Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Authentic Community: Confessions of a Delusional Visionary

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Some years ago I was a young youth pastor at a large and successful mainline denominational church, trying desperately to make my mark through the ministry I had just taken leadership of. For many years, the church had operated as a well-oiled, evangelically faithful machine. It enjoyed a good reputation in a secularized college town, encouraged intergenerational cooperation, and had found a way to support successful student, family, and children’s ministries. Stepping into this prominent position of leadership was an honor and a privilege.

During my years in that role, I was regarded as a successful pastor. I built well-attended programs, engaged children in a fun manner, and arranged meaningful discussion topics. The feedback I received on my ministry leadership was unequivocally positive.

However, as time went on and as the excitement wore off, I realized something was unsettled in me. Despite all the outward growth and frenzied ministry activity, I felt a primal and growing fear in my gut—a fear warning that the outward “success” did not reflect true spiritual health being cultivated. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was perpetuating a narrative, striving to maintain the institutional image above the deeper purpose of the church (whatever that was). I also feared that I might fail to escape the lukewarm pit of bureaucratic purgatory that threatens so many well-meaning pastors and leaders. I know that for many out there, I am saying nothing new or revolutionary.

Thus it goes: you swear to yourself that you’ll do everything possible to help things thrive under your leadership… or at least not hinder them from thriving! You make silent promises to God that you won’t stand in the way of people’s growth and formation by prioritizing outdated or petty “church stuff.” You resolve to replace endless committee meetings with only those necessary to keep from getting fired. You take every—and I mean every—opportunity you get to communicate your vision to those around you. You constantly walk the thin lines between being passionate and disgruntled, visionary and overly idealistic, prophetic and rebellious.

Along the way I attempted to substantialize this burning emotion inside of me. I began to think that my fear was a reaction against an institutional merry-go-round of religion that was consuming and obscuring the relational calling of the church, and thereby destroying true relationally-focused community. Ahhh… I had finally found my problem and my scapegoat! I began to see nameless ecclesial administrators behind every shadowy dark fear: men and women who hated simple community and loved to take up all my time in meetings about budgets and facilities and curtains. I was righteously angry and it felt good. I just needed some tables to throw.

I began to communicate all the ways I feared true community was being sacrificed on the bureaucratic altar. Like so many before me, I couldn’t help but look at the picture of the early church painted in the book of Acts—that of an organic, free and relationally focused group of people—and judge the leaders and churches around me for not resembling what I saw there. I remember being so convinced that I had found my calling. I would be the one to finally build a connected and biblically faithful community inside these walls.

Like any revolutionary, I needed to brand my movement. I started by naming my volunteer training sessions “2:42s” after the iconic passage in Acts, and made sure to include every element present in the verse. I spoke of community every chance I had, passionately offering my alternative to those who shared the same conviction. In short, I saw my surroundings and the youth ministry I led as a lump of clay. I was going to be the master potter. I even began attending a small church on Sunday nights and tried to apply the relational model I experienced there.

Somewhere in the midst of my crusade I came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book on Christian community, Life Together. I was deeply moved by his words. I made my staff, my volunteers and my colleagues read it. I preached from it and used it as a practical framework upon which to base my sweeping vision of community: intentional, committed, deep and countercultural.

Fast forward a number of years, and I had found that I was powerless to exact this sweeping vision of community on the church. I felt consumed by the programmatic and institutional duties of my job. My vision and passion gave way to disillusionment and anger, and eventually I felt I had little choice but to move on. Though there were a number of reasons why I decided to leave that church job, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated and convinced that the failure of my vision was due to those around me who didn’t see a place for it.

This was a powerful narrative for me to repeat to myself during those years. Blaming systems and institutions and others feels securing and cathartic. However, as time went on, I found that no matter where I went, I could not craft the idealized vision in my head. I felt increasingly defeated and confused while sitting on my pile of good intentions. Additionally, in hindsight, I can see that while I was busy trying to shape organizational structures, communicate vision and push back against the tyranny of apathy, I had simultaneously become less emotionally available to those around me, including my co-workers, staff, and family.

I eventually found my way into pastoring a much smaller church with little formal structure. I was sure that in this place, “true community” could flourish, but in many ways I was met with the same reality. It’s not that people didn’t care or listen—most did, but it was always a matter of time before the status quo returned. I felt like if I wasn’t constantly on the campaign trail for my vision, it would fall apart. I had to be the one holding it all together. I once again interrogated myself and God: Was I seeking the wrong thing? Wasn’t it good that I had these desires in me to see a thriving community emerge? Shouldn’t I use the pulpit I’d been given to shout truth from the rooftops? Where was the fruit in it all?

