Category Archives: Belonging in Church

Why I Don’t Want Anyone’s Magisterium: My Deeper Story Post

I’m posting at A Deeper Church today about my struggles with the authority structures churches, from Catholics to Baptists: 

There are parts of me that will always be Catholic. The way I dress, for instance, is little more than a holdover from my days at a Catholic prep school.

Back in Catholic school we could wear pants that were any shade of khaki we liked, which would have been suffocating fascism for some. For me, it was the greatest thing ever. Today I just swap different plaid shirts with the same exact kind of jeans piled in my drawer.

However, I also can’t get far enough away from powerful, man-made authority structures, such as the Catholic Church’s magisterium.

In a sense, it was inevitable. I’m a freewheeling, imaginative, creative type. I don’t do precision, and I don’t follow chains of command or the “because I said so” reasoning that every authority structure from the military to the Catholic Church relies on. I had my first confrontation with Catholic authority before I even reached high school.

Read the rest at A Deeper Church

The Church Was Super Lucky to Have Me as an Online Consultant

I keep hearing from researchers and polling experts that the church in North America is doomed, only one generation away from extinction, in fact. I’m here to tell you: That’s not going to happen. Not on MY watch. The church in America is deeply blessed to have a powerful resource that it has never had at any point in its history:

Bloggers… bloggers like me. 


Yes, since 2005 I have poured my time and my words into telling the church what it should be and do.

I’ve boldly called out the worst parts of the church with unique page views as my only reward.

It was a close call. I could have chosen to sleep in an extra hour. But I pushed through the bleary mornings, brewed stronger coffee, and saved the church with my blog posts.

You may tentatively suggest, “But Ed, how can you be so sure that your blog saved the church?”

I would bow my head, shake it a little in frustration, and respond, “How can you prove that it didn’t? The church is still here, and I did blog regularly about church stuff.


I’m also sarcastic sometimes…

It’s ironic really. At first I was really critical of the church on my blog. And now I’m critical of how I was critical of the church on my blog… on my blog.

Critics abound, and I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. We need to call out the crazy town antics of church leaders. In fact, a blog may actually save someone’s faith. Not my blog of course. My blog saved the entire church, remember.

We are experts at spotting counterfeits, but who will help us see what is true, and good, and alive?

Yes, there is a place for critiquing celebrity Christianity, the business management strategies of pastors, the markers we use for success and God’s approval, and the ways church members are controlled and manipulated. If there was an “eject” button that could toss those things out of the church, I’d fight to be the first one to push it.

I’m just wondering if we could spent a bit more time writing about what’s working, what’s good, what’s out of the ordinary and unexpectedly good and authentic.

These aren’t always the most controversial or clickable topics. Frankly, they’re often hard to find, and unbearably ordinary without the flash and flare of big personalities. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to write about all of the things that make church wonderful. It looks like a friend who offers to bail you out of a hard time, families who bring over meals when you’re struggling, single moms who support your wife through the tumult of a newborn, pastors who share openly about the burdens on their minds, elders who listen to the congregation, and leaders who are wholly invested in making church the best experience possible for the children who show up.

There are stories of hope out there, and I’ll be honest, I need them. I need to know that some good things are happening. It’s not all celebrity preachers building mansions out there.

There are churches who are giving financial gifts to third world congregations that these local churches can use to bless their communities however they see fit.

There are pastors who quietly read spiritual classics and graciously share the best quotes with people who would otherwise overlook them.

There are church leaders I know who regularly attend prayer retreats.

There are church elders who have rearranged their weeks in order to serve their neighbors better.

There are pastors who actually just have conversations with people in their community because they like talking to people.

There are pastors who leave the ministry to found non-profits that will be more effective at serving the needs of their neighborhoods.

There are churches who define their success by how much they give away, rather than how much they accumulate.


I’m not out there doing a whole lot. I’m just a guy who writes stories and Christian living books. I’m not going to save the church, but I can at least write about what’s working.

I’ve repented of my old ways. I’ve learned that I have more to offer as a person who points stuff out, who finds what is good and better and hopeful. I’ve spent so much time pointing at what’s wrong that I’ve grown a bit jaded. Yes, there will always be terrible things about the church. I hope people will stand up to what’s wrong. I just hope that’s not the only thing we do.

