Freedom Connection

Obstacles to Intimacy in our Community, Part 1


Feb 15


The question for this month of Mission: Intimacy is “What are the obstacles to intimacy in our community?” Today we have a phenomenal leader, Heather Zempel, joining us. Her knowledge and experience will provide us some much needed insight in our mission to engage in authentic intimacy in our community. By community, I am referring to our neighbors, co-workers, those in our church small home groups. It is that realm of our life that we are looking at today.

Heather Zempel, who leads the discipleship efforts at National Community Church in Washington, DC where she oversees small groups, directs leadership development training, and serves on the weekend teaching team. Heather is the author of Sacred Roads, Community is Messy, and Amazed and Confused. You can read about her ramblings on small group environments and discipling the next generation at For Heather’s full bio, click here.

My question to Heather was “What are the obstacles to intimacy in our community?” The following is Heather’s response:

What are the obstacles to intimacy with our community?

Community does not happen by accident. It takes time, intentionality, and a willingness to stick to it even when relationships get difficult. Unfortunately, many of us move through life on auto-pilot, never paying attention to the health of our relationships with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and those we bump into in the “third places”[i] of our lives. We all long to know and to be known, but our journey towards intimacy often ends with a “let’s get together soon,” “I will give you a call next week,” or “we really should hang out sometime.” The depth of our questions typically goes no further than the perfunctory, “how are you doing?”

The lack of intimacy in our community is often not a result of our disinterest but an unawareness of the obstacles that must be overcome and the hard work that is required to make community a reality. The obstacles are as numerous as our varied personalities, but the four hurdles listed below seem to be common.

Time is limited.

Soccer practice. Book club. Church small group. School field trip. Family dinner. Coffee with friends. The number of activities we can pack into one week is staggering. The introduction of email, text messaging, and video conferencing promised shorter work weeks, but we are actually working longer hours than ever before. Relationships take time. But we don’t often see immediate results to justify the cost-benefit of investing in others, so we invest our daily allotment of 24 hours in ways that don’t always lead to intimacy.

Community is transient.

Consider the following statistics:

  • According to the 2000 census, over 16% of the population moved their residence during the census period.[ii]
  • One third of young adults ages 20-29 moved in one year—from 1999 to 2000.[iii]
  • Nearly 45 million Americans move every year, and the average America moves every 5 to 6 years, thereby rupturing significant relationships with family and friends.[iv]

These statistics have undoubtedly become even more pronounced in the past 15 years, and they reflect the challenges that mobility presents to our experience of community. Because intimacy requires consistent presence over a sustained amount of time, the transient nature of our culture makes the journey towards relationship difficult.

Social media is deceptive.

I hesitate to even mention this one because the debate around social media has become so polarizing. On one end of the spectrum, social media has created opportunities for pseudo-community, where people feel connected but don’t realize they are connecting only to edited and photo-shopped versions of one another. Thus, we experience the illusion of intimacy without the mess, friction, and responsibility that makes it so rich. On the other end of the spectrum, social media has become a powerful mechanism to stay connected across miles and schedules. I believe social media has been a tremendous supplement to my community experience. The trick is to ensure that we use social media to facilitate a genuine and authentic experience of community and not a false one.

People are messy.

Community is messy because it always involves people and people are messy. It’s about people hauling their brokenness and baggage into your house and dumping it in your living room. We have to navigate sin mess, relational mess, and life mess. We have to be willing to step into the chaos of bad decisions, hurt feelings, and sharp words to offer acceptance, confession, forgiveness, and encouragement. Sometimes we see the mess in others and want to keep our distance. Other times, we are afraid to allow others into the mess of our own lives. If we want to experience true intimacy, we have to be willing to expose our mess and walk through and towards the mess of others.

Community is hard. It takes time, persistence, and presence. If we want to leave behind surface relationships and enter into life-giving and transformational intimacy, we must acknowledge the obstacles that are present and make the hard decisions to fight for the community we can find on the other side of them.


Look for Mission: Intimacy’s next feature one week from today from another expert on the topic of community.

Click here for a Mission: Intimacy overview and to receive our special guide for this journey.


[i] [i] “Third place” was a concept introduced by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, and it refers to the social environments where we feel “connected” outside the home (first place) and the workplace (second place).

[ii] Will Miller and Glenn Sparks, Refrigerator Rights (Willow Creek Association, 2008), p. 65

[iii] Ibid, p. 65

[iv] Ibid., p. 67-68

Leave a comment