Recently I dusted off Life Together and read it again. I still love Bonhoeffer’s conviction, his example and the vision he presents of people banding together against all odds to faithfully follow Jesus in community. As I read, however, I became aware that something was fundamentally changing in me. Suddenly, I was under no illusion as to my personal capacity to muscle this vision into existence. In fact, I realized that the vision per se isn’t at the core of my longing. A few pages into the book I came across a quote that, for the life of me, I could not remember having encountered before. It said:

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a 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. 1

Though I’m sure I read these sentences a dozen times over the early years of my work, I didn’t remember them in the slightest. In my frenzy, I had scanned them with the arrogant distance that characterizes many impatient and self-confident leaders, seeking anything to support the vision I had already adopted and was in process of building.  At the time I had no capacity to realize just how devastating this one simple sentence was to my passionate community-building activity, because I could not let it expose my leadership approach and evaporate the “straw man” enemy I had built up and subsequently waged war against.

As I read those words afresh and let them have authority as they sank in, I was confronted with a simple fact: truth, even the prophetic truth that burns inside of our bones, will not serve our personal agendas or visions of fulfillment. Contrary to what many a motivational treatise might have told me, the thing I longed for could not be exacted through the sheer power of casting a perfect vision. Bonhoeffer explains why I continually failed to realize the community I sought:

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. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it. 2

My passion for building “authentic” community ended up being the perfect tool for me to learn this hard truth. This is because authentic faith community, by nature, resists the manufacturing, scaling and distribution process. It is not crafted through creative communication—it is manifested through the Holy Spirit and found in participation in the love of Jesus Christ. In my efforts to cast vision, communicate truths, and facilitate environments of engagement, I had precious little time to personally commit to the foundational work of loving others in community! I had bought into the lie that my own faithfulness to those around me was inconsequential to the larger vision I was communicating.

In other words, I was in love with my dream of community more than the community around me. Of course, I couldn’t have said this, because according to my paradigm they were one and the same. I was loving others by fighting for my mission! However, an honest evaluation of my time and energy told a different story. In effect, I was trying to be the church’s foundation, rather than founding it upon Jesus.

For years, the best of my time had been caught up in the proliferation of ideas, rather than in the deep relationships necessary for community to flourish. While ideas and vision casting are not intrinsically wrong, my implicit endorsement of them as primary undermined any effort to transform the institutional narrative I so abhorred. It was easier for me to label the people and institutions around me as resistant to my vision of community, than it was to actually engage in communal relationship. In fact, I used their perceived apathy as an excuse not to engage.

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. … When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, then an accuser of himself. 3

This destruction is unnecessary and avoidable if we’re willing to tune our ears to the still voice of the Spirit, which calls us back to the humble foundations of Christ’s kingdom. This is a place where we’re loved and love—where we’re known and know. From here it is a matter of faithfulness in the small things.

My story may be unique, but its themes are not. Mankind has an innate desire to gather together, but this desire must be refocused on gathering around Jesus. If he is not the reason for our unity, then on a spiritual level, we are actually scattering—because we draw others to ourselves instead of to God.

I believe that leaders should live out the vision they cast, and that the church needs dreamers and visionaries (I remain one today). However, I am concerned that the values we label as “vision” or “mission” remain unavoidably disembodied from the personal lives of the leaders (and therefore communities) that advocate for them. In churches where this is the case, leaders and pastors will continue to be dominated and exhausted by the never-ending and all-consuming battle to communicate and then craft them into existence. While such commitment can be rewarded or applauded by church congregations and leadership, such empty pursuits inevitably lead to bitterness, anger, and despair. I’ve seen it before.

In their ever-relevant book Resident Aliens, theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon make this bold proclamation:

In Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people. By the very act of our modern theological attempts at translation, we have unconsciously distorted the gospel and transformed it into something it never claimed to be – ideas abstracted from Jesus, rather than Jesus with his people. 4

At this point in my life, I’ve found that what I really desire for myself and those whom I lead is to simply “join up” with each other and with Jesus as we navigate this long and difficult journey. I long for God’s people to be together in a world that continues to divide and fracture.

If we are to participate in the kingdom of God, rather than of man, we have difficult questions to ask ourselves. In what ways have we as pastoral leaders taken the bait placed before us and let our well-meaning ideas become ‘abstracted’ from the simple reality that Jesus is found with his people, relationally connected in love? How have we consciously or subconsciously resisted the very heart of Christ-centered community in our day-to-day lives in favor of our passionate pursuit of advocating for it? Fortunately, as Bonhoeffer so succinctly reminds us, God is not content to let us just preach our dreams and visions to others only to find we have destroyed them and disqualified ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27), but desires that we are made whole—in communion with him and with each other.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. … When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship. 5

Notes:

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together, with J.W. Doberstein, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1954, 27.
  2. Ibid., 30.
  3. Ibid., 27-28.
  4. Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 25th Anniversary Edition, Nashville: Abington Press, 2014, 21.
  5. Bonhoeffer, 28.
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About Author

Will Burger is currently a pastor in Boulder, Colorado and has been involved in ministry for over 15 years to children, students and families. He holds an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is currently beginning PhD studies in Theology with a research emphasis on the intersection of spiritual formation, trinitarian theology and church community life.

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