The next time you learn about something outrageously good in the church, write a post about it. Change the names and situation if you must. But good heavens, we jump so quickly into the fray when the shit hits the fan, but we’re slow on the draw when someone cleans it up.

I can’t speak against anyone who needs to process a toxic church experience, but the churches doing it wrong don’t want to listen to an online consultant and the churches doing it right have no need for an online consultant like me.

I wasted one blog post after another writing about disappointment, fear, and disenfranchisement. Perhaps I needed to get it out of my system, but I didn’t always need to make it public.

I thought the church was super lucky to have me as a critic and consultant, showing the bright way forward to the future. I thought that I could save the church through criticism, but criticism without a way forward, without building something just left me despairing and hopeless.

We weren’t lucky to have a critic like me. We’re lucky to have faithful people who show love in small and big ways day in , day out. They brew coffee, snuggle babies, balance budgets, serve meals, talk to the overlooked, cry with those who mourn, bless their critics, give away what they can, put the needs of others over themselves, and give us something to model.

I’ve spent enough of my time telling the stories about what’s wrong. It’s time to commit myself to stop acting like an online consultant and to start telling the kinds of stories that will provide the counter-narrative a church drowning in materialism, celebrity, and programs needs.

Why Christians Need to Be Cynical Sometimes

I used to work at this nonprofit that had some pretty difficult leadership. I don’t mean the leaders made it hard to take a vacation. They did that, but they also, for example, hatched elaborate plans to create conflict between the staff and the board… crazy, soap opera stuff like that.

I became cynical (too cynical at times), doubting anything potentially good that came from them.


Having gone through my own “breaking in” period, I watched many new employees pass through the same process. They’d arrive feeling elated to have a job at this great nonprofit. They had plans. They had dreams. They saw so many possibilities.

I knew what was coming, even if a small part of me hoped it wouldn’t happen.

And about two or three weeks in, they’d get the first inkling that something isn’t right. I’d watch their eyes grow wide at a staff meeting while the rest of us resorted to our learned reflex—stone silence.

A week or two later they’d go from office to office asking their fellow employees, “Has something like this happened to you?”

* * *

When you’ve seen people make selfish or destructive decisions that are smoke screened as being best for a group or an organization, a little bit of cynicism is warranted.

I’ve seen too many self-aggrandizing Christian leaders who claim their work is all about building up God and others, when, in reality, they are deeply concerned with their own image.

I’ve seen far too many Christians who claim they care about the Kingdom, when what they really mean is who you vote for.

I myself have played the part of the all-knowing critic, when all I knew was what didn’t work, failing to provide anything constructive.

And gosh, don’t we all need a friendly cynic to slap us sometimes?

Cynicism has a place in Christianity.

Yes, we should hope, love, and pray without ceasing. Yes, we should imagine a better future and join God’s Kingdom work of healing and restoring lives.

However, sometimes we need to see things as they truly are before we can hope for, imagine, and live in God’s Kingdom.

Cynicism has a very small and limited place in the church, but I’d like to suggest that it can help us move from unrealistic expectations and into the reality of loving imperfect people.

Much like our wide-eyed new employees at that nonprofit, Christians tend to enter a church with high hopes and dreams for what their community could be. I’ve been there.

When I’ve started attending churches, I imagined that I would NEVER get angry at a leader or be disappointed by a teacher. I thought we would always get along, banding together for the common cause of the Gospel, carrying the weak and supporting the struggling along the way.

While we never want to assume the worst of people, a little cynicism can help deflate our overinflated expectations. Cynicism can be like a little pressure gauge that tells you a tire is a over-inflated. If you don’t let out a little air, it could pop at the first sign of trouble.

If I could belabor another analogy, a small dose of cynicism can act like a vaccine. A little bit of cynicism in a controlled dose can help us see ourselves and the people around us for who we are.


* * *

I wasn’t always a “limited” cynic. I was optimistic and hopeful to a fault.

Do you know what happens to us when we aren’t prepared for Christians to let us down?

We’ll be betrayed by friends and leaders. We’ll be disappointed by decisions. We’ll feel left out. We’ll start to despair.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a safe and holy place? Aren’t we all part of one body?

