Engaging Authentically with One Another in Christian Community

This post is an excerpt adapted from Holding Up the Prophet's Hands: Supporting Church Workers by Bruce M. Hartung. 

What would happen if a congregation encouraged its members to develop significant relationships with one another? What if those relationships grew deep and the congregation became a place of authentic personal encounter, with God in Word and Sacrament and with one another, the members of the Body of Christ? Person-to-person relationships create a context in which words of appreciation can be spoken and received as meaningful and truthful. To show true caring for one another requires that members feel safe in making their needs known. It also requires that those who hear about an individual’s need have the desire and the capacity to respond in understanding, practical, and empathic ways.

Many observers have pointed out that a major problem of the church in North America today is that the people who gather together as members have few authentic encounters with one another. Often, the emphasis lies on how a person looks on the outside rather than on engaging one another authentically, on supporting one another during real-life challenges.

The Unwritten, Unhealthy Rules

In order to carry out this pretense, people must follow rules like these: don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust, and don’t want. To fit in, people must appear good, pious, and happy when they come to church regardless of what they are actually feeling on the inside. For someone struggling with an addiction to pornography, for instance, “don’t want” means the person must not want to change or believe that change is possible. Such people are pressured to shut down their feelings about what is happening and resign themselves to what they consider inevitable. They isolate themselves because they cannot trust others with the knowledge of their struggle.

Plug any problem of concern into this formula. The unwritten rule says that those with problems must keep the problems to themselves. No one else in the Christian community can know. After all, what would “they” think? Is someone feeling depressed? She should keep it to herself because Christians are supposed to be joyful. Is someone having marital problems? He should keep it to himself, because Christian marriages should be textbook perfect. Rather than fostering genuine Christian community, the church becomes a place of pretense.

Fostering Genuine Communication

In contrast, communities of authentic encounter foster genuine and transparent communications. People share what is going on in their lives and then come together in prayer, care, and mutual support. Communities like this enact what the Lutheran Confessions call the “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” (Smalcald Articles III IV 1).

Some organizations foster a culture in which authentic encounters happen spontaneously and often. In cultures like that, people more easily express and receive expressions of appreciation from one another. When relationships are genuine, statements of appreciation come across as genuine. Cultures like that are healthful for leaders and laity alike.

Openness and honesty are foundational for authentic encounter. Authenticity, in turn, makes it possible for people to receive the words and deeds of affirmation others offer us, interpreting them as meaningful. In one-on-one conversations, in small group interactions, in boards and meetings, in Bible study and prayer, members of the Christian community have opportunities to come to know one another more deeply, authentically, and genuinely. In so doing, they are also able to offer positive affirmation—affirmation that can take root.

Encouraging a Healthier Culture

Marriage counselors know that one significant predictor of success or failure in marriage is the ratio of positive to negative statements husbands and wives make to one another in their day-to-day conversations. The more negativity in a relationship, the more likely that relationship will remain distant and, eventually, dissolve. The more positivity in a relationship, the more likely the relationship will endure and deepen. The increased bonding that results from positive statements helps people to manage the inevitable challenges that arise in any relationship.

When churches become communities in which authentic relationships form, when believers meet at the foot of the cross and in the power of Christ’s empty tomb, when people seek one another out to affirm one another, powerful bonds form. Many more positive statements than negative ones are spoken. In short, members look for things others are doing well and affirm them. The culture grows more healthy for everyone, especially church workers.

Excerpt adapted from Holding Up the Prophet’s Hand © 2011 Bruce M. Hartung, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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