Wish Dreams and the Church: Mark Stevens

This post, by Mark Stevens, concerns Bonhoeffer’s famous expression about wish dreams and the church.

The most challenging words I have ever read on the subject of community come from a little book by Dietrich Bonheoffer entitled, Life Together.[1] Alongside Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus’ it is one of the best books on pastoral leadership I have read.

 Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realise it. But God’s grace speedily. Shatters such dreams.” p.35

What Bonhoeffer confronted in me was the sin of idolatry. What I discovered as I read this chapter is that for too long I had been imposing my own wants and needs on the community of God’s people. My vision for the church was more important than what God wanted for his people. As a result it failed to live up to my standards and disappointment and disillusionment set in. What Bonhoeferr challenged me to do is:

  • Firstly, to see the Christian community as a gift from God: “The Christian cannot take for granted the privilege of living together with other Christians” p.27. The community of God’s people is to be embraced and welcomed, warts and all.  It isn’t just about loving God it is about loving the people of God.
  • Secondly, I must remember that we are more than just friends. Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it is a brief, single encounter, or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another through and in Jesus Christ.” p.31 Those with whom I ascend to the house of God with are brothers and sisters in Christ. There is more to my relationship with these people than simply liking them. We are forever bound in Christ.
  • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I must love the community as she is not as we wish she were! “God hates this wishful dreaming” says Bonhoeffer, “because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter this community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another accordingly…They act as they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds people together” p.36 How many times have I forced my will upon the congregation? How many times have I sought to create the congregation of God’s people in my image? The church we lust for, the community we crave, becomes the enemy of the church we have.

God has given us this wonderful gift of Christian community. Let us not take it for granted rather let us embrace this place and these people as God’s gift to us and stop thinking of ourselves as God’s gift to them.


[1] D. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5: Life Together Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress Press, 1996

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Bonhoeffer made many, many great observations during his all-too-short life and ugly death in a German concentration camp. He was a deep thinker and a determined follower of Jesus who disregarded the cost.

    Thanks, Mark, for sharing some of his words on church. How true it’s been for me, too, that ‘my vision for the church was more important than what God wanted for his people’. I hope it’s no longer generally true – though I have my moments of wrong-headed me centredness.

    But I think we also need a clear understanding of where, exactly, Jesus has placed us in the church. We need to know where we belong without judging or despising the other parts where things may be done differently. In other words we need to love the church, the entire body.

    I really, really want to stress your final, short, pithy paragraph. Everyone needs to hear this loud and clear. I can’t do better than repeat it word for word…

    ‘God has given us this wonderful gift of Christian community. Let us not take it for granted rather let us embrace this place and these people as God’s gift to us and stop thinking of ourselves as God’s gift to them.’

    Amen!

  • david hardin

    thanks for sharing this Mark and Scott. How powerful!

  • Jim

    Wonderful. I use “Life Together” in a Pastoral Counseling class I teach, the premise being that all such care begins in Christian community and not simply in the efforts of one someone who is called a “Pastoral Counselor.” Bonhoeffer’s words remind me that community is a gift from God and not a selfish run at Utopia.

  • Stephen Weaver

    Very good. Thank you for this gracious reminder. May God have mercy upon our prevailing paradigm of “leadership.”

  • http://theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Thanks for the encouragement Chris, David, Jim and Stephen. I must stress there are days when this is easier to write than live! ;)


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