You take the pain and disappointments, and then you start to overthink a lot of stuff.

You toss out both the good and the bad. You ask all of the hard questions you’ve been dreading. You piss off a bunch of people. You can’t sit through a church service because it’s all too much to process. Well-meaning people bring back bad memories of past hurts and failures in the church. You become a bit ashamed that you couldn’t make church work. You feel silly for believing certain things. You’re angry that your church couldn’t have been a better place for you. You envy the people who can make church work, and you start to hate them for it.

I kept rethinking my choices, wondering what I could have changed. If only this or that could have been different… If only we were more like the early church, like Paul, like Jesus, like James, like John, or like our favorite theologian!

Our regrets taint our aspirations, making it impossible to hope.

I had to face what was flawed all along. I had to see people for who they are. I had to rethink what theology could do.

I felt trapped by my disappointments, but once I faced the issues we’ll always find among Christians, I was able to break free from what felt hopeless. I felt like I could start over again once I’d faced the worst of the Christian faith and church experience.

That’s the thing about cynicism. It can really help for a season. Sometimes we need to ask hard questions and to dismantle the false expectations that get in the way of loving God and other people.

Cynicism is not a long term strategy for Christians. It won’t serve us well in the long run.

Living with our pain and disappointments will just force us to relive our pain over and over again.

Sometimes you need to get the toxic parts of your faith out of your system. We need to recognize what has and will fail us and call it out. We need to recognize where we’ve come from and what we have become if we want to become someone different.

I will never criticize someone who needs to be cynical, step out of church, or wrestle with doubts for a season. While we should always move toward redemption, part of that movement is honesty. In fact, honesty is the essential first step.

Those living in a cynical season would certainly do well to avoid making sweeping statements or picking lots of fights. I know that I regret pontificating when I lacked few answers and only had questions and critiques.

Some have passed through a cynical season and returned to the faith. Others have found cynicism to be a door on the way out of the faith. Either way, I don’t see cynicism as the problem at that point. Cynicism becomes a problem when it becomes a lifestyle, a default way of engaging our world.

The moment we realize something about Christianity isn’t working for us, we’ll only move toward freedom if we can confront it honestly. There are some Christians today who are afraid to ask those hard questions, to confront what hasn’t worked in their faith, and to step away from it for a season, and I’ve watched some of them grow frustrated and resentful toward the church. Something is already broken. If being a good Christian means stuffing away their misgivings, disappointments, and doubts, they’ll just drift further away from God any way.

Once I faced the parts of the Christian faith that are flawed and broken, I was finally able to look for life elsewhere. That’s when I finally found the freedom that I didn’t even realized I craved.

Of course people are selfish.

Of course church leaders will make mistakes.

Of course our theology will hit dead ends.

These things shouldn’t surprise us.

What will surprise us is that Jesus still welcomes us when we’re cynical, when our arms are crossed, and our spirits weary. Yes, we may have our cynicism to deal with when it comes to our fellow Christians, but he is still calling us to trust him with faith like a child.

Perhaps that’s where this all started to fall apart for me.

I trusted people with faith like a child, when in reality, God alone is worthy of that trust.

The greatest mistake I could ever make is to transfer any of my fears or disappointments from people onto God.

* * *

Have you grown cynical about Christianity?

Where can you still find hope and life?

Hope for Those Who Feel Left Out of Church

church-belonging-Christianity-seriesMy seminary professor meant well. However, when he invited me to join him and a group of outreach-minded middle aged men for a series of meetings, he didn’t realize he was about to give me an advanced course in church culture.

The stated goal of the meetings was how to reach our small town with the Gospel. Everyone was prepared to make sacrifices.

We met at a local business once a week in the evening and strategized.

The plan quickly turned into something like this: Young people like coffee and hanging out. Let’s put together a coffeehouse ministry with live music! Christians can then use the space to have conversations about their faith. We looked at the Starbucks with hordes of teens flocking to it and thought:


I had a lot of experience with coffeehouse ministry. Well, at least I had attended one put on  by a church near my college. It was the place where all of the Christian teens hung out.

I didn’t quite process all of that at the time.

As the plan developed, we dug into the particulars. Where would we host this? All of the venues in town would be expensive.

