(This is the second part of the interview with Tim Keller; if you haven’t yet done so, you might want to listen to part 1 first.)
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Tim Keller discuss the mistakes that can be made while building community, the Sursum Corda community and the 4 pillars of community life, the importance of a culture of reconciliation, and some practical pointers for building community.
Utopianism is a grave danger for those trying to form a community. The pursuit of an unattainable ideal will almost certainly result in disillusionment and failure. It also will keep those involved in such a project from learning from existing communities. Worse, it can create an incentive to hide personal or community failings to preserve an ideal image. When such hidden flaws are revealed, the community may well collapse because it never had a solid foundation.
Connected to the danger of utopianism is the danger of giving fellow community members unearned trust. Tim Keller said one should “Trust but verify”. Those striving to build Christian community are just as broken as anybody else, and bad things can happen in a community.
Accountability needs to be carefully balanced with individual autonomy and free will. Any community needs to have at some accountability, but it can degenerate into an overly controlling environment.
Envy and Competition
Community members also need to realize that each member has different strengths and weaknesses, different skills, and a different family situation. Not everyone will be equally successful in each area of life. If this isn’t realized and embraced, it can result in “family envy” and feelings of inferiority and failure. Community can’t be based on merely human strengths, but rather on the love of God.
A community can easily fall into a sort of spiritual pride. The members may come to see themselves as the only “real” Christians, and feel that anyone who really loves God would join them. The community needs to see itself as merely one of the possible ways of living the Christian life.
Family Life in Community
Balancing community and family life is another area in which a community can make mistakes. Without healthy families, the community will fall apart, but the number of community activities may sometimes hamper family life.
Needy people are often attracted to a community. Community members can help such people, but they have to realize that such help can only go so far. Otherwise, such people may end up monopolizing the attention of the community, which can’t actually fix their problems.
The Sursum Corda Community
When Tim and his family moved from Tempe, Arizona to Albuquerque, New Mexico, he thought he would be able to start another branch of City of the Lord there. This didn’t prove possible, however; local Catholics were uninterested in joining something they couldn’t experience in person. He realized he would have to embark on a much slower and more organic process. He started meeting with local families, and gradually they began to form the Sursum Corda community.
We discussed the importance of the twelfth chapter of Romans; it provides a beautiful blueprint for the Christian life, and “Romans 12” became a slogan for the City of the Lord Community. We are “transformed by the renewal of our minds” as we follow Christ.
Pillars of Community Life
The Sursum Corda community came up with a set of four “pillars” that can support the spirituality of a healthy community:
- Love Jesus
- Cultivate Relationships
- Build Culture
- Live Mission
These four pillars build on one another. Everything flows from a healthy personal relationship with Jesus. That relationship with Jesus flows out into healthy friendships with others; relationships need to be built and strengthened in an intentional way. Out of those relationships grows the culture of a wider group, a community. Such a community, living out of the love of Christ and healthy relationships with one another, naturally lives out a mission to the wider world. Mission becomes part of everything such a community does, bringing people into the life of the community.
Outsiders experience the four pillars in reverse order. Somebody is invited to a community event or meeting; while there, they experience the loving culture of the group. Over time, they build relationships with community members, and eventually encounter Jesus in a deeper way through the community.
A Culture of Honor and Respect
To build a successful Christian community, the members have to create a culture of honor and respect for one another. They can’t gossip, backbite, hold grudges. They need to be intentional about asking for forgiveness if they have hurt another. Bad things will happen in community life. A community needs a culture of love and forgiveness to get through the rough patches. Disagreements may arise about politics, theology, parenting, and many other topics. The community, however, can’t let such disagreements become divisions. We can’t be in a hurry to write others off.
Practical Steps for Building Community
As Tim pointed out, all this talk about the wonderful things communities can do can be rather intimidating to those just starting out! He advises the following practical steps to build community in your local area:
Just start meeting! Find a few other families or individuals and just get together to talk. Have meals together, have fun, and most importantly, pray together.
Ground everything you do in the Faith; that has to be at the center, or the resulting community will be fairly shallow.
Over time, as the community develops, the time will come to get more intentional. One of the ways to do this is to start meeting as small groups alongside the main bigger group. Men’s and women’s groups are a good way to do this.
Visit existing communities! They are a great source of inspiration and guidance. Both City of the Lord and Sursum Corda would be happy to have you visit.
Don’t give up! The process of building community is a long, slow one. There will probably be setbacks and trouble along the way, but if you persist these setbacks can actually strengthen the project over time.
- You can find the City of the Lord website here.
- You can find the website of Tim’s community, Sursum Corda, here.
- Tim mentioned John Paul II’s letter Christifideles Laici, which can be found here.
Image: Ken Lund; Sandia Mountains CC BY-SA 2.0
In podcast episode 5, while discussing the economics of Christian community, I said, “I would prefer to use as few words as possible to describe what we are doing [building local economies based on justice and charity].” This of course was rather ironic, coming in the middle of an hour long conversation involving some 8,000 words! In context, however, the “words” referred to are ideological or political “labels,” such as “conservative” or “socialist.” This preference for “not naming” stems from several different principles.
Most pragmatically, “naming” oneself or one’s movement can unnecessarily antagonize others. We live in a time of polarization and division which has affected our nation, world, and Church; as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “Nowadays it has become impossible for someone to express a view on any subject without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.” (Paragraph 156) Since the kinds of local projects I’m advocating are not “liberal” or “conservative,” “Democrat” or “Republican,” “Left” or “Right,” it would be counter productive to antagonize neighbors by the use of such labels.
This unnecessary divisiveness among neighbors points to something deeper; these labels are divisive precisely because they are unreal, false universals that prevent us from interacting with the glorious diversity of reality, blinding us to the particular persons and situations around us. Saying “Democrat” or “Conservative” allows us to homogenize and write off millions of fellow human beings, but the neighbors next door are not Democrats or Republicans, even if they might identify as such; they are human beings like us, made in the image of God, with many interests, cares, and concerns beyond politics or ideology. We share more than we might realize, particularly at the local level. Abstraction, naming, categorizing, gives a certain kind of power. Yet that power comes at the cost of isolation and depersonalization, making hatred and division much more likely.
As Christians, our relationship with Christ should be our sole identity; “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) And for the Christian, there can only be one fundamental outlook on others, an outlook of love. Ideologies are unloveable; erroneous ideologies may need to be opposed by the light of the Gospel message. This opposition, however, can’t be applied to the human beings around us. Deeper than any political, ideological, racial or even religious division, we all share a fundamental unity as members of the human race, as Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent encyclical. He challenges us to show a radical respect for others: “At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins.” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 191) A good first step towards practicing such respect and love would be to drop divisive labels and embrace the freedom that comes from a shared identity as children of God.