At that time I was only twenty-four years old. Even then my life was gloomy, disordered, and solitary to the point of savagery. I didn’t associate with anyone. I even avoided talking, and I retreated further and further into my corner. At work in the office I even tried not to look at anyone. I was aware not only that my colleagues considered me eccentric, but that they always seemed to regard me with a kind of loathing . . . No one was like me, and I wasn’t like anyone else. “I’m alone,” I mused, “and they are everyone”; and I sank into thought.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, (30-1)
Last week [D]mergent posed the question: Where is the church’s greatest strength? We offered six possible answers: community, worship, personal morality, spirituality, social justice, and other. The poll is, by no means, intended to be scientific in either its methodology or its conclusions. Nevertheless, I think the results are important to highlight.
With six possible answers one would assume that the leading vote-getter would garner only a plurality, that a majority would be difficult to come by. In this case, however, ‘community’ received 50% of the vote (or as near a majority as it’s possible to get). Tied for second were ‘worship’ and ‘social justice,’ followed by ‘other,’ ‘personal morality,’ and last, ‘spirituality’ (which received no votes). Some of the answers included under ‘other’ could be summarized in this way:
- Centrality of Christ, Jesus
- Clear proclamation of the gospel
- The potential the church enjoys
- The church’s preoccupation with self-preservation (sarcasm, I think)
- All of the above
In my interactions with people about how the church is changing in these uncertain times, it has become increasingly clear that whatever else the church may be (or fail to be), it has the potential in many people’s minds to offer some kind of meaningful place for people to belong. For a variety of reasons (e.g., a more mobile and transient work force, a decreasing sense of being rooted in a particular place, longer work weeks with longer commutes, etc.) finding community gets harder as time passes.
Previous generations (not that far back) in the U.S. could reliably depend on living within rooted frameworks of social interaction–which is to say, you used to be able to count on being born, working, and eventually dying within the same nexus of communal relationships. And while such a life rooted to a particular place is still a possibility, very few people can trust in it as a likely option for themselves anymore.
This social fragmentation has people yearning for human contact within the structural framework of community–whether that’s through clubs, sports teams, non-profit volunteerism, or other affinity groups. The church must come to terms with the intense longing, especially among young people, for a place to belong. The church is a community. And rightly ordered, it is a beautiful community.
- It should both challenge and nurture you.
- It should provide accountability across a broad spectrum of human endeavors and interests, as well as a place to be free from the expectation that you are somebody’s “project,” the object of someone else’s self-improvement agenda.
- It should inspire you to be better, refusing to let you off the hook too easily, but also holding your hand when you can’t remember why being better is something anyone would want to do.
- It should both give you a chance to make friends, as well as to help you understand what true friendship looks like.
Community, however, is not a good as such. Communities improperly ordered, like families, can do indescribable damage. Moreover, similar to other communities, Christian community can fail to live up to its highest calling–which is to equip people for the reign of God–wreaking just as much havoc in the process. Consequently, we ought to be careful not to romanticize community–Christian or otherwise.
But rightly conceived, community seems to be very much what the church at its best has to offer. We would do well to reflect more intentionally about just how we can cultivate the kind of space that people seem increasingly to need.
How does your church seek to offer the space people need to form community?
Let us know how you’re doing it.