Shoot. Not so amazing.

How would we encourage people to talk about their faith in the café setting?

Shoot. Not so simple.

I started to get cold feet.

For a while I’d gone along with the plan and just chimed in with an idea here or there. Things were progressing just fine without my input. However, I kept wondering if we were going down the wrong path.

One day I remembered that a college friend had participated in a coffeehouse ministry. When I called him about our idea, he wasn’t encouraging.

“You need such a critical mass of people to pull this off. It’s really hard to do it well, and I don’t think it’s going to provide the kinds of results you’re after.”

Armed with this input, I nervously spoke up at the next meeting. I outlined my friends concerns and then, not wanting to be Mr. Negative, I suggested an alternative.

“What if we organized a day of community service and invited everyone to join in? Schools are big on community service these days, right?”

They didn’t go for it. I’m sure they said something in response, but to me, it sounded like they went right back to lining up bands and trying to find a free venue in the middle of town. Mind you, my idea may not have been the right one, but it at least had a better shot at actually happening.

My seminary professor tried to bring up my points again, but no one was interested enough to stop the momentum of the café.

I can’t remember what happened first: did they give up on the outreach venture or did I give up on them? Either way, I stopped going to the meetings and I never heard a peep about the evangelism café.

When I think about those men and what their generation values, I can’t help thinking of a booming Baby Boomer church like Calvary Chapel. They really valued contemporary music in church. In a sense, they were trying to bridge the generational gap by adding a coffee shop to something that worked for them.

The more I thought about the young people I knew, the more I thought of them seeing through the scheme.


No Bible Candy Gimmicks

A few years later, I was in an even more awkward situation. I was working at a church doing administrative stuff, but I wasn’t able to attend. I just couldn’t. Some of it was needing time to process my own church baggage, and some of it was not seeing eye to eye on the stuff the church valued and tried to make me do.

However, one day we had a breakthrough of sorts. We finally agreed on something.

The pastor had been taking notice of the church’s community and its unique needs. To a certain degree, there was a small, relatively poor and overlooked town that had been overtaken by suburban developments. There was nothing much “in town” for people. He decided his church could change that.

I finally felt like we could agree on this: a no strings attached community festival. I volunteered for it and worked overtime to help make it happen.

He tried to rope in other churches in the community to join us, but they didn’t get it.

“When are you going to preach the gospel?”

“Are you going to hand out candy with scripture verses attached to it?”

I thought to myself: “It’s a trap!”

To his credit, the pastor was firm.

No preaching. No scripture candy. Just community.

I felt like someone on the inside at an evangelical church finally saw the games and gimmicks of church that had turned me off. Reaching out to our community like this was life giving. In fact, the church soon added a food pantry that served a number of families in the area. I even began dropping off food to families on my way home from work.

For all of things at this church that annoyed or alienated me, I finally found places where I could begin to belong.

Here’s Where the Hope Comes In

There are churches and ministries who do things that won’t make sense to you and they will not listen to anyone who questions them, especially young people. They have made up their minds. I’ve learned it’s best to wish them well and to avoid conflict with them.

If you do speak up, they inevitably blame any resulting conflict and fall out on you.

There are other churches and ministries who will worship God and serve in ways that will make sense to you.

And still there are other churches, perhaps the majority, who will do some things you love and some things you don’t.

You have your own way of interacting with God and with others. Don’t be ashamed of that. If something at your church doesn’t speak life to you, there’s a good chance you need to seek out a different place to find life.

Diversity in church experience doesn’t mean there are those who do it right and those who do it wrong.

Look for the life of God.

It may require something extremely counter-cultural like the quiet of a liturgical church.

It may look like something very much in line with the culture of service you found in high school and college as you partner with a church or ministry dedicated to helping those in need.

Sometimes our desires and opinions will lead us astray, prompting us to try to remake the church in our own image. I’ve done that and seen that first hand.

However, in seeking a church community, pay attention to the things that resonate with you. How is God speaking to you? What burdens are on your heart?

God doesn’t give us burdens and desires in order to frustrate us—at least, to frustrate us for the rest of our lives.

