Recently my friends asked me the question, “If you could choose one moment to go back to, what would you choose?” Some people would choose a memorable birthday. Others would choose a favorite trip they had with their friends or family. I would go back to a youth group meeting I had when I was in 7th grade.
There wasn’t anything special about that day. It was a normal meeting—dinner, Bible study, fellowship. But that night, I finally took the time to look around me. At the front of the room was a group of five people jamming out on instruments. Conversations filled the empty space in the room. A group of 7th graders was chatting, and laughter occasionally broke out. I saw the upperclassmen catching up after a long week of school. My pastor was showing off his magic tricks to a crowd of awed students. I realized I felt full. I realized I was at home.
With my youth group, I felt my faith growing, especially with the help of my upperclassmen. In my eyes, they were perfect. Their faith seemed steadfast, their love unconditional, their passion boundless. They were the perfect role models. Intellectually, they satisfied my curiosity by answering my countless questions. Spiritually, they showed me how to make my faith my own by giving me advice on life outside of church. I could rely on them whenever I was struck down and afflicted.
And yet, there were worrying trends. When I wasn’t with my youth group, I felt alone. I brushed these warning signs aside because my passion was ignited when I was with my church. With my faith in God at a peak and my upperclassmen to support me, I thought nothing could touch me. This fire inside me couldn’t be put out.
Then the cracks started appearing. Small miscommunications between leaders led to small grudges, which led to bigger miscommunications and bigger grudges. The situation got worse when relationships between people started to fall apart. Jealousy bubbled, and it became all too clear to me that the role models I once had weren’t so perfect after all.
As I saw my heroes stumble, I began to stumble, too. Disillusionment with my community led to disillusionment in my faith. My passion faded, and my once steadfast love wavered. It became clear that my faith was contingent on my community and my role models.
Two and a half years later, I was at a different church. I was burned out from my old church, and my faith was at a low. My community idolatry took me from lauding my youth group as my second family to feeling burned out and spiritually dry.
Though my role models helped me greatly, I was putting them on a pedestal. God gave us community and leaders for our good, but they became my idols. The answer to this idolatry is clear: move our trust from people to God, who is our ultimate cornerstone. If we trust God above all, even when spiritual leaders fall, God will not.
But what does that look like? I may know the answers, but how do I implement these solutions practically? How can I transfer knowledge in my head to grounded, realistic application in my life? How can I balance community, which is vital to the Christian walk, and my personal faith?
The path has been rocky, but God has slowly been leading me towards answers by putting me in the Asian American Christian Fellowship. Through this community, I’m being spiritually reinvigorated, intellectually challenged, and lovingly supported. It’s almost as if I’m back at youth group. And just like the past, I can feel the temptation of idolatry slowly creeping up on me.
Yet, this time feels different. Through late-night conversations (sometimes too late) and loving criticism, I’ve been forced to meaningfully tackle the struggles of idolatry. As I’ve wrestled with community idolatry, God has been shifting my perception of what a community even is. Before, I sought only to be fed by my mentors and leaders. Yet, rather than this hierarchical structure that leads to leader idolatry, I’m beginning to see that everyone in the community must take but must also give.
And our giving and taking shouldn’t come from a source of pride; it comes from a foundation built on Christ. Paul writes it best in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For I do not mean that others should be eased and burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.”
This is the vision that God has shown me through my new community. No matter where we may be spiritually, everyone is called to encourage and share our burdens with one another. The struggles and growing pains of community will never go away, but with a Christ-centered foundation in mind, we can get a glimpse of what Christ calls us to be: many members of the body creating one body and in one spirit.
Joshua Hong ‘23 is a Freshman in Wigglesworth Hall.