John Ortberg is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and author of several books, including his latest release, Everybody's Normal 'Til You Get to Know Them.
John, how can seeing another person's "weirdness" encourage us to become vulnerable and open to a small group of trusted friends that we call "community"?
I think a deep theological truth is the fact that everybody's weird. It's an ironic part of the human condition that we all pretend to be healthier, saner, better than we actually are. And we all carry around this secret inside, "I'm not as put together as other people think." And for as long as we've known that, it has isolated us. Anytime I see somebody else revealing, disclosing where they are vulnerable and broken; it always has the effect of encouraging me to be honest about my brokenness and weirdness as well. It's only in mutually knowing and being known by each other that we're able to experience connection and being loved.
In a sense, that example encourages us to be more vulnerable?
Therapists who work with clients say that when they want to get a client to self-disclose, the single most powerful tool they have is not persuasion, pressure, pleading; it is for the therapist him or herself to disclose. The most powerful thing we respond to when it comes to being honest is when we experience honesty and disclosure in somebody else.
You also say that to engage in authentic community we need to enter into chaos. What do you mean by that?
When we start to get honest about our broken places, about the deep places inside of us, it always gets messy. When that happens, sometimes I'm going to hurt you, sometimes you're going to hurt me. Sometimes that will happen unintentionally, sometimes it happens intentionally. The temptation always will be to avoid talking about it, because when I talk about it, I might not talk about it skillfully. I might talk about it in a way that feels quite awkward or embarrassing or makes me feel child-like. As a result, I'll always be tempted to try to avoid chaos and make it seem like everything's okay in our relationship. But over time that always has the effect of creating stagnation and all of us have experienced that; where you're in a relationship with somebody but it feels like it's not growing, it's not fresh, it's just getting stagnant. Well, to get into the deeper stuff, to be able to acknowledge brokenness, means I can't perfectly control how my words are going to come out or how you're going to respond to it. It will simply feel chaotic for a while.
John, what is true "authentic community" look like in the context of the church anyway?
I think that a church that is experiencing authentic community does a couple of things. First of all, it teaches — and the people agree together — that creating a biblically authentic community is the goal, and mission of the church. That includes people who are seeking to be honest in their relationships. They have a commitment to one another, so they're not present simply as consumers. But they have made a certain kind of promise about the fact that they're not going to leave easily, that they're going to resolve conflict together, that they're going to try to encourage each other, that they're going to try to help each other pursue spiritual growth. The last thing for a church to experience community is that it has to say, "We don't exist simply for our own sakes. We are also going to try to extend community; we're going to reach out to folks who are under-resourced; we want to help spread the good news of Jesus' kingdom to people who are far from God right now. We will exist as a community for more than simply our own well beings".
John, you mentioned something about accountability and conflict. That brings up the whole issue of conflict resolution. That's a very critical part of authentic community isn't it?
Huge. The two natural tendencies of fallen human nature are either I want to avoid conflict altogether (that's the most common one), or, particularly if I'm in a state of high rage, I want to hurt you, I want to steam roll you, I want to damage you. To make a commitment to say, "No, I will be honest about the conflict that I'm experiencing, I'll bring it up with the person that I'm in conflict with and we will seek to resolve it". That just demands a huge level of maturity.
That's just following that "Matthew 18" principal.
Yes, Jesus teaches about it in Matthew 18:15, where he says "If somebody has something against you — and in various places he also includes if you have something against somebody else — then what love demands is that you seek to reconcile it.
Well, what would you say to someone who's been unsuccessful in finding that kind of community?
There's ancient wisdom — and this is from the early centuries of the church — somebody went to a wise spiritual guide and asked, "What do I need to grow?" One of the things he said was, "Wherever you are, don't easily leave". In the early days of the church, when Christian communities were being formed, one of the vows that people had to make was the vow of stability, that they would commit themselves to that group. What would happen is, people would enter into a community, but then when things got bumpy or when there was conflict or difficulty, people would bail out and run someplace else. As long as that happens, individuals don't grow, and communities don't get formed because communities require commitment. That's true of a marriage, or a family, or for a church. My strong bias would be if you're at a place and building community is difficult, don't make bailing out be your first option, make it be a last option. There may be times when it needs to happen, if the environment is one that is quite abusive or unhealthy. But my bias would be to go directly to the people that you're in conflict with. Don't expect it to be easy and don't expect conflict to get resolved in a single conversation. Don't expect community to get built in a week.
You say that we all have a God-designed hunger for community inside of us, yet it sounds like many of us never experience that kind of community. What are some barriers to a greater sense of community and intimacy within community?