I’ve spent so many years inside and outside of the church stewing over the things I didn’t like. When I finally realized that there are churches that either completely or partially resonate with the things God is speaking to me, I found immense freedom in saying “Yes!” to those things and ignoring the things that I found condemning or restricting.

Mind you, this is not an easy, anything goes approach to church. God will most likely start nudging you to do things you won’t want to do! This is the path of sacrifice and costly discipleship.

Here’s the key: Church shouldn’t force us to sacrifice our freedom and convictions.

Church should both nurture and provide an outlet for the life that God is building up in us.

This isn’t all that different from Paul’s body metaphor for Christians. We all have different functions and roles to play.

The challenge is that we can spend a lot of time despairing over the things that bring us down rather than pursuing the things that God’s Spirit is bringing to life in our midst.

Belonging: Going to Church When Gray Areas Persist

I have a love/hate relationship with certainty. On the one hand, it need it to remind me that Jesus loves me and his forgiveness is new every morning. The words of scripture must be true or I’m sunk.

On the other hand, many of the times that I have been most certain have also been the times when I have been most wrong. Aside from the essentials of the Christian faith, I’ve dug my heels into sinking sand plenty of times only to end up stuck and disappointed.

We could say a lot about the inherent problems with certainty, but perhaps it’s most helpful to speak of humility and its essential role in the shaping of Christian community instead. For all of the poison that can come to community through certainty, we still need it. That makes humility a far more helpful way of speaking about our interactions with one another in the church.

My greatest lesson from the comments of this series has been the amount of gray areas in the church today and the fact that humility is our only hope for the future. The Christians in our churches have many more gray areas than we would assume, and when it is possible to acknowledge this diversity and complexity, we’ll make more people feel welcome and free to explore God where they’re at.

Perhaps one of the most harmful things we can do in community is to set a precise standard or blueprint for what the healthy community member looks like, believes, and does.

People are in process with their beliefs.

Other people are healing from past relationships.

Plenty are healing from negative church experiences.

A few aren’t even sure what they believe any more.

We find community in our shared goal of Christ, but that goal of Christ is a destination on a map we’ll never fully reach while we’re together on earth. Our common ground is based more on which direction we’re pointed than on who has achieved a certain status as a traveler.

Community takes shape around our traditions and styles and preferences, but ultimately, we find community in what we cannot attain here on earth. When we base community on the things we can see, measure, or control, we run the risk of making our Christian communities about side issues with a Christian veneer but none of the depth or sturdiness.

As I wrap up this series, I’d like to suggest that while we can find a thousand different ways to divide, but there’s only one way to unite as God’s people. As we each take responsibility for our own parts in fostering healthy Christian community, perhaps the best thing we can remember is that God’s people define black and white differently with gray areas shifting and changing from person to person.

If I want to win, I can convince myself that I have won by imposing my own black and white boundaries around others. However, if I want God’s community to win, I’m going to need to trust God to work in and through his people, hold loosely to some of my own categories, and patiently wait for God to show up among us as we unite around the essentials of our faith.

I am certain that we all have a role in creating the kinds of Christian communities where we can belong. The trick will be learning how to humbly ground ourselves in our particulars that inform where we’ve come from and how we worship God—our traditions especially—without using them as barriers or checklists that alienate those who would otherwise join our communities.

Deep down we all desire to belong to a community, a group that accepts us despite our flaws and supports us when we struggle. It is my great joy as a follower of Jesus to note that such a community is the very thing he created while among us.

A Note to My Readers

I am deeply grateful for the comments and e-mails you’ve shared with me throughout this series. It has been a wonderful, healing process to write through my past and present experiences of belonging to Christian community, and I hope to take these posts deeper in the form of a book in the near future. I’m especially grateful to my friends at St. Paul’s Church who played a huge role in my restoration to Christian community.

The next series of posts in the Monday-Wednesday slot will be about discipleship in conjunction with the release of my co-authored book Hazardous, particularly about what it means to live out costly discipleship. How do we hear the voice of Jesus today? What does it look like to literally “follow” a God you can’t see? When should we step out in faith and take risks for God and when are we reckless?

The Women in Ministry Series will continue on Fridays, and on Thursdays I’ll be launching a new series about being a stay at home/work from home dad. My hope in this series is to avoid parenting topics and instead to address gender roles, our culture’s/church’s expectations for men, and the possibility that “nontraditional” careers and family structures can work.

