Community

Community: A vague concept meant to reflect experiencing the life of faith deeply and honestly with a group of other believers who you know well and see regularly.

In my awkward, junior high days, it came like a gift.

I sat, that first day of youth group, shy and insecure on a ragged couch, and they absorbed me. In one moment, I was new; in the next, I was part of it, just one of the gang.

The eighth grade girl next to me with her toothpaste-ad smile and touched the end of my  braid. “You have the best hair,” she said, and it was kindness, sincere and unearned.

I didn’t have to say anything or prove that I was loveable. I was simply loved.

In the junior high days and the high school ones, they don’t use the word community; they call it youth group. Fifteen large pizzas in the church gym and giant sumo suits and music loud enough to fill the whole place up.

It was ski trips and sledding and Superbowl parties, and in the midst of all of that, we were talking about Jesus, talking about life, our Light growing brighter because of each other, because of three hours of crammed in a van on the way to the Sparta bike trail.

Surely I knew that community would change in the growing up. It would include different people. It would look a little less raucous, a little more like backyard barbeques and card games. But ultimately, I imagined that youth-group-feeling would expand, grow, take into it spouses and children and 9-5 and routine.

But there is a natural gravity to the American life, and if we don’t make an effort, we find ourselves pulled inward to our own nuclear families, circling our own rhythms and routines. We say “we” and what we mean is the four people who live and move and breath in our single-family homes, not that larger we, the more complex we, the one that we must choose to love.

At church, we have to be told to do it: “Turn and greet a few people around you,” the pastor says, and there are awkward handshakes all around. In the foyer, it is weeks of small-talk before someone finally says, “Would you like to come for dinner?”

We get older, a little more broken and cynical. We focus all of our love on a few select people, and we lose the ability to absorb one another.

And you can go to every church in a fifteen-mile radius and still never find that whole thing, that unbroken thing, that ready-made community who takes you all the way in. If you are tired and delicate enough, this can feel like a reason to give up.

Don’t forget, though, that last night of the Jr. High Bike Trip, when you all sat in a circle and threw that ball of yarn back and forth. “I appreciate you because…” you said. You had to look into their eyes and say it; that was the rule. You had to mean it. You were throwing the yarn, wrapping the small pieces of it around your fingers, and you were all connected in that moment, in one great web of grace.

And still, there is truth to this. We are one beautiful, whole thing that is broken across places and time zones, across personalities and disagreements. We meet one person for lunch, email another. We touch someone’s hand, hold someone’s child, go out of our way to say the kind thing.

It doesn’t look like we hoped, doesn’t feel like community, and it’s okay to ache for the brokenness of it all. But when it’s your turn, take that ball of yarn in your hands, throw it forward, look in someone’s eyes. Mean it.

28 thoughts on “Community

  1. Dang, this is a shot in the arm. This whole week, I’ve felt lethargic and drugged because my community here is a makeshift, transient one, and as summer gets closer, my edges are starting to grate on the edges of other people. Sometimes I really envy my students for being so fully absorbed into the school community that they don’t realize how it’ll naturally break apart as they grow up.

    I am tired and frustrated right now, and more than anything, I feel like crying. Secretly, I was hoping maybe you’d write something that would justify my feeling crappy about my community, but I suppose I’m glad that you didn’t, because now I’m going to take a walk with a friend, during which we’ll probably both cry, and I’m going to choose to be thankful that at least I have one person to cry with.

    1. Shar, I’m so sorry that your feeling sad and frustrated. Andrew and I lived in China for a year and I so REMEMBER what that felt like, how desperate and lonely I felt. I wish I could give you a hug.

      I think during that year, I hung a lot of hopes on this idea that once I got home and found an American church, things would be better. That maybe the community that I ached for was there waiting for me. The hard, painful lesson was that community like it is in the tv shows, not that self-contained easy thing. Not most of the time. Most of the time it’s a little piece-meal, a little here and there.

      That said, I’m sending you love and prayer from here in Minnesota. Be encouraged. You are loved.

      1. Thanks for what you shared, Shar, my heart goes out to you. Community is such a tricky thing. In adult life, it can really ebb and flow–I’ve experienced both time and time again. Henri Nouwen helped me by writing that it is possible to befriend our loneliness and not see it as an enemy. It’s a sign of our need for God and others. I think most significant endeavors in our lives shift our community in some way (sometimes in major ways)–and your time in Spain is certainly a significant endeavor. Trust that the ebbs don’t last forever and will not define the experience.

        Good post, Addie, and good thoughts in your reply above.

  2. I wonder if we lose that sense of urgency for community as adults. It’s like kids know they’ll wither without community, but adults are on their way to becoming self-sufficient.

    1. I think there’s definitely some truth to that. When we’re young, we find our value in our friendships, as we get older, it starts to center more around significant others and family. We get busy at the work of life. “Hanging out,” is not a thing we have time for or make time for anymore.

      But I think that the ache remains for a place where you know and are known, where you “do life together” (look! another cliche!), where it’s all a little easier, because you’re in it together.

