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Real Christian Community (and the Surprising Role of Spiritual Failure)


The ideal Christian community keeps us from having real Christian community.

When I was a new Christian, I was dissatisfied with the Christians in the campus organization through which I’d come to faith and the church I attended. One allowed the halfhearted to attend and everyone knew the church was full of hypocrites. I wanted a return to the first century when Christians were serious about following Jesus and fulfilling his mission in the world. That group didn’t exist in my time as far as I could tell.

Ahhh, the naiveté of new 19-year-old believer.

Because I had idealized Christian community, creating expectations it could never live up to, I didn’t engage in it. Instead of befriending real people with messy lives not unlike my own, I criticized them. Instead of extending grace, I offered them my judgment. Instead of seeking to learn from other Christians, I self-righteously sought to teach them everything I knew.

No one can live up to idealized expectations.

What finally pierced my armor of pride is realizing that I didn’t live up to my own idealized expectations.

I struggled to pray but was disappointed at the low attendance at the prayer meetings. I didn’t give financially but was upset that the church had so few missionaries. I was fully aware that I didn’t share my faith as much as I thought others should. I knew that I was a spiritual failure long before I admitted as much to others. Years of pretending and performing led to spiritual exhaustion.

The breakthrough came when I finally admitted publicly what I already knew privately: I was a spiritual failure. If the church wasn’t a place for spiritual failures, then I couldn’t belong to it. If it was supposed to be a place for spiritual success stories, then I would always pretend to be something I knew I wasn’t.

In my idealized version of the church, Christians are drawn together by our love and devotion to Jesus. We find common cause in the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment. We are people who read, study, meditate, and obey the Bible. Our spiritual successes make Jesus proud.

It takes a special kind of spiritual blindness to think that if that kind of spiritual community exists, we should be a part of it.

When I came to grips with my own brokenness, I began to see other Christians as fellow travelers down the same road I was on.

Sure, everyone was at a different place. Further along in some areas and further behind in others. But (and this is the real point) none of us are close to living up to ideal standards for the Christian.

What binds Christians in a church together isn’t our spiritual successes but our spiritual failures.  

What we have in common is that we are sinners in desperate need of God’s grace. The important thing is not that people don’t live up to our expectations but that none of us live up to God’s expectations. 

How did I miss that the Communion Table is at the heart of the church? At the table God extends grace to sinners and calls them to offer it to others.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 5:23-24

Or consider that confession and reconciliation are at the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:12

Christians are instructed to humbly help each other in our fight against sin.

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.
Galatians 6:1

Only the fool thinks that he isn’t susceptible to the same sins that entrapped his brother.

The Christian communities that give life are those that welcome the true self not the idealized version.

I got a taste of that in college when a group of guys would get together for breakfast every Friday morning. The only thing on the agenda was to offer each person an opportunity to confess their sins and pray for one another. Praying for your brother’s needs opens your eyes to your own.

I’ve been fortunate to have similar communities over the years. People with whom I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. People who accept me as the sinner I am and graciously point me to Jesus.

One of the best gifts you can offer someone is a safe space that their real self is welcomed, where they can leave the performing and pretending outside.

Maybe the problem with our idealized versions of the church is that they aren’t idealistic enough. They fall short of the church that Jesus promised to build because successful, triumphant Christians don’t have much need for the grace offered in the gospel.

The church is many things, but it is not less than a band of believers aware of their own brokenness, receiving and extending grace to one another.

Are you longing to be part of this kind of authentic, grace-filled community?
You can start by becoming the kind of friend who loves and extends grace to others.