Belonging: You Can’t Conquer Someone if You’re Washing Her Feet

My paternity leave thankfully coincided with yet another flare up of Christian craziness in the blog world. I read about it with Ethan in my arms, my jaw hanging uncomfortably low as a Christian wrote about marriage with colonial, conquering, dominating language. That flap is thankfully over, but it has me thinking that this issue is evidence of a deeper problem in the church: power.

When I graduated from Taylor University, I received two things: my diploma and a towel. The towel is a Taylor tradition that reminds graduates that the power of the Kingdom is exercised on our knees, both in prayer and in serving others.

You can’t conquer someone if you’re washing her feet.

The dirty, common, lowly practice of washing someone else’s feet has never been in style, and it’s the last thing someone in power would want to do. Don’t we want the people in power to have clean, pristine hands?

Power in the Kingdom of God is always exercised for the benefit of others.

Power means we get to take care of the most vulnerable, the powerless.

Power doesn’t just take us down from a pedestal. It takes us lower than anyone else.

Women and children should feel most comfortable and protected in the church. And that’s just the beginning. That’s just what I feel comfortable with.

I struggle to figure out ways to welcome the poor, homeless, and drug abusers. I’m still working on it.

Any power and influence that I have is not for my benefit or pleasure. It is meant to be used in love and selfless service of others. That God incarnate could wash the feet of his disciples before his most powerful act of conquering death should give us pause before we think of power and position in any other light.

Whether you believe that men and women are equal or you believe that men are somehow “above” women, Jesus cancelled these things out to a certain degree by teaching us that we demonstrate love not by placing ourselves on top of someone, but by placing ourselves below the other.

That may sound like a no-brainer to some, but for of us, our theology has been so wrapped up in God’s sovereignty and power that we forget what it looks like when God actually uses his power. God is not most glorified when he uses his sovereignty and power to dominate and conquer his creation.

God manifests his power through selfless love, service, and sacrifice. Period.

This is why love is at the heart of the two greatest commandments. This is why the apostle John hits us over the head with the word love in his Gospel and first epistle.

Power is the tool of love, not the other way around.

Bad Christian theology imagines a God who is consumed with demonstrating his power and authority as his most important attributes. And that bad theology will filter into our thinking and practice, convincing us that submission to leaders, to husbands, and to whoever else is always the best for a Christian—when mutual submission in a spirit of love is the true thing. 

An approach that puts authority first tramples on God’s revelation of love and servanthood. God shows up in power, but that power is manifested in love and service.

That towel from Taylor remains in my bedroom. I see it often, and it reminds me of how far I have to go, how imperfect my own notions of love and power can be. I’m not a big fan of humbling myself. I don’t like letting go of power or of spending too much time on my knees.

I think we all like to have a little bit of power, a little bit of distance from those below us. It makes us feel safe and secure. And that’s why I find it particularly jarring when Jesus creates a community of disciples and then leads them while on his knees. It’s an example that I didn’t want to see but am bound to try to imitate.

Belonging: Wilderness adventure builds a healing community

Today’s guest post in the belonging in church series is by Dietrich Gruen who blogs at and takes us outside the four walls of the church for his story:

No teenager got injured, lost, terribly ill, or dropped from the program; some dropped out on their own just before the week started, preferring to party or afraid of a new challenge. We endured scorching heat, blood-sucking insects and leeches, and refusals to get with the program (e.g., “I’m not taking my meds,” or “I won’t do dishes”). And our team lagged in paddling or portaging, arriving late to campsites we wanted.

Despite all this, we did finish well. We worked as a team. The 8-day canoe trip, July 3-10, to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area was sponsored by Big City Mountaineers. Our four at-risk teens all were products, for better or worse, of a flawed but necessary foster care system (e.g., 10 homes in 10 years). The four, like most teens, were also loud mouthpieces of our over-sexualized and profane culture. Working with their psychosocial issues, obsession with sex and teenage humor added challenge—and fun—to the physical exertion of doing 30 lakes in 5 days.

