Needing and Needling: The Challenge to Find Good Christian Community

Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.

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Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)

Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?

And the answer is not without grace.

Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.

Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.

Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)

Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.

It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.

Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.

•  “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

•  “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”

•  “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”

•  “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

•  “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

•  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

•  “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”

•  “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”

•  “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”

When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?

Image Credit: Barcroft Media.

Oh, My Word, Part 5: Staying in Conversation

One challenge offered by Marilyn McEntyre in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is for people to “Stay in Conversation.”[1] It was that nasty little word “stay” that first caught my attention. All of us converse from time to time—out of sheer pleasure and/or necessity—but it doesn’t come easily for many of us. As an introvert, I could be tempted to think that conversation is the verbal equivalent of kale; it may be good for me, but I don’t have to like it. On the other hand, I do enjoy conversation when it features the right blend of seriousness, wit, insight, encouragement, and/or inspiration. Small talk is just exhausting (and annoying) to this INTJ.

McEntyre laments, “Conversation is not simple. Good conversation is rare. We do not live in a culture in which the art of conversation is widely cultivated.”[2] While I agree with her observation, I also recognize that I’m part of the “culture” of which she speaks. Consequently, it’s necessary for me to cultivate my abilities when it comes to the art of conversation in order to help the cause. In this post, we’ll look at why good conversation is important, why it can be challenging for someone like me, and what I need from God to improve my conversation.

Why Good Conversation Is Important

Human beings were made for community. It’s part of who we are as creatures made in the image of God. The Lord has revealed himself to us as the divine Three-in-One, a single, triune community of love, joy, and mutuality. Moreover, God has said it is not good for people to be alone. He designed us for relationship—with him and with each other. Thankfully, the gospel makes both possible.

Indeed, the twelve disciples were a community group, formed by Jesus himself. This band of petty and pugnacious men had little in common with each other besides Jesus, yet within three years, their lives and their communities were transformed into a world-changing movement. They lived, loved, learned, and talked together as they followed Jesus, overcoming their differences as they did. Divine grace was the glue that held them together.

William Ham has said, “There are many things which a person can do alone, but being a Christian is not one of them. As the Christian life is, above all things, a state of union with Christ, and of union of his followers with one another, love of the brethren is inseparable from love of God. Resentment toward any human being cannot exist in the same heart with love to God.”[3] Ouch. Staying in conversation can be tough, especially when there’s tension or grievance in the air, right?

Moreover, we live in a culture that prizes individualism, one that views community as something to consume rather than commit to. On top of that, community is not always easy. But when we abandon community—and the rich conversation that holds it together—we deprive ourselves of the very gifts God may want to bring into our lives. McEntyre writes, “Conversation is an exchange of gifts. Native American tribal wisdom teaches that when you encounter a person on your life path, you must seek to find out what gifts you have for one another so that you may exchange them before going your separate ways.”[4] Such verbal hospitality is a form of loving one another. It’s the way we share life experiences, thus caring for people by learning their stories and practicing the “one anothers” of Scripture. 

“How rich is anyone who can simply see human faces,” said Corrie ten Boom.[5] She was right, especially as applied to our age of digital technology, media saturation, and personal isolation, especially during a pandemic. Quality conversation in the context of genuine Christian community is the antidote to such trends of depersonalization. As C. S. Lewis said, true friendship is born when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . .”[6] Loneliness is thus pushed back in the course of dialog, and the image of God is lived out through us as we do life together. Conversation, then, fulfills the image of God in us, even as it serves to deliver God’s good gifts to us.

Why Good Conversation Can Be Challenging

As already noted, I’m introvert. I say this by way of description, not by way of excuse. I simply tend to focus my attention on the inner world of my own ideas and impressions. It’s a natural preference for me, and it always has been. Conversation, then, sometimes pulls me out of my comfort zone and into a world of apprehension. As McEntyre observes, “To ‘converse’ originally meant to live among or together, or to act together, to foster community, to commune with. It was a large verb that implied public, cooperative, and deliberate action. When we converse, we act together toward a common end, and we act upon one another.”[7] Ouch again. Introverts don’t like being acted upon.

