If we want to talk about community, we have to talk about authenticity and vulnerability. If we want to talk about authenticity and vulnerability, we have to talk about shame.
Shame is the greatest barrier to community. If we can’t learn how to address shame properly, our churches and our small groups will struggle to grow into authentic and transparent communities that experience transformation at anything deeper than a surface level.
New York Times bestselling author Brene Brown has researched shame and its effects on relationships for more than a decade. According to Brown, guilt says I did something bad, while shame says I am bad.
She further describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”[i]
Guilt correlates to our actions as bad. Shame correlates to our worth and identity as bad.
To put this in a biblical perspective, we know that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), our value, worth, and identity are all secured by the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19) and our sin, selfishness, and stupidity are completely forgiven and we are in right standing before God (2 Cor. 6:21).
If shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging,” then it has no part in the life of the believer, and no part in our small groups or our churches.
What, then, are we to do in response to the weight of shame that is crushing many in our churches, and that hinders our small groups from experiencing transparency?
- Refuse to use shame as a weapon. Leveraging shame can be a powerful motivator, and has been wrongly used by religious authorities to coerce behavior for centuries. It’s tempting to use because it’s effective in the short term, but in the long run it destroys community.
- Leverage empathy as the antidote to shame. The power of shame lies in darkness and the fear of what will happen when hidden things are brought to the light. Empathy is the skill of connecting with someone in their hurt, pain, and brokenness in a way that says, “I’ve been there too, and you’re not alone.”
When people share something vulnerable, especially something that potentially has some shame attached to it, here’s what we need to communicate:
- Thanks for trusting us enough to share that.
- We love you, and this doesn’t change how we see you.
- God loves you, and this doesn’t change how He sees you.
- It sounds like this is something really painful in your life, and we want you to know that you’re not alone.
Real community is messy, and real transformation is hard. Shame is the greatest barrier to authentic community, but the body of Christ can provide an incarnational expression of the gospel of grace as we learn to respond with empathy and love to the struggles of others.
If you want to learn more, start with this TED talk by Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en