“Community” is one of those buzzwords that has received plenty of attention in the past 10-20 years. Everything is about community. Hospitals are healing communities. College (and perhaps elementary and secondary) classrooms are learning communities. Apartment complexes are living communities. Churches initiate small groups to create more community.
That’s all well and good. I happen to think community is essential to everything I do. Sobriety in 12-step groups happens through community. Spiritual development is attained through community (although it has to be balanced properly with Sabbath and time alone with God, as well). Learning is done most effectively through being a part of a community of students dedicated to the same goal.
But with all this focus on and need for community, what is it? My fear is that it becomes one of those words that we always say but never really know what we are talking about.
So what is community?
Community is intentional. We choose the people we are in community with. This is why people who sell you stuff (housing, education, healthcare, cars, food) want you to know you are joining a community. Small groups in church often form out of the people with whom you talk to the most anyway. We do not end up in a community by accident.
However, the dark side of this truth is that we intentionally choose who we are NOT in community with, as well. Look around your various communities. How much do all the community members look alike? Dress alike? Have similar backgrounds? Similar careers? Similar income levels?
Many of our decisions about the communities we enter are based upon the exclusion of people we want nothing to do with. Often, we dress this up real well. We claim that since we are so different, we would never be able to fully enter into a relationship with certain kinds of people. Christena Cleveland tweeted a couple of weeks ago: “We conveniently mistake intentionality for inauthenticity when it’s inconvenient for us to be intentional.” In other words, when we do not want to make the effort to get to know certain people, we claim it would be inauthentic to do so. When in reality, we are just choosing not to and trying to find the best possible terminology to justify our decision.
Our community groups are formed on purpose. Also from Cleveland: “Neighborliness requires nearness. As long as They are on the other side of town (literally or figuratively), they will continue to be They.” If we are going to form community with new and different people, we will need to start making choices that put us in relationship with new and different people.
Community is reciprocal. Ever try to be in a relationship with someone that had no idea you were trying? (This pretty much sums up my entire high school dating experience!) Community is not something that can happen in isolation.
This may be why we feel so cheated by cell phone companies or the cable company when we have been promised entrance into a grand community only to find that we still have to wait for hours on hold to find out why there were so many hidden charges on our bill. We thought we were part of a community; only we find out we are nothing more than a customer. Conversely, this is why we appreciate those businesses that make us feel “like part of the family.”
Community is a two-way street. People share lives together. I open up and so do you. You share with me and I share with you. Not because we feel obligated to do so, but because we truly want to. We desire connection. After more than 10 years of research, Brene Brown shares in Daring Greatly that she learned human beings are hard-wired for connection; it is what gives meaning to our lives.
Community is painful. One of the difficult things about being in relationship with a group of people is that crap will happen: Family members are going to die. Marriages are going to be strained and may even fall apart. Jobs will be lost and financial hardship will set in. People will move to a different state.
Entering into community means you get to have all the fun being a part of group brings. But it also means you get to enter into the pain that sharing life with humans brings. Although it hurts, this is where community is the most important. When I am hurting the most, I need my community the most.
We may be scared off by the potential pain community can bring. But living in isolation is no less painful. Because when the pain and misery of life set in, two things can make it worse: 1. having no one around and 2. people who offer empty platitudes (such as, “Oh, it will be okay.” “This is just part of God’s plan.”). When we are in community, those we are in relationship with will cry with us, scream at God with us, express doubt with us, and just plain hurt with us.
And that is a beautiful gift that a true community can offer.
What kinds of communities are you in? What kinds of decisions have you made about the people you share life with? How well do you reciprocate with people who share life with you? How well do you share pain?