When I was young, my imagination was my favorite toy. Consequently, I came across to others as distant, aloof, and sometimes even arrogant—largely because I spent most of my time in my own thought world. Playing around in the sandbox of my own mind was fun, and it still is. Taken to the extreme, however, introversion can be a rank form of selfishness. Others need to be heard, and I need to listen, but that takes energy and concentration. As McEntyre notes, “A good conversationalist directs attention, inspires, corrects, affirms, and empowers others. It is a demanding vocation that involves attentiveness, skilled listening, awareness of one’s own interpretative frames, and a will to understand and discern what is true.”[8]

On the very first performance evaluation for my entry level job out of college, I received high marks and good feedback in every are except one. My boss said, “You’re not a very good listener.” She was right. Two dynamics were at work in those days. First, if I ever heard an interesting thought or idea from an external source, my mind would secretly “run with it” to new and deeper places in the moment, causing me to miss other elements of the conversation. 

Second, if I ever heard a banal thought or idea from an external source, I would quietly realize that what was going on in my own head at the time was much more interesting, again causing me to miss other elements of the conversation. Consequently, I was never seen as “a people person.” In fact, my own dear mother, upon hearing my announcement that I was going to be a pastor, said with utter incredulity, “You???” She was shocked.

Truth be told, there was a third dynamic at work in those days, and it was the same family of origin issue I’ve struggled with my whole life—a tendency toward perfectionism. That was a coping mechanism I utilized to help calm the troubled waters at home. I was determined to earn parental approval, but I seemingly fell short every time. For a sensitive kid like me, that feeling of failure was a recurring source of pain and disappointment. Sadly, it wound up affecting numerous areas of my life, and the sting of it lingers to this day. 

Along with everything else in our lives, perfectionists have to converse perfectly, too. That feels threatening. “What if I say something wrong?” “What if I say something stupid?” “What if I say something that doesn’t go over well in a group?” As a result of this fear, patterns of isolation developed early in life. Even into my twenties and early thirties, those patterns were there and seemed to be set in stone. I could say of myself, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a rock.”

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried

I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

Simon said it was his most neurotic song ever. 

A related aversion I have to conversation is connected to the internal struggle I experience whenever someone is overly domineering or acting like a “word hog” in discourse. (That aversion is likely connected to my family of origin issues, too, as my dad could be quite intimidating.) I tend to be much more persuaded by logic, substance, and good argumentation than by mere volume, emotion, or trivia. One interesting fellow comes to mind in this regard. Bob (not his real name) has a lot of volume and copious gesticulations to go with his big words, myriad insults, and theatrical pronouncements of useless information. Nevertheless, he thinks he’s clever. Most of us, however, think he has a lot more to be humble about than he realizes. If I ever write his biography, it might be titled, The Lucubrations of a Loquacious Ultracrepidarian, just to illustrate the point. People like Bob tend to make me clam up, and I haven’t learned yet how to deal with them in a healthy way. I have a lot to be humble about, too.

What I Need from God to Improve My Conversation

Despite these personal challenges, I know I need to “stay in conversation,” which means I need to stay in community. As Charles Colson once said, “Though I know intellectually how vulnerable I am to pride and power, I am the last one to know when I succumb to their seduction. That’s why spiritual Lone Rangers are so dangerous—and why we must depend on trusted brothers and sisters who love us enough to tell us the truth.”[9]

Consequently, what I need from God is grace to overcome the feeling that I need to “perform” while talking, thinking that every statement I make in a conversation is being evaluated by others. Without that grace, I could easily revert to those days of being “a rock” or an “island.” But it’s far better to be vulnerable than to be isolated. The last thing this world needs is another neurotic introvert.

Image Credits: jooinn.com; lynda.com; unsplash.com.


[1] Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 87-110.

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] William T. Ham, “Candles of the Lord” in Spiritual Renewal through Personal Groups, John L. Casteel, ed. (New York: Association Press, 1957) 169. 

[4] McEntyre, Caring for Words, 95.

[5] Corrie ten Boom, Elizabeth Sherrill, and John Sherril, The Hiding Place (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 1971, 1984, 2006), 165.

[6] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: HarperOne; 1960, 2017), 113.

[7] McEntyre, Caring for Words, 89.

[8] Ibid.

[9] As cited in Kathi Lipp, Praying God’s Word for Your Life (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2013), 67.