‘Community.’ In certain circles (or communities!) the word ‘Community’ is a ‘buzzword’. I think as the years go by and technology gives us the freedom to be more isolated, Western society is beginning to realise the importance of community.
In one sense none of us can escape ‘community’. We all belong to one, even if it’s online or our membership is involuntary (ie. the community of our neighbourhood). We’re all part of wider bodies of people outside of our nuclear family, with which we have something in common (ie. location, gender, race, nationality – to name the obvious ones).
And community is good. It’s God-given. When the Bible talks about living as a Christian, it gives advice and instruction which is supposed to be taken in the context of community. After all, the command “love your neighbour” can only be fulfilled in community. And I’d like to debate that the command “Love your God” must be as well – because as Jesus says “Whatever you did for the least of these… you did for me.” Lastly, when God called Abraham, he did so with the promise of raising up a community – an entire nation to serve him.
We’re communal sorts of creatures. We don’t do well utterly alone – however introverted some of us may be! And so we seek community, and we live in community, and even when we try and escape one community, we always find another. And this is natural. But…
The problem with community
Living in community comes with difficulties, and it comes with temptations. You see, community changes us. I touched on this in my last “Hold lightly” post. When we live amongst other people, we inevitably begin to judge ourselves by them. If all our acquaintances are godly outstanding citizens, this is great – and yet however good our role models might be, they are not God. And so they cannot be our sole standard when it comes to character growth.
Yet it’s easy for the people around us to become just that. After all, they are physical human beings with measurable traits – just like us, but different. And so we change. Perhaps consciously, thinking “I want to be like her” or, “I really don’t want to be like them”. Perhaps unconsciously, simply picking up habits and modes of thinking and prejudices as we go along. There’s something natural about this, but it can also be dangerous.
Why? Well, we are not a people group. We are one person. And so it’s problematic when our identity becomes less about us as individuals and more about who we are when we are with certain people, or living as part of a certain group.
Secondly, no one people group has it ‘right’. And so when we measure ourselves solely against others, or find our sense of being and purpose in the groups we belong to, we are selling our self short.
The second problem
Now just as community can continually force us to look inward – to judge and assess ourselves – it can just as easily keep our gaze outward. This is also a problem, because it allows us to assume that when ‘we’ are okay, ‘I’ am okay. Nowhere is this more problematic than when it comes to our spiritual lives. In church communities people may spend a lot of time together doing things like praying, Bible reading, singing – all activities designed to draw us closer to God. The temptation then, is to go home and say ‘I spend so much time with God, I must be right with Him.’ In reality, your community has been spending time with God, which is good and valuable, but in the end, you are not your community. We must not mistake communal faith as personal faith. Being a member of a spiritual community is not enough by itself, and it is not a yardstick by which to measure your own godliness.
My response is not complete, and it’s not for everyone. I’m single, live in two places, and am part of several spread-out communities. I’m not sure how many people are like me. Probably less than I hope and more than I suspect. But this is what I do, to ensure I hold onto community lightly:
I embrace the fact that I can be part of community. I try and see it as a blessing and a gift, rather than a right, and remain thankful for every time I can enjoy its benefits.
I try to make sure there is no such thing as involuntary participation – and the older I get the truer this has proved to be. There is limited time (and for introverts, limited social energy) and so if I’m going to be part of a community, I’m going to be part of it.
I also acknowledge that my role in different communities is just that… different. And that’s normal and fine, as far as I can see.
I depend on the fact that community doesn’t define who I am. When I go places alone, when I am isolated, when I have to make decisions and face change away from the communities I grew up in – it’s hard, but God is still God and I am still me. That is enough – but sometimes I have to tell myself that over and over again.
I try not to be afraid to step out of my community, and instead use such opportunities to understand what it is like to be lonely or overlooked in order to better love others, and know the comfort God alone brings.
I seek to remember to draw others into community, and not be afraid that they will judge it or disrupt it. Community is not some fragile thing that I need to protect. It is valuable, yes, but not precious (it’s not up to me to defend it, per say. After all, how can I possibly hope to defend the actions of a multitude of different people with different motives?)