If there’s a word — and, more importantly, an idea — that gets more traction in Christian conversations these days, I’m not aware of it. Maybe that’s because in our often relationally fragmented world, the promise implied by the word community seems like an oasis. Everyone is talking about its refreshing, rejuvenating power. Everyone wants a taste.
But what is community? And why does it sometimes seem that the oasis we see in the distance turns out to be a mirage?
Community, in the most basic sense, is a place where we enjoy relational connection and common ground, a shared perspective that binds us together. When I ruminate on why our hearts seem almost instinctively drawn to community, I think it’s because God has created us with an inborn need for relational contact. We long to know others and to be known, to experience a place where we belong.
The theme song to the ‘80s sitcom Cheers distilled this ideal to its essence: “Sometimes you want to go/Where everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came.” That’s it, isn’t it? That’s really what we’re longing for when we talk about community — a place where we know we belong and where our absence is immediately noted.
In theory, finding authentic, life-giving community should be easier for Christians. After all, we share so much common ground as believers in Christ that the Bible calls us brothers and sisters. Yet, sometimes the contexts where we gather as believers (church, college and singles ministries, online communities such as Boundless) feel like places where no one really knows our name after all, where the connection we hoped to find proves elusive. Or, worse, where people we hoped would treat us better than those out in the world prove to let us down in very similar ways. What then?
I spent 11 years (from age 23 to 34) participating in and helping to lead three different groups of single young adults before I got married. And my wife and I continued actively in ministry to single young adults after we tied the knot. We watched lots of folks discover community in those years. But we were also vexed by some who seemed to grow disenchanted with the possibility of community in those groups, eventually dropping out and looking for it elsewhere, despite our best efforts to create an environment where people felt welcome and valued. And if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I, too, had seasons of disappointment when it came to finding genuine community, moments where I wrestled with my own temptation to punt on my own hopes in this area. Indeed, disappointment, rejection and hurt in the church can easily yield aloofness and cynicism when it comes to our heart’s desire to find belonging. After all, if we can’t find it there, where can we find it?
I think lots of factors influence whether people discover the relational connections they’re looking for. It’s a complex equation, with variables that include age, race, gender, temperament, experience and a bit of serendipity. That said, my wife and I consistently noticed one simple-but-surprising common thread in the people who would eventually say that they experienced community: They stuck around.
Seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? Even clichéd. But the people who experienced deep and lasting relationships, community where people really knew them, were usually the ones who kept showing up — even when they wanted to quit and were tempted to start again somewhere else.
And that, I think, is one simple but profound key to experiencing real community. When we commit to keep showing up — to worship, to serve, to fellowship, to talk, to argue, to play together — I think it gives God the space to slowly weave our lives together in ways we might otherwise never have expected.