Our expedition did not take a boot-camp, “shock therapy” approach, but one of “expanding the comfort zone.” Weathering the withering elements, we let the natural rhythms of wilderness camping bring up teachable moments and crisis points. Our vulnerable, fragile, even hostile kids gave us even more life lessons to battle through and reflect upon.

Within the safety net of four caring adults, we never gave up on each other. Within a group agreement, teens “enjoy” the freedom to make mistakes and suffer natural consequences; thus they learn to fail forward not backward. The goal is to turn their mistakes into stepping stones, to get unstuck, overcome fears, and move forward in life.

Into this wilderness adventure in community building, the boys brought very divergent trust and attachment issues. They would meet a challenge, break through a barrier, invent a new way of being, and then relapse—all within the same hour. That learning cycle was repeated hour by hour, day after day, for all four boys. We adults would cycle through our stuff similarly—from exhilaration to exhaustion to exacerbation, back to being energized.

One boy, trail name Polar Bear, witnessed severe domestic violence and was regularly beaten by his parents (with wood in the middle of the night). That sad upbringing has made him hyper-vigilant and very distrusting, such that he thinks being ugly, aggressive and mean will keep him from ever having to trust others. While he kept thinking we’d throw him away, Polar Bear experienced our acceptance despite his ugly, unlovable behavior. By week’s end, I was “Pops,” he was Bro, everyone was family.

Another team member, nicknamed Fanny Pack, was severely neglected as an infant (e.g., left in dirty diapers for days and never held). Almost every hour of our trip he wanted hugs, asked incessant questions, or wanted to do whatever we adults were doing, and made some requests that were out-of-bounds—all to get his needs met for love, belonging and closeness.

You know “Polar Bear” and “Fanny Pack,” friends in your midst who seek authentic community. Friends—the family we choose for ourselves—that means the world to these foster kids—indeed, to seekers of all kinds. Within the church, as within this wilderness adventure, I find that trust issues work out with the right structure and expectations.

In most wilderness therapy programs, youth do the hard work unaccompanied by their parents and their cell phones, yet the whole experience—if properly structured, reflected and acted upon—brings new insight and healing for the entire family. Kids return home with a new sense of autonomy, self-control and personal agency. Perhaps in the church, we could structure some weekend, even wilderness retreats, where we similarly reflect on experiences, then conceptualize the life lessons that apply back in the “real” world.

I am most impressed with how we built community out of the adversity we faced on this canoe trip. This also happened for several of us some years ago, when I took adult volunteers to help clean up New Orleans, post-Katrina. My best friend came out of that mix of service to others, cycling through action & reflection, plus hours of windshield time.

Men and boys build fellowship whenever there is a physical task or challenging mission in front of us—why is that?

Like dogs or wolfs in a pack, the males in these groups were reticent to look directly into the eyes of each other, but would approach sideways. Windshield time and canoe time provides the “sideways” connection and limited eye contact we need. But we must also be dedicated to the occasional fierce conversation—not being argumentative, but affirming our various self-interests for win-win solutions that appeal to the common good.

A “fierce conversation” is one where we hold convictions with courage and integrity, feel things deeply (instead of staying just in our heads), and fearlessly and shamelessly embrace reality, even looking at the “man in the mirror” for what’s really going on inside. With our adventuresome boys, it meant telling the one who refused his meds, that “when one suffers, we all suffer,” likewise, telling the boy balking the program, that no child will be left behind, that we are all in this together, to the finish (I Corinthians 12:14-26).

The search for authentic community is no different for the rest of us. We won’t find it by church shopping and hopping, hither and yon endlessly. Authentic community happens over time, at some personal cost, without a focus on self. Community demands sincere motives, dropping masks, no posturing. Crowd-pleasers who do things for show, or people-pleasers who pretend, know not this community. When our motive is to gain approval or look good to our peers, this detracts from community.

If you want to test your motives or desire for authentic community, check your response when treated like a servant, unappreciated, as I did on this canoe trip. By giving what others need most and deserve least, we build real community.

Rev. Dietrich Gruen is a hospice chaplain to the elderly and dying, father of three adult sons, husband of one wife, working out of Madison, WI, where he leads fierce conversations on hot topics, once using Ed Cyzewski’s book on Coffeehouse Theology.