Community and Idealism: Bonhoeffer’s Wisdom For the American Church

Community and Idealism: Bonhoeffer’s Wisdom For the American Church May 25, 2016

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He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

This quote, from Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together, is also part of a chapter from a new book of essays entitled Called To Community (ed. Charles E. Moore). You can check out the current Patheos Book Club happening around this book here.

Bonhoeffer’s essay centers on the subject of idealism, and particularly idealism regarding Christian community. His words are a gift and just as relevant for the 21st century American church as they were in Bonhoeffer’s own time. In fact, these words cut particularly close to the bone for me, having experienced the effects of what Bonhoeffer calls the “wish dream” of community firsthand. And this description of the results couldn’t be more accurate (and devastating):

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had 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 realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

Bonhoeffer describes our disillusionment with Christian community – even if it has come from the breakdown of that community – as grace! That’s hard to swallow, at first, if you’ve experienced such a breakdown. And I have – in late 2012, the church I planted with my wife came crashing to an end. It was horribly painful and completely life-altering. And yet, somehow, it was also grace.

It was grace because, as Bonhoeffer goes on to say, the ideal, the dream, is always the barrier to finding real community. The illusion from which we must be disillusioned will prevent and destroy the discovery of the real thing. So the sooner that illusion can die, the better!

I currently find myself at a point in which genuine Christian community, the kind that has let go of ideals and moved on to maturity, is becoming more and more of a reality. This is the kind of church and community that is markedly free of ostentatious plans, dreams, schemes, and visions; because, “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.” It’s the kind of church and community that is fascinated by the little things and little impressed by the big things; because, “Only those who give thanks for little things receive the big things.” It’s the kind of church and community that is not anxious and pressured to accomplish an ideal; because, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

Yes, this is the kind of community that I am seeking, the kind I am beginning to find in the midst of my disillusionment. Which really is grace. Because, “When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then draws the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

Check out the other entries in the Patheos Book Club for Called To Community here.

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  • I like this:
    Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
    and this:
    Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
    C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

  • Good stuff, thanks Charles!

  • donnamathwig

    As I sit here on my iPhone, under the covers at 10:35am, wanting to hide and just cry, with deep wrestling in the midst of a mission conundrum, reflecting on decades of religious institutional engagement, leadership, and regret, there is much grief. Beyond that, there were nearly two years of diving into intentional community, where much of Bonhoeffer’s understandings were lived out – and not always in life-giving ways. As a visionary who loves change, but who is (has learned to be) a realist, your words deserve a hearty amen. Grace is all I’ve got these days.

  • Thanks for sharing this Donna – prayers for you in your (gracious) disillusionment. Right there with you, hoping for another kingdom, trying to bear witness to it even in the midst of all this brokenness!