Introductory Note:

In the article, “Contagious: The Surprising Things That Make Community Transformational,” which originally appeared in Conversations Journal, Jan Johnson really does talk about surprising things that transform community. I teach seminary classes on discipleship and community and was overwhelmed, in a good way, by all that I learned from Jan in this piece. It is both convicting and instructive. I will return to this piece again and again and share it with my students.

(The following is an excerpt with a link to the full article included below, courtesy of Jan Johnson.)

Marlena Graves


With­out think­ing a lot about it, most of us choose care­ful­ly those we asso­ciate with. We like to be with peo­ple who are like us, hav­ing sim­i­lar edu­ca­tion or socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus. We may even feel uncom­fort­able around peo­ple of dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ty or world­view. In our cul­ture, there’s a strong empha­sis on fit­ting in and, there­fore, belong­ing. Even Chris­tians notice if oth­er Chris­tians are not from the same cor­ner of the king­dom, if they don’t read the same books. Women tend to flock with women who have chil­dren their own children’s age. Men group with oth­ers who like sports or play golf. Par­ents seg­re­gate based on whether kids are home-schooled, go to Chris­t­ian school, or go to pub­lic school. 

Yet the ear­ly church — which includ­ed slaves but also rich peo­ple, extor­tion­ists, and for­mer pros­ti­tutes, as well as priests — was some­how of one heart and soul.” For those who fol­low God, com­mu­ni­ty can exist between peo­ple who are ene­mies. Con­sid­er how oppo­site Eli­jah and the wid­ow of Zarephath were: male and female; Hebrew and Pales­tin­ian. These gaps were as wide or wider than now. But they need­ed each oth­er and worked togeth­er. I like to say that he had the pow­er and she had the flour (and oil). Nei­ther fit in with the other’s crowd, yet they worked togeth­er and helped each oth­er. If I fol­low their exam­ple, I will be open to the com­mu­ni­ty that God puts in front of me rather than choos­ing those with whom I have some­thing in common. 

Com­mu­ni­ty among those with cul­tur­al or social dif­fer­ences invites us to reach out to oth­ers, to go the extra mile, to wel­come the stranger” (Matthew 25:38). So when my hus­band and I invite to a hol­i­day meal a client at the drop-in cen­ter for the home­less where I vol­un­teer, we have to go out of our way to make them feel com­fort­able. But that’s good, because it teach­es us to be wel­com­ing and to look not to our own inter­ests, but to the inter­ests of oth­ers.” In such com­mu­ni­ty we are stretched and grow. 


You may won­der, Doesn’t com­mu­ni­ty involve feel­ings of close­ness?” Some­times it may, but I’ve decid­ed those feel­ings are not a require­ment. Love (again, engag­ing will for good of the oth­er), which is the basis of com­mu­ni­ty, is not a feel­ing but an inten­tion to walk along­side oth­ers, some of whom may dri­ve us crazy. We may even com­plain in our thoughts, 

I real­ly don’t need this per­son!” — as Paul said the eye might have said to the hand, I don’t need you!” My hus­band and I expe­ri­enced this a few years ago when he was lead­ing a wor­ship team. One of the vocal­ists was a woman who talked a lot. We both found her irri­tat­ing. So I was sur­prised when my hus­band came home from wor­ship prac­tice to say that the per­son who had calmed every­one through an upset was this woman. 

She talked qui­et­ly and just kept sooth­ing the oth­er per­son until he was calm,” he said. Then we were able to talk about what hap­pened and what we need­ed to do.” I thought about this woman I had dis­missed: Yes, I do need you! 

Mak­ing feel­ings of close­ness a stan­dard for com­mu­ni­ty may even be detri­men­tal to com­mu­ni­ty. Some peo­ple are not capa­ble of being trans­par­ent or open. Per­haps their past expe­ri­ences have made a sense of close­ness very dif­fi­cult. Should they be exclud­ed from community? 

I knew a woman who seemed to ooze authen­tic­i­ty, and we met reg­u­lar­ly for a long time. Yet as time passed, I saw that while she could be trans­par­ent in a staged way, she with­held a great deal. And she was less empa­thet­ic and more judg­ing than I thought. I felt betrayed; why wasn’t she the authen­tic per­son she seemed to be? So I asked God to release me from reg­u­lar­ly meet­ing with her, but I didn’t get a sense of release. The more I inter­act­ed with God about it, the more I saw that my motives were mixed. Yes, I was giv­ing to some­one by going out of my way to meet with her, but I was giv­ing to get. I expect­ed accep­tance and empa­thy, inti­ma­cy and trans­paren­cy. Would I give only if I received some­thing in return? She was being as authen­tic as she was able. 

Are close­ness and inti­ma­cy, which Amer­i­cans val­ue so high­ly, bib­li­cal virtues? In talk­ing about com­mu­ni­ty, Paul urged us to pur­sue love,” which is not the same as pur­su­ing close­ness or inti­ma­cy. Pur­su­ing inti­ma­cy can, in fact, make it more dif­fi­cult. A small group’s pas­tor friend laughs that she no longer has their small groups of mar­ried cou­ples read and dis­cuss mar­riage books because they lead to argu­ments between spous­es! One of the spous­es usu­al­ly feels cor­nered into an inti­ma­cy they’re not ready for. Yet that spouse may love the oth­er deeply. 

Even those capa­ble of close­ness may have times in their lives when they are not able to be so. Because of grief or calami­ty, peo­ple we love may find they have to dis­tance them­selves from oth­ers. Can I walk with them through this time and love them when they don’t seem to be authen­tic or relational? 

Such sit­u­a­tions make us ques­tion notions that com­mu­ni­ty is a nur­tur­ing place for peo­ple to receive what they need. Although that may hap­pen, it works bet­ter to view it as a place in which my love will become more well-formed (and by this I mean teleios [full-grown, mature]— the per­fect love” of 1 John 4:18). I now see com­mu­ni­ty as a school for love. Com­mu­ni­ty is where I will learn to love. 

Hun­gry for more? Please check out the com­plete arti­cle (first pub­lished as Con­ta­gious” in Con­ver­sa­tions, Spring/​Summer 2015) at Jan’s web­site.

Text First Published February 2015

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >