’re at it, get rid of some of your preconceived ideas of what that person might look like!)
Second, take some relationship risks. You can’t hibernate waiting for spiritual connectedness to break out around you. Take a chance by entrusting someone with something that isn’t huge. Did the person seem wise? Were they confidential? Did they point you to Christ?
Third, show some restraint. Haven’t we all been scared off by someone who took the phrase “whither thou goest I will go” just a bit too literally? We wanted to run! So will others. Ease into these relationships, letting God’s Spirit use time and experience to bind you together.
And fourth, consider starting a covenant group of people who are anxious to experience community on their Christian pilgrimage. You might begin by reading together one of Crabb’s books or perhaps Randy Frazee’s The Connecting Church—maybe even Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s timeless Life Together. Read them, along with the rich biblical passages about community, and ask, What can our relationship to one another mean? How can we enter deeply into one another’s lives with the gospel? How can we be present for one another without becoming insular and self-serving?
Never before has a civilization been so digitally connected or so personally disconnected. Cell phones, answering machines, beepers, faxes, e-mail, and BlackBerrys–yes, we can hardly get away from one another. So electronically connected, yet so lonely.
I think Crabb is right:
The future of the church depends on whether it develops true community. We can get by for a while on size, skilled communication, and programs to meet every need, but unless we sense that we belong to each other, with masks off, the vibrant church of today will become the powerless church of tomorrow.
Mike Cope is preaching minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, and adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University.