The Loss of Community
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Unfortunately, for centuries the Christian vision of church was narrowed to what we have today—a preoccupation with very private salvation. Our “personal relationship with Christ” seems to be with a very small notion of Christ. We’ve modeled church after a service station where members attend weekly services to get their faith fix. We’ve commodified the very notion of salvation. No wonder church attendance and membership is down, while there’s a dramatic increase in the “Nones” and the “Spiritual-but-not-religious”—those who don’t identify with a particular religious tradition at all.
People want something more from church; they long for a spirituality that connects with their whole life, not just on Sunday morning. The very nature of our lifestyle and our church teaching must point to the goal: the communion of saints, a shared life together as one family, Trinitarian relationship, the “Reign of God.” Church is meant to be a place that nurtures and supports individuals along their journey toward this goal.
Much of formal church has been unable to create any practical community. Yet today we see the emergence of new faith communities—many para-church structures—that seek to return to this foundational definition of church. They may not look like obvious “church,” but they exemplify the kinds of actual community that Jesus, Paul, and early Christians envisioned. People are gathering in neighborhood associations, collective gardens, social services, and volunteer groups to share resources, support each other, and nurture connection. They’re coming together, seeking creative ways of healing and whole-making. The invisible church might be doing this just as much, if not more, than the visible. The Holy Spirit is both humble and anonymous.
In the 1970s and 80s I witnessed and participated in a similar movement of building community called the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati. Many communities that evolved during this time failed, I believe, because they talked, met, and worried themselves to death. After years of in-house and seemingly cyclical conversations, many movers and shakers decided to move on. Usually they later admitted that community was an excellent school of growth, character, and conversion. But it was too often not a permanent “home” for many reasons.
It’s all too easy to project unrealistic expectations on our community. No group can meet all our needs as individuals—parenting, marriage, therapy, and emotional, mental, and physical well-being. The human psyche needs space and healthy boundaries. Even in marriage, you cannot meet most of your partner’s needs; in the end you still remain a profound mystery to one another. Expectations of false and impossible intimacy make practical community very difficult, and sometimes even counterproductive. The thousands of disillusioned and alienated former community members are a judgment not only on the limits of their communities but also on our own narcissistic expectations. But imperfect community can still be a good school!
So what makes a good community? The remainder of this week we’ll look at a couple of factors that contribute to healthy, whole communities. Our very survival as a faith tradition and as a species might just depend upon this. Remember, the isolated individual is fragile and largely helpless to evoke long-term change or renewal.
Gateway to Silence:
We are one in the Spirit.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 14-15; 50-51.