This is something that's been really striking to me as I put this book together. So often, we'll hear people talk about the fact that human beings have a God-shaped vacuum that no other person can fill. And that's true. But apparently there's also another kind of vacuum inside a human being. In Genesis it says that even though Adam had never sinned, was perfect and in perfect relationship with God, God said, in some sense, "Adam is alone...and that's not good". So we were created not just with a need for God, but also with a need to be in relationship with other people. It is a God-designed hunger as part of being made in God's image. The great barriers to community do have to do with sin, with the fall. That's what caused Adam and Eve to have to leave the garden. The first thing we see after sin is they hid. Where before they had been perfectly known, now there's disguising, hiding, deceiving going on. Then we see unresolved conflict and blaming. God comes to Adam and says, "Did you eat the fruit?" And Adam says, "It's this woman that you gave me, it wasn't my idea." Blaming and unresolved conflict and hiding are at the heart of our problems with community. Then you have to add to that, especially in our society, a whole lot of other factors like we're so hurried. You cannot pursue community in a hurry. And we're a very mobile society. And you can't experience community if you're moving every year.
So it wasn't just because of Adam and Eve's shame that they hid, it may have been because they were fearful of this new thing called community between them?
Well, shame is exactly a part of it. Initially Adam and Eve's greatest desire was to know and be known. After the fall, that's still their greatest desire, it's also now their greatest fear. We hunger for it. But because I know I'm "not right", when somebody knows me deeply, I experience shame and so I also run from it.
If we take the context of Adam and Eve, how might a husband and wife, in today's culture, benefit from the kind of community that you're describing?
I think a starting place is for both of them to get internally clear on the goal in relationship: to model the kind of oneness that we see in the trinity — Father, Son and Spirit. They experience a perfect community of love, delight, serving one another and enjoying one another. Once we get married, I think it can be tempting sometimes — particularly for husbands — to feel like we "got the marriage thing done". And so now we turn to other tasks in life, instead of seeing the promise that we make when we get married is that we will pursue oneness. I don't just promise that I'm not going to get divorced or have an affair. We are going to try to build oneness together and that is an adventure and a task that requires a level of devotion and a kind of competence that grows every day.
John, how can we break down fears of unacceptance or criticism before we even enter into the experience of community?
That's a great question. And a lot of days you can't. You can't break them down before you enter community. It is a part of entering community. We all like guarantees, we like to buy products that say "guaranteed or money back". With community you don't get a "money back guarantee". In fact the reality is I will have to enter into community and take the risk. Sometimes other people will reject me and that will hurt. I'll have to learn how to discern whether or not a person is trustworthy. Sometimes people will criticize me and there may be times when that criticism is off-base, often there'll be a large grain of truth to it. What I have to learn is, if I want to be in authentic community with somebody, then my desire to experience community has to be bigger than my desire to avoid pain. If pain avoidance is the ultimate goal of somebody's life, they will never enter into deep community.
You talk about forgiveness in your book, "Everybody's Normal Until You Get to Know Them". You talk about what forgiveness is and what it isn't. Can you please tell us about that?
There's a lot of confusion around that one. Sometimes people will say things like, "To know all is to forgive all". The idea being if you understand somebody then you'll realize there's really no reason to be mad at them. That's not when forgiveness is needed. If something is "excusable" you don't need to forgive them, you just need to excuse it. Forgiving is not condoning somebody or saying, "It wasn't that bad". Forgiveness is needed when there has been hurt and it was intentional and it was personal. When I forgive the other person, I let go of my desire — my right — to hurt them back. And I choose to want what is best for them. That often takes a long time. I think, especially in the church sometimes, we get unrealistic about it and we talk as if we were able to forgive people quite easily or quickly and then a lot of anger and resentment goes underground and comes out years later in gossip, slander, distance, withdrawal. Forgiveness means I really do have to acknowledge how badly I've been hurt. I will have to go through a period of time where I don't like that other person at all, but pray, "God, help me to be able to come one day where I genuinely, sincerely, in my heart really do wish good for that other person".
That could be tough, couldn't it?
It takes years sometimes. Absolutely.
I love your quote in the book when you said, "Our life depends on getting found and there's no healing in hiding". Can you explain that for us?
There's a kind of paradox there because, if I want you to think well of me, I'll generally try to hide my flaws and blemishes and brokenness from you so that you will be more impressed by me or admire me more. The difficulty is, even if I'm good at that, I say to myself, "Yeah, you say you like me, you say you love me, but if you knew the truth about me, then you wouldn't love me". So the reality is I can only be loved to the extent that I'm known. To the extent that I'm not known I cannot be loved, because there's always that voice inside me saying, "Yeah, but if you knew?" So that means the healing that comes with being loved can only come if I'm willing to take the risk of being known.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to our viewers?
One other thing I would say is for people who read this who are relationally involved in a church, maybe in a small group, maybe in an accountability group, maybe in a marriage: there is a deep hunger inside you for connection, for community. But it's very easy for that to get buried or ignored because we get hurt by people or because it's difficult. What I'd want to say to folks is, don't think it's going to be easy. Don't think it's going to be quick. Community always takes time, but it's worth the effort, it's worth the work. Because you are made for it and no substitute for it will ultimately satisfy you.
John Ortberg is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat, The Life You've Always Wanted, and Love Beyond Reason. He has written for Christianity Today and is a frequent contributor to Leadership Journal.