Who were the great visionaries of the past? I would suggest the following people need to be on that list. 

  • The incredible saint who said “Let’s mash up these beans, run hot water through them and drink it. We will call it ‘coffee.’” Whoever that guy was, he was brilliant! 
  • The genius who looked at some plain, baked flatbread and “saw” pizza and said, “I’m going to make happiness pie.” Words cannot express my gratitude.
  • The deeply holy man who looked at a cacao pod and said, “Let’s make some chocolate!” I love that guy!
  • The person who said, “Dag, I left the cream outside overnight, and it froze. My boxes of cake icing also froze. But what if I added them together? Think about it! Chocolate and frozen cream! Butter Pecan frozen cream! Cookie dough ice cream! You scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Whoever that person was, I can’t thank them enough. 

I have always believed that great visionaries are heroes, but that is not true. How great a visionary is, depends on their vision; a good vision yields good visionaries, and a bad or mistaken vision results in dangerous visionaries. And that’s the problem, because oftentimes, our vision for what our community ought to look like is often warped by our own selfish desires. And those desires poison community.  

We are looking at Bonhoeffer’s classic book on community, Life Together (1954, Harper and Row). And in the second half of the opening chapter, Bonhoeffer discusses what kills Christian community.  It is not a fun read, but it is necessary. Bonhoeffer argues that there are seven sins that kill community.

The first sin: A failure to have proper expectations. When we enter a community with false expectations, when we demand certain outcomes, when we mandate that people act in a certain manner, we are not only putting ourselves above the community, but we are also putting ourselves over God’s will for that gathering. Bonhoeffer writes these disturbing (but true) words:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.
The man who fashions a visionary idea of community
demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.
He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law,
and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.
He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.
He acts as if he is the creator of the community, as if his dream binds men together.”

When I come into a community with false expectations of what ought to take place or what I want to take place, I am rejecting what Jesus intends for those relationships. These false expectations can take many forms. Maybe we want a new or deeper social experience. Maybe we are hungry for camaraderie. Maybe we desire adventure and fun. Maybe we long to hold a position of power or honor. Maybe we are seeking to use the community for personal gain. Whatever our false expectations are (and they are numerous and varied, and we all have them), we need to identify them and root them out. Failure to do so will cause great harm. Bonhoeffer’s warning is valid: When we bring our “muddled and impure desires” into Jesus’ community, we will poison that community; and, sooner or later, we will cause it to collapse. Jesus alone sets the expectations for his communities, and he has revealed those outcomes in his Word.

Let me give you a rather personal picture of how false expectations can kill community. When we were in Canada, we started with a church made up entirely of Canadians (plus four Americans), but that changed; and soon, we were an extremely international church, made up primarily of Africans and Asians. Many of our Canadian friends enjoyed this diversity, but some didn’t. Those that didn’t were looking for a community of similarity. But in our church, Jesus was offering a community of difference. As a result, many of our Canadian families left. The church no longer looked like them, nor did it share many common interests. It was too different. What our church community did offer was a huge mission field and the opportunity to speak into each other’s lives with the gospel; but when you come to church with expectations of personal similarities or personal gain, you endanger the community from the moment you walk in the door. Sadly, this happens all the time. People enter a church with a shopping list of must-haves in this community. They then try to shape that community into their image. Sometimes, they will be wildly successful in that. Other times, they will fail miserably. In either case they will soon run off for another church because it offers “better” community. And here is the real kicker: When they run off, they often leave pain and hurt in their wake. And there it is: Our false expectations regularly destroy our community. 

The second sin: A failure to accept others. Accepting one another is hard work, especially when a much easier and more enjoyable option is available to us. Why accept when we can judge? When people don’t meet our expectations, we can either blame ourselves or we can blame them. We don’t even stop to think about it. We simply blame them. And as our frustration with them grows for failing to meet our (false) expectations, we soon find ourselves judging them. We see them as superficial, self-absorbed, soft-minded, and grossly unspiritual. For their sin of failing to define community in the same way as we do, we condemn them as unworthy of our time and energy. As just punishment, we pull away from them and refuse to engage them. In this, we see ourselves as totally righteous and them as guilty. We may even list all the things we have done to help the other person enter into “true” community in an attempt to justify our pulling away (and to see ourselves as the victim here), while at the same time, composing a list of all the things they did wrong to inflate their guilt. Finally, since we see ourselves as righteous through-and-through, we begin to accuse God of failing to provide for our needs, of failing to answer our prayers for community, and of failing to have a healthy church. Here’s the rest of the above quote (I’ll give you the previous three lines to establish the context):

“He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law,
and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.
He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.
He acts as if he is the creator of the community, as if his dream binds men together.
When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.
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,
and finally, the despairing accuser of himself.

The New Testament makes it clear what our communities are to look like. God calls us not to judge (Rom. 14:13), not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom. 12:3), not to grumble (1 Cor.10:10) or to slander one another (Jms 4: 11), but to accept one another (Rom. 15:7), to love one another (Jn. 13:34), to forgive one another (Eph. 4:32), to serve one another (Gal. 5:13), to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11) and to spur one another one to love and good deeds (Heb.10:24). This is what our community ought to look like. And when it doesn’t, when we prefer to bite and devour each other, we will be destroyed by one another (Gal. 5:15). When we fail to accept one another, we condemn our community to death, but life is found when we consider others better than ourselves and seek their interests above our own; then, we bring life.  

The third sin: A failure to be grateful for what God is doing. Instead of entering into our community with false expectations and a set of demands, we need to remember to be thankful for all signs of God’s presence and grace. Bonhoeffer writes:

Because God has already laid the foundation of our fellowship,
because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians,
we need to enter into that common life, not as those who make demands,
but as thankful recipients.
We thank God for what he has done for us.
We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by his forgiveness and His promise.
We do not complain of what God does not give us;
we rather thank God for what He does give us daily.
Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life,
is not the sinning brother still a brother with whom I, also, stand under the Word of Christ?
Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks
that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ.

So often, we focus only on what we don’t have and forget to give thanks for what we do have. The fact is, we are myopic and short-sided when it comes to our needs and greeds.  But even more importantly, when things don’t go well, when there is disappointment and failure and an inability to connect, these struggles ought to propel us to see our need for Christ and to see our brother or sister not as our inferiors, but as our equals, for we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. We all find our hope in the Word of Christ. When community fails, that pain is an opportunity for us to give thanks that God provides for all our needs. He provides mercy and pardon for all of our sins; he provides us with his Spirit, and he provides us with a worshiping community so that we may find God’s love in each other.  

Visionaries see things. I foresaw a blog post that contained all seven sins, but alas, we’ve only covered three. I also saw an opportunity for a two-parter so that we can finish Bonhoeffer’s argument. I also saw that coming next week. I also saw (as a visionary) that you would be happy with that decision so that this post didn’t go on forever.  

In the meantime, we should all ask ourselves what false expectations we have as we enter into our communities, what things we are wanting and what things we are demanding of those around us. If we can identity those items, we have the potential to enhance our experience of community greatly.

Part two is next week. Envision it like someone seeing flatbread, but hungry for pizza.