“I have a habit of letting my imagination run away from me. It always comes back though… drenched with possibilities.”
— Valaida Fullwood
Imagine with me for a moment…
One evening you walk into a gathering of people you don’t yet know. One of the first things you notice when you enter the room is that the community of people you find there obviously know one another well. Rather than the typical superficial greetings and relationships you’ve become accustomed to in most areas of life, these individuals clearly take care to speak deeply and listen attentively. They know one another well. They speak honestly and comfortably with one another, and not just about the easy things or the banalities of everyday life. They speak of the difficult things, the ways in which life has challenged them or hurt them. The pain they’ve experienced. The ways they’ve found healing and transformation—often through the very act they are engaging in now—choosing openness and vulnerability to God and other people. And their words are received not with an awkward silence, a wandering gaze, or the uncomfortable shuffle of feet and shifting of shoulders, nor even with well-intentioned but misguided words of advice and instruction. Rather their courageous self-disclosure is welcomed with compassion, genuine responsiveness, and a nonjudgmental, hospitable attention. And this hospitable exchange doesn’t just stop at words but extends to actions as well. The needs of all are attended to and met with all the resources the community can muster. Whatever the need—companionship, help in the midst of a difficult situation, food on the table, or accountability to grow in healthy ways—no one goes without when it is within the power of the community to provide or recruit assistance. How amazing! And how astoundingly different from what you’re used to experiencing!
The longer you stick around this community, the more you realize that the safe space they have created in their midst and the immense vulnerability they freely exhibit with one another are not a result of sameness. It’s one thing (though still not an easy thing) to share deeply with others whose lives and commitments look a lot like your own. It’s another thing entirely to share with people who exhibit the amount of diversity that this group does. That diversity was not easy to pick up on at first. Yes, different genders, some various shades of skin colors, and even a few accents can be found around the room. And as people talk, you can see they come from different walks of life, with different socioeconomic backgrounds and fields of expertise. But the more you watch and listen, the more it becomes clear that those attributes are just the noticeable markers of a much deeper kind of diversity. The various life experiences and backgrounds of the people in this group have led them to all sorts of differing, sometimes even conflicting, perspectives. And yet they fearlessly express and explore the diversity among themselves (and even seek the perspectives of outsiders as well), embracing the richness of insight that these varied viewpoints create. Apparently all are welcome in this community and are seen as having something of value to contribute to it. Perhaps you too, with all your quirks and convictions, would be safe to share your opinions and resources among these people and benefit from what they in their multifaceted ways had to offer you.
As you continue to observe and interact, though, you realize that some sense of shared identity does underlie both the vulnerability and the diversity. This isn’t just a random group of people. There is some meaningful sameness here after all. Though no two people go about it in exactly the same ways, each of them does purposefully, actively engage in disciplines of attending to their deepest self, to others, and to God. Even in the midst of the very busy, very distraction-filled surrounding culture, every individual intentionally cultivates rhythms that center them, that connect them, and that ground them in spiritual realities much bigger than themselves. So when they meet up as a group, their time together is enriched by what each has experienced and discovered in the time since their last gathering. They are able to draw from this deep reservoir of formative encounters as they share together what is happening in their lives and in their walk with God. From this sharing emerges worship—prayer, praise, adoration, lamentation, petition. They seek and encounter God together as one diverse yet unified people. And it is beautiful!
Okay. You’re done imagining. Or are you? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if somewhere in there some word, some image, some idea caught you and hasn’t let go. (Don’t let it!) Perhaps it evokes excitement, eagerness to be part of a community like this. Or perhaps you feel a longing, a deep yearning because this kind of community has eluded you—you’re not even sure it really exists. Or perhaps imagining this scenario causes feelings of sadness or frustration or even bitterness to bubble up to the surface. You’ve tried and tried and tried to find or nurture this kind of community and have been repeatedly confronted by the limitations and sinfulness of yourself and those around you.
Whatever emotions it might arouse, I can’t help but believe that something here has captured your imagination. There is almost certainly something about the kind of community I have portrayed here that you think is valuable and worth pursuing. And you’re not alone.
This is the church as young believers described it in my recent research about spiritual formation among young adults. When I asked them to describe their most formative spiritual experiences and the things they desired more of in regard to spiritual formation, some of the things they emphasized most were what I have depicted here: vulnerability, diversity, and disciplines of devotion. According to their stories, in many instances this is what these young Christians have seen and experienced and been shaped by. This is what they have witnessed us reaching for, though admittedly sometimes falling short of. And this is what they see immense spiritual value in and long for more of. For their sake and the sake of the church of the future, I believe it’s time to pay deeper attention to the wisdom and desires these youths have to share with us. It’s time to imagine with them—and then together permit God to make our imaginings a reality among us.