Part 3: Community
When I was a kid my best friend lived around the block from me. I would wander to his house almost every day to see if he was available to play. Of course, on the days that he beat me to it and showed up on my doorstep, I was saved the two-hundred-yard walk. The streets of my neighborhood growing up were filled with children. We often played baseball, basketball, street hockey, and football in the streets. We rode our bikes for miles to gather in larger groups and organize bigger games in parks. None of it was “official” or sanctioned by any professional association. We had no coaches or referees.
I remember my dad doing yard work and having a neighbor come out to start chatting. They would talk for quite some time, and then he would get back to whatever he was doing. It was not uncommon to see adults sharing conversation and relationship as you went around any neighborhood. Adults in our neighborhood also used to look after all the kids. If any of us were getting into something we weren’t supposed to be doing, we would get a talking to from any adult who happened to catch us. Usually, they wouldn’t know our parents, but if they did, you can be sure our parents would then know about our “activity.” There was a deep commitment to the community we lived in which was seen as something much more than a collection of personal property. The people mattered in a way that was top billing.
I am not sure about you, but if you drive the neighborhoods around my house these days, this kind of community bustle is not as evident. Kids are not playing outside. Adults are not shooting the breeze in their front yards. Community has too often become something that is resigned to professionally organized activities, or carefully planned get-togethers. Youth recreation leagues are a hot business. Kids are serious about their regimented practices and barely have enough time to just hang out.
Social media has been a further development in the last fifteen years. People spend more and more of their time “connecting” or keeping in touch through a screen and a wall of pictures and text. Many psychological studies have explored how the reward centers of our brains are activated when we get more “likes” on our posts, or the stress reactions triggered when we encounter negative interactions on social media. We are re-wiring our brains into addiction to these superficial means of connection. From my experience, social media has added very little of value to my life, but I do feel the incredible negative effects almost every day. The idea of quitting it completely is not even on the table because I would miss out on too much or not be able to communicate the way that people communicate today. Like it or not, social media has taken on many of the communication roles that email did when it leapt onto the scene, but is far more nefarious in confusing our natural needs of social interaction than email.
We are beginning to see some talk in popular culture about the effects of this way of living. Many tech czars of Silicon Valley have come out and said they won’t let their kids have a smartphone or go on social media because it is too unhealthy. In coming years, there will be a deep desire for real, healthy, in-person relationships, but people won’t know how to find it. This is an important need for the church to anticipate. When that day comes, we will be poised to offer real and healthy relationships like no other. This is the very core of the Christian existence because we were not saved to be lonely islands. We were reclaimed to be a part of God’s reconciled and reconciling community.
Two Keys to Reclaiming Community in the Church
First, we need to put a bigger emphasis on small group meetings. Relationship at the levels needed can’t happen in an auditorium full of 2000 people. Worshipping in larger groups will never go away and is still an important aspect of the Christian life. These gatherings in larger setting have dominated the focus of church life for a very long time, but it has not always been that way. In the distant past, and in rural areas today, regular smaller meetings are more normative, while larger gatherings were the rare occasion. People are so busy these days that we will see a shift like to the former model, gathering more frequently in what we call “small groups” today, and less frequently in the larger settings. I don’t think this will be a function of intentionality as much as necessity.
Churches in the USA have been experiencing attendance declines on Sunday mornings for some time now—even before the current pandemic which has created a crucial need for Christian community. When the need for community becomes more immediate, we will find that people are willing to commit to a weekly small group gathering over a larger Sunday morning gathering. When this happens, the church will need to be ready to make that shift. We will need to prepare ourselves to focus on what draws people into deeper relationships with each other for the growth of their faith. This is a positive shift. The deeper personal relationships formed in smaller settings will lead to deeper spiritual growth through accountability and mentorship. People will not be consumers of spirituality as has become habit for many on Sunday mornings. Jesus never commanded for us to gather and sit all facing one direction once a week listening to a sermon or singing songs. Are those things bad? No way! But they are not the only way to worship and are not the only way for community to happen.
Second, we will need to stop arguing about petty things. For too long, the church has allowed unimportant or secondary issues to divide us. We went from a religion with unity to one of incredible fractures and deep wounds. Some of these arguments were very important, to be sure, but most were immaterial to the ability to live in faithfulness toward each other. Jesus gave his disciples a command near the end of his life. This command was connected directly to a result.
“Love one another as I have loved you, by this the world will know that you are mine.” -John 13:15
Jesus did not love us when we got things right. No, he loved us while we were still sinners. He loved his disciples when they got things drastically wrong. He loved us when we were nailing him to a cross. He loved the early church when they were struggling over issues of circumcision and what to eat. He didn’t wait until we got it 100% right. That is kind of the point of our faith. We have far less tolerance for this kind of imperfection than God. God worked for millennia with a nation of people who continually seemed to get it wrong. He patiently guided them and kept them until his timing to save all humanity was reached.
One of the forces tearing community apart today is the inability to disagree and yet still love and fellowship with those whom we disagree. Political divisions have created heartbreaking rifts in families and friendships. Disagreeing over scientific findings has split whole cultures in two. Disagreement should not be the end of relationship, but it should be an opportunity for forbearance and love the way Jesus showed. Even deeper than that, the Incarnation should teach us that we can actually step into the shoes of those we disagree with and learn why they think the way they do. If the church wants to be serious about building real relationships the way God intended them, we will have to learn how to handle disagreement in loving and fruitful ways rather than destructive and divisive ways.
Questions to consider:
1. What do you think the growing need for deeper community will mean for the church?
2. Do you think the church can be an answer to that need?
3. Is there another element to community that I haven’t thought of or mentioned?
Leave a comment and let’s discuss.