By Brittany Small

The Attitudes That Keep Us from True Community

When you enter a new church community, there’s always that dreaded awkward phase. Matching similar sounding names with not-so-memorable faces. Coming up with something clever to say during the greeting time. Going to a small group with people you don’t know and might not like by the time it ends. The list goes on. Unfortunately, so does the awkwardness.

But a little awkwardness never hurt anyone. In fact, it’s necessary when entering the open waters of fostering relationships. So if you’ve kept your head above the water and endured awkward conversations with people in a new community whose names you still can’t remember, congrats!

Now, after an undetermined amount of time, the awkward phase gives way to the semi-honest phase—the period where, with a fearful euphoria, we swim a little farther out, opening ourselves up (but not too much!) to people we feel a little less awkward around. (What are their names again?)

Here in the semi-honest phase, we’re acutely aware of our own vulnerability and the deeper water it puts us in. Yet we cautiously and optimistically put ourselves out there—we make introductions, learn names, give hugs, take risks, and make invitations like we’re staving off a great white shark in a scene from Jaws. And just like Martin Brody, we’re preoccupied with one question: “Will I survive this?”

The imaginary great white shark turns out not to be the strangers who we’re hoping will be our new community. Instead, the great white is the fear that they will never be the community we want.

My Great White Fear

Five years ago, this is what I experienced when I entered a new church community. As I sought to find meaningful relationships with people I could be wholly honest with and wholly known by, I wasn’t expecting it to feel like I was reenacting Jaws, wondering what my chances of survival were. Especially because I’m a friendly, outgoing extrovert, and meeting new people is kind of my thing. I endured the awkward phase, even calling one woman the wrong name for months until I got my own copy of the church directory. And I shared openly about myself, probably more than the average person would, in the semi-honest phase. I put myself out there in all of the appropriate ways and even found a few people I enjoyed spending time with along the way. 

But something still felt like it was missing. As time passed, it became more challenging to continue making deep connections. Why was the community I desired so elusive? I endured the awkwardness! I was being semi-honest! I went so far as to become the leader of the greeting team. I did all of the things you’re supposed to do (and more!) when fostering new relationships. Yet I found myself thinking:

  • I don’t feel cared for.
  • I don’t really connect with anyone. 
  • I don’t know if I like the way they do things.

My Great White Fear had been realized: if I wasn’t the problem, maybe this new community was. Maybe I couldn’t survive this.

We Are Our Own Obstacles

Our survival instinct kicks in when we’ve done everything in our power to foster meaningful relationships and still aren’t satisfied with the community we find ourselves in. Here in the battle with our Great White Fear, we choose to protect ourselves by saying, “It’s not me; it’s you.

But actually, it is you. As much as we want to blame our community for being the one with the problem, more often than not, we’re the one with the problem. Many attitudes can keep us from experiencing authentic community, and all of them start with the letter “I.” We are our own obstacles.

Being concerned with our own “survival” is easy when we enter into relationships because we’re hyper-aware of our own needs and how others should meet them. Unknowingly, we expect our relationships to fulfill what our souls long for—to belong, to be known, and to be loved. The community that we want is ultimately the one that will meet our needs.

We cloak all of this in our sincere attempts at vulnerability—we disclose meaningful information about our lives, we volunteer to serve, and we invite others to dinner. We do and say all the things we’re supposed to when fostering new relationships. Yet our vulnerability is motivated by fear that comes with having our identity rooted in wondering: will this community be able to meet my needs or not?

When our identity is about getting our needs met by others and our vulnerability is motivated by the fear that they won’t, the community we long to experience becomes elusive, because no quantity or quality of relationships we foster will ever satisfy. And when we’re unaware of this internal false narrative, we protect ourselves—often by blaming the community and leaving to go in search of a new one.

Vulnerability Motivated by Trust

When we can own that we have made our needs—our own survival—the focal point of our quest for authentic community, we can learn to be vulnerable not out of the fear that others won’t meet our needs but out of trust that comes with knowing Jesus will.

The desire to belong, to be known, and to be loved can only fully be met by Jesus and the abundant life he offers us. Our communities are places filled with others embodying Christ—and they are also spaces limited by our own humanity in their ability to satisfy the longing of our souls.

So how do we begin to make a shift where we trust Jesus to meet our needs instead of relying on our relationships to do so? Here are three things to consider as you move from being vulnerable out of fear to being vulnerable out of trust:

  1. Cultivate awareness. After you’ve spent time in your community, pay attention to your internal world. If your thoughts become similar to any of the “I” statements above or if you feel lonely, isolated, or misunderstood, these are good indications that you are desiring your community to do what only Jesus can.
  2. Dialogue with God. When you’ve discovered particular thoughts or emotions that are primarily concerned about your own “survival,” spend time journaling, praying, or dialoguing with God in a way that acknowledges your fear and self-protection. Invite him to replace those with a soul-satisfying understanding of his abundant love and faithfulness.
  3. Keep swimming. Continue to foster meaningful relationships within your community. Pursue vulnerability out of trust that Jesus is working things out for your good—both when it’s easy and when it’s hard to love and be loved by the people around you.

The awkward and semi-honest phases will always exist when we enter a new community, but they’re a lot less Jaws-like when our identity is in the hands of the One who meets all of our needs.

Five years later, I’m still a member of my church. I sometimes still feel the pain of not experiencing community in the ways that my soul longs for. But then I remember that community isn’t about me. So I bring my bruised heart to Jesus, trusting him with my needs, and continue fostering the relationships I have, because I experience Christ more deeply when I do. 

Brittany Small is an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister at her alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she graduated with a journalism and communications degree.

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