I was a rising Junior in college, sitting outside a coffee shop in my hometown during my summer break. I looked up from my book and noticed a boy, probably three or four years my junior, at the table next to me. He was reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I immediately sized him up as a distraught teenager, probably feeling as angsty and misunderstood as every other Holden Caufield-wannabe I had known in high school. As a student at a small Christian college known for its emphasis in worldview studies, I immediately viewed this as an opportunity to engage someone in a conversation about the meaning of life.
“How do you like that book?” I asked.
“I’m only a couple of chapters in, but it’s okay, I guess,” he responded.
That wasn’t the textbook worldview answer I was hoping for, but we chatted for a few minutes until we were interrupted by a middle-aged African American man who came over and greeted the boy. The two talked for a few minutes, and then they were joined by a woman in her sixties, who wrapped them each in a big hug.
I sat and watched as five or six more people arrived, all of varying ethnicities and ages. I thought, What kind of group is this? How on earth could all these people know each other and be friends? It made no sense to me.
Finally, during a break in the greetings, I asked the boy, “How do you all know each other?”
He responded, a little embarrassed, “We’re in an NA group that meets down the street, and we come here before our meetings.”
That was the end of our conversation, but the images have stuck with me since. My knowledge about Narcotics Anonymous was nonexistent, but I saw a fellowship between these people that was beautiful. I wanted what they had.
Fifteen years later, I sat outside another coffee shop and overheard a conversation between two recent college graduates. Both were in the process of developing apps that helped people find community—one for dating, another for residents of apartment complexes to get to know each other. While the main motivation may have been to achieve financial success, both men were looking for ways to connect people and help them build relationships.
Much ink is spent on how polarized our society is. It’s becoming increasingly easier to live in echo chambers and surround ourselves with people who agree with us on just about everything. Not to mention that these “relationships” are, more and more, between people who know each other online, but rarely, if ever, meet in person.
We can build apps and attempt to create local community, we can have supper clubs and book clubs, but even if we succeed in bringing together a group of people—even one as diverse as the NA group I witnessed—how can we get past shallow formalities and small talk? Where does true community come from?
In theory, this is where the local church can step in. But how many local churches are attended weekly by people who come in, sit, stand, and leave without anyone ever knowing their names? We might be like-minded people who believe the same things, and we could even be blessed to be in an ethnically and socio-economically diverse church, but none of these things guarantee true community.
The difference between most of our churches and what I saw that day at the coffee shop is that those people weren’t hiding from one another. Because of their time in NA meetings, they already knew the worst about each other, but far from causing them to withdraw, this knowledge had created a special bond.
On the surface, these people had next to nothing in common, but they were united around their need for healing. The same is true for the Christian community in the church. We’ll never experience deep community—knowing and being known—if we can’t admit we need help.
1 John 1 gives us a picture of fellowship with God and each other that only comes through “walking in the light.” We can’t enjoy that fellowship when we’re hiding in the shadows, pretending things are good. True community is impossible when we’re putting on our “church face.” Instead, this passage shows that confessing sin and bringing it into the open is what draws us nearer to each other, and nearer to God.
The people I saw that day at the coffee shop enjoyed a freedom I was missing. Having been enslaved to substances that threatened to destroy them, they had reached a desperation point and enlisted others to help them in the battle. We’re not so different. Sin threatens to destroy us, and when we see our desperation rightly, we too will seek the help of others.
In the places where I have this kind of community, it has come about because one person was desperate enough to take that first step into the light and to invite others to join. Contrary to our worst fears, the knowledge of one another’s sin doesn’t cause us to run away. Actually, it creates a sense of commonality and a deeper love. When someone trusts me to come alongside her and carry her burden to the cross, we both get to rejoice in the grace shown us there. We get to intercede for each other. And we get to see each other as real people, not just a filtered image.
What if the Church led the way in our current climate of talking past each other and an epidemic of loneliness? What if individuals in our churches created places where we were allowed to be real with each other? What if we gathered to confess and pray for one another, reminding each other of the grace we’ve received in Christ?
Maybe then we would look a little more like that NA group—people in need of healing, walking together in love.