(Tammy Perlmutter’s 31 Days of Community series, continued!)
31 Days of Community
I entered community having experienced some degree of discipleship; my youth group leader my senior year of high school, a small-group leader in college, and social workers from the Christian agency that handled my case. These relationships shaped me and prepared me for what discipleship really was.
I didn’t know exactly what I needed; I just knew that I couldn’t live a life of faith on my own. I was making too many mistakes; I was giving in to temptation too easily and too often, leading me to feel that I wasn’t cut out for the Christian life. I was discouraged.
That was a major factor in my decision to become a part of Jesus People. I needed discipling. I no longer had any older believers speaking truth and challenge into my life. I was adrift and weak-willed. What I needed was a family, a community. I believed that if I lived with faithful people truly seeking holiness and wholeness, I could become faithful as well.
Jesus People took discipleship seriously. When you arrived, you were assigned a “buddy,” who was your disicpler, the person who helped you navigate life in the larger community. This person told you about the daily schedule, the guidelines, who the leaders were, and helped you find your place. You were also assigned a “family,” a group of married couples and single people who met regularly for meals and worship, vacationed and spent holidays together, and confronted you or encouraged you when you needed it.
This buddy system and family structure helped a new person feel like they were connected and belonged somewhere. It could also make you feel like Big Brother was watching you. There were numerous times I was confronted about something I swore nobody knew about. Even though at times it felt intrusive, the reality was that I needed people to know what I was doing and saying and thinking. It was necessary for my growth that I had people in my business, teaching me the right ways to handle conflict, temptation, bad theology, spiritual warfare.
Discipleship happened all over the community. At your job, in the laundry room, in the kitchen, at the shelter, picking someone up from the airport. You never knew who was going to speak into your life that day. You were constantly surprised by the people you lived with, the experience and wisdom they had to pass on. What was even more surprising was when you started to have experience and wisdom to pass on!
Besides Bible and discipleship classes, there was a lot of opportunity to meet one-on-one with your buddy or family head or a pastor. This is where the riches of community are found. I had people investing in me, taking the time to pray with me, helping me struggle with a decision, giving me guidance when I needed it. I had never had that before. I thought it only happened on TV.
I know it sounds like I walked into community and had great relationships and started walking with the Lord faithfully. The truth is that it was a daily, sometimes hourly, decision to choose the right thing and actually do the right thing. I still battled my will every minute of the day. Knowing that people were praying for me and would ask me hard questions helped me to make the hard decisions.
Over time and after years of being poured into, I was surprised to discover how much truth I had absorbed and could now give out to others. It wasn’t through the hundreds of good Christian books I read, or the hours upon hours of sermons and classes I attended. It was scores of people making space for me in their hearts and home, staying up late in the hallway with me, risking my bad attitude when confronted with sin, calling out my gifts when I couldn’t see anything good in me.
Now discipleship is what I feel called to do in the Body. I love walking alongside other women and helping them discover Jesus in a deeper way. I want to “invest in the mess” like others have done for me. I need to be someone who gives life and tells truth. It’s the only way to honor the gift that was given to me.
My heart breaks for women who have not had the discipling they needed. There are far too many women who haven’t had an older believer caring about where they were on Sunday when they weren’t at church, or asking what’s going on with their new boyfriend, or inquiring about the cuts on their arms. The women in our churches are aching for someone to notice them. For someone to prove to them that they are worth something. For someone to step in and tell them to stop whatever dangerous and self-destructive behavior they are struggling with. For someone to give them a reason to stop hurting themselves. For someone to love them enough to make room in their lives for them.
Here is a long, but pertinent quote by Larry Crabb from his book, Becoming a True Spiritual Community.
“We’re a community of fixers. We can’t stand to see a problem we can’t do something about. We’re not curious about the journey. We’re committed to making things better, to feel more comfortable, to learning communication skills that will approve our relationships and will make the more satisfying, to relieving pain with empathy.
And we like to label each other’s problems. Whether the labels are accurate or not, they give us a sense of control. Labels give us the feeling that whatever is wrong is manageable. Somewhere at the center of our approach to community is a failure to see dark valleys for what they are. We don’t realize that they do not primarily represent problems to be solved, but are rather opportunities for spiritual companionship, for experiencing a kind of relating that is better and different from any we’ve known before. What we really want is a better life.
Many voices in the church, perhaps most of them, speak to that desire: here’s the seminar to attend, here’s the counselor to see, here are the principles to follow, here are the rules to keep, here are the biblically exegeted promises to claim. Only a few voices direct us to worship, or call us to a new level of trust. Only a few invite us to experience conversations in a spiritual community.
Yet you can hear your own heart crying, “It’s the Lord I want. In the Lord I take refuge.” That cry from your heart is your longing to be part of a true church, to participate in spiritual community, to engage in spiritual conversations of worship with God and of co-journeying with others. You yearn for a safe place, a community of friends who are hungry for God, who know what it means to sense the Spirit moving within them as they speak with you. You long for brothers and sisters who are intent not on figuring out how to improve your life, but on being with you wherever your journey leads. You want to know and be known in conversations that aren’t really about you or anyone else but Christ.
For too long we’ve been encouraged by a solution-focused, make-it-work culture to flee to human mountains when life gets tough, when emotional distress and relational tensions and financial struggles threaten to undo us. We’ve been aiming at an earthbound, this-world version of the blessed life. We’ve been counseled, medicated, religiously entertained and inspired, exhorted, distracted, and formula-directed long enough. We’ve lost our focus on spiritual living.
We need a safe place for weary pilgrims. We need to dive into the unmanageable, messy world of relationships, to admit our failure, to identify our tensions, to explore our shortcomings. We need to become the answer to our Lord’s prayer, that we become one the way He and the Father are one. It’s time we paid whatever the price must be paid to become Part of a spiritual community rather than an ecclesiastical organization.
It’s time we turned our chairs toward one another and learned how to talk in ways that stir anorexics to eat, multiples to integrate, sexual addicts to indulge nobler appetites, and tired Christians to press on through dark valleys toward green pastures and on to the very throne room of heaven.
It’s time to build the church, a community of people who take refuge in God and encourage each other to never flee to another source of help, a community of folks who know the only way to live in this world is to focus on the spiritual life—our life with God and others, It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Our impact on the world is at stake.”