I’m tired of people, especially leaders of Christian organizations and churches, using the word community without really meaning it. I’m tired of seeing the word unthinkingly slotted into vision statements, mission mottos and the written values in a church constitution or organization policy documents. And I’m tired of walking into churches which emblazon the word community in their names and yet practice very little of it.
Sorry if that sounds a little harsh. It’s just that what I see and experience around me today is such a far cry from the alternate, reign of God shaped community, practicing embodied love in our world we are supposed to be, that I sometimes want to yell out “Stop! We are doing this all wrong. Quick, hit the refresh button!”
Community is Both Neutral and Subjective
I’ve recently moved into a new neighborhood and it has made me think a lot about how we use that word community. On the one hand, community is a neutral word. So for example, the community where I dwell in the inner city is in a particular village in that city. “This is my community.”
However, we also use the word community to convey values such as, intimacy, connectivity, equality, respect, care and interdependence. In that sense community is a very subjective experience. To most people community means a sense of truly belonging. In my neighborhood, community is something that people desire and they will do almost anything to find it whether they share a coffee in a hole-in-the-wall cafe, stop at a local park to talk with one another as they connect through their kids or pets, attend festivals, events, markets where they can feel like they belong to something bigger and greater than themselves. My community also ferociously values diversity. Sure, there are issues in my local community around alienation, loneliness and displacement, but mostly people get community, they crave it and they know what to do in order to connect with one another.
Church as a Deeper Expression
I think the church must display an even deeper expression of community in our world. We are after all, a community which is modelled in some sense on the relationality of a God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can offer a manifestation of community which is counter to the false narratives of our world, shaped by reign of God values and led by a people of God who practice embodied love towards others.
Why are we so slow to present this to our world? I’m not saying that there are not any churches which do community well. Maybe your church is one of those. But do I see churches courageously practicing the alternate values of the kingdom of God which create authentic Christ-centered spiritual community? Do I see the church leading in and bringing healing to our society by building true community? Not so much.
In this short article I want to look at what stops us from building kingdom communities in our local contexts which flesh out alternate and deeper values than our culture, stemming from the gospel of good news.
Fragmentation of Society
It is not a new insight to observe that our culture today in the West is deeply fragmented. The week that I write this article a story appears in the local newspaper which tells me about a dilapidated house that has sold in my local community for over one million dollars. The inner city village that I live in is becoming more and more gentrified leading to an increasing disparity between rich and poor. So the privileged looking for a bargain, can afford to buy ridiculously expensive homes and the poor are left isolated, lonely and increasingly marginalised from the mainstream.
The house that was bought for over one million dollars, it was reported, belonged to a single woman who lived alone. She died in that home and no one knew about it. Incredibly, her dead body remained in that home for eight years until it was found. She was labelled the “Woman that Sydney forgot”.
We live in cities, towns and villages in the West where it is possible for people to buy million dollar houses and yet these homes stand alongside other homes inhabited by lonely, disenfranchised and vulnerable poor people. Usually the two groups of people never interact or meet. This is how we can have situations where a woman can be dead in her home for eight years and no one notices.
Self Absorption and Consumerism
As I write this article, I sit in a café and look up to see that there are some people sitting alone, others sitting with friends, yet most of them are looking down at their phones rather than each other. Children are laughing and playing together, dogs are joyfully barking at pigeons fluttering by, yet most people bend their heads forward as if in worship or prayer mesmerised by their phones. What would happen if we noticed each other more? Instead of being narcissus-like maybe the spell of self-obsession would be broken and perhaps the delight of community would permeate our lives.
This self absorption is essentially the foundation of consumerism, a worldview which we have absorbed along with the secular community. This produces a syncretistic expression of Christianity. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman makes an incisive observation on how social media raises to the surface this consumeristic attitude which contributes to the breakdown of community. He says;
“The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute.
The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with….Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy…
But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.”
The Transient Nature of Our Communities
People today are more likely to move due to job opportunities, career advancements and lifestyle choices. This changes our way of thinking about community and building relationships so that the moment we begin to plant ourselves in a community we are mentally preparing to leave again in the not too distant future. Instead of having the perspective of committing to people in our local contexts, we don’t bother connecting deeply, because we know the friendships will end nearly as soon as they start as we move to the next geographical location. Sometimes movement is unavoidable and necessary in the life stages of a family. However, other times decisions could be made to remain planted in a local context, meaning perhaps sacrificing some comforts and conveniences but it may also mean being rewarded with life-long relationships and earning trust with the local community.
Fear of ‘the Other’
In an essay titled “Fear” in her book The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson writes “There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere”.
Today we live in an atmosphere of gratuitous fear. It has become such a part of our environment that we find it hard to identify when it rises up in our hearts and stomachs. Fear of those who are different to us thrives and it inhibits missional hospitality, true friendship and deep trust. Deb Hirsch explains in the book Untamed how fear builds walls rather than connections between people. She says that our normative perspective is that;
“This is ‘our’ space, and those we may “invite” into that space are carefully chosen based on whether they will upset the delicate status quo, inconvenience us, or pose a threat to our perceived safety. In other words, visitors, especially strange ones, stress us out. And while this is in some sense culturally understandable, the negative result in terms of our spirituality is that the family has effectively become a pernicious idol…. Culture has once again trumped our social responsibility. In such a situation, missional hospitality is seen as a threat, not as an opportunity to extend the kingdom; so an idol is born. It’s not hard to see how this is absolutely disastrous from a missional perspective. Our families and our homes should be places where people can experience a foretaste of heaven, where the church is rightly viewed as a community of the redeemed from all walks of life. Instead, our fears restrict us from letting go of the control and safety we have spent years cultivating.”
These characteristics and more, stop us from building counter-cultural kingdom communities which build deep relationships between people, create mutual accountability, care for each other and cultivate appreciation for diversity. The values of sacrifice, radical service, love of enemies and lives of cruciformity are sorely missing in our communities today.
In the next part of this article I will explore disciplines that we will need to put into place if we want to cultivate these radical, cruciform communities which will bless our world and give life to our local neighborhoods.