What is ‘community’?
There is so much talk about creating community and yet nearly everyone I know (personally or virtually via blogs and tweets) has a quiet ache for greater acceptance, belonging and value. I heard someone say that they go on Facebook because they feel lonely and an hour later they feel even lonelier because they forfeited time they could have spent with an actual person. Our relationships tend to skip like carefully chosen pebbles on the lake of shallowness and pretense. Attempts to go deeper get swallowed up by the gravity of pride, fear, and well, dishonesty.
We’ve tried to blame technology for our short attention spans. We’ve tried to blame others for their judgmental attitudes. Yet the clock has struck twelve and the wheels have fallen off our pumpkins. The fairy tale is over: We are lonely because we are too afraid, too proud, and too fragile to tell the truth about ourselves. We’ve got no one else but self to blame.
We tend to think that the problem of loneliness will be fixed with people. “If I just find the right people, they will understand me; they’ll accept me. I’ll belong. I’ll have value.” So we search for the perfect “community.” We try to find people who are either just like us or who like us just as we’ve fantastically projected ourselves to be. Loneliness is such a liar. It tells you that you need new people, but what you really need is truth.
Listen to what Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have to say about this:
The Sermon on the Mount is after the formation of a visible, practical Christian community…The Sermon is not addressed to individuals, because it is precisely as individuals that we are most apt to fail as Christians. Only through membership in a nonviolent community can violent individuals do better. The Sermon on the Mount does not encourage heroic individualism, it defeats its it with its demands that we be perfect even as God is perfect, that we deal with others as God has dealt with us.
Which leads us to say that we are not advocating community merely for the sake of community. The Christian claim is not that we as individuals should be based in a community because life is better lived together rather than alone. The Christian claim is that life is better lived in the church because the church, according to our story, just happens to be true. The church is the only community formed around the truth, which is Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, the life. Only on the basis of his story, which reveals to us who we are [not just merely who we want to be] and what has happened in the world, is true community possible.
In a world like ours, it is tempting to seek community, any community, as a good in itself. Liberal society has a way of making us strangers to one another as we go about detaching ourselves from long-term commitments, protecting our rights, thinking alone. Our society is a vast supermarket of desire in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.
When people are very detached, very devoid of purpose and coherent world view, Christians must be very suspicious of talk about community. In a world like ours, people will be attracted to communities that promise them an easy way out of loneliness, togetherness based on common tastes, racial or ethnic traits, or mutual self-interest. There is then little check on community becoming as tyrannical as the individual ego. Community becomes totalitarian when its only purpose is to foster a sense of belonging in order to overcome the fragility of the lone individual.
Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those who he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus. (From, Resident Aliens, 1989)
This requires honesty, vulnerability, and humility. All discipleship does. It is hard to be faithful to the Way, the Truth, the Life, if our greatest commitment is to the nurturing of our personal fairy tales. Discipleship–being faithful to Jesus–exposes our counterfeit selves.
I wonder if so many of our communities and relationships are flat and failing because we are too busy trying to manage everyone’s personal story. You might consider how a challenging relationship in your life would change by dropping your story and asking Jesus what it would look like for you to be faithful to his story.