  3. sincerity and authenticity-lacking as adults….too much needing to look like we have it all together and needing the house to be just so before company would come over…and being so busy with so much, that really, dinner for another family just seems so much work….sad sad sad.

    thanks for the reminder for the need of community and our responsibility to actually create it….

    1. Love that last sentiment Suzin: our responsibility to create community.

      I tend to get wrapped up in the fact that it doesn’t look like I imagined, like I wanted it to, like the books and the movies instead of looking for the glimmers of it where it exists and actively cultivating that.

  4. Christians need to watch more football games together, more Nascar races, more good concerts. Christians need to cook together, to play baseball, rake leaves, mow grass, catch fish, hunt deer, build barns, drive 4x4s, jump motorcycles, shoot guns.

    We do too much sitting around listening to preachers and not nearly enough loving on each other.

    Not knocking preachers or listening to them, just pointing out that “Christianity” has become a religion of sitting and listening to a talking head. Period.

  5. I’m allergic to “community.” Seriously, I’m a total isolater. Introverted sounds more acceptable. But I know people are too important to isolate.
    Anybody familiar with the language of “Spaces?”
    1st space – (mine) gatherings of the people who are safe because they think like you, believe like you, look like you, talk like you, meet with you…for many it is their local church.
    2nd space – (ours, on my initiative) not the church; the people you go to be with in their “1st spaces,” on purpose, because you believe in community so much that they are important to you even if you don’t know them yet…and they’re scary…and they don’t seem to want you around.
    3rd space – (theirs, and I have to be invited in) when finally I’ve left my 1st space, and enjoyed time in our 2nd spaces, people actually invite me into their spaces, we have created/experienced community.
    I couldn’t help but notice that you only spoke of the 1st space. How do you feel about the idea that people outside the “evangelical community” could belong in and enjoy our community, even if they don’t share like faith?

    1. I absolutely think that people who don’t share the faith should be included in this community. Maybe I’m nostalgic-izing (which is so not a word) the old junior high youth group, but I feel like this is what they did. You were welcome no matter where you were on your journey. It wasn’t perfect, but it was such a start contrast to ACTUAL Jr. High, which I suppose was that 2nd space you spoke of. (How unprepared we are at thirteen to deal with this space!)

      I guess what I’m lamenting a little bit here is that church, for me, for many of us, often feels like that 2nd space too…particularly as adults. It’s “ours”–theoretically–but it doesn’t feel like ours, even sometimes with all the building, all the relational work. It is so uncomfortable for so long. We are not absorbed the way we used to be when we were young, and we have a harder time letting other people in. People come in the doors, are met by greeters and no one else. And then they leave.

  6. Very true. I have church friends who dislike social media because they claim it hurts real community. But my chances to encourage and bring a smile to someone have been greatly enlarged by FB. Then that leads to coffee together and walks in the park together.

    1. I agree with you Susan. Community is broader and more complex than one-or-the-other.

  7. Yes, Neal. The differentiation of the spaces is significant. When we’re in a new city, far away, or disconnected every space feels like the 3rd kind. You can’t just pick up the phone and automatically find community – even piecemeal. Everything is in “their” space. Everything requires the slow laborious work of building relationships, building a safe space for community to happen. Small talk, feeling each other out, learning how to be there for each other and what the other person needs. As adults, living such different lives in such different environments, saying “You have the BEST hair” just isn’t enough anymore.

    1. Seriously! “Small Talk” has that name for a reason! Great to hear from you Paige! So is there any truth to the rumor that bars are the only real places where “Everybody knows your name”?

    2. Agreed. Especially in new cities and life circumstances, the 1st place is hard to come by. I guess for those 1st space relationships, I don’t need everyone to look and feel and believe the same as me. I just need to feel loved and accepted.

  8. I am so blessed to be a part of community-the real thing. I grew up in Young Life, a lot like a youth group and struggled to find something similar in adulthood. But our new church-it stresses community. It values authentic connections. What a difference. What a place-loved.

    1. That’s so great, Cole. It’s good to know that there are places where this is happening and people are being changed by it.

  9. This was beautiful and true. ‘But there is a natural gravity to the American life, and if we don’t make an effort, we find ourselves pulled inward to our own nuclear families, circling our own rhythms and routines. We say “we” and what we mean is the four people who live and move and breath in our single-family homes, not that larger we, the more complex we, the one that we must choose to love.’ As someone not really in a nuclear family, seeing this makes me sad for the other folks who are in the same situation but really long to love and be loved.

    “And you can go to every church in a fifteen-mile radius and still never find that whole thing, that unbroken thing, that ready-made community who takes you all the way in. If you are tired and delicate enough, this can feel like a reason to give up.” Yes, it sure can; this may seem weird for me to say as someone who is really a loner because I’m just as happy to be ignored, to avoid small talk and social niceties, to be invisible. When I am in a church that is full of people trying their hardest to look like everything is fine, where every strained greeting seems superficial, where no one tries to get to know anyone else, I hurt for people who want this community but can’t find it here.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this word, what it means, and what it could mean.

  10. Really enjoying this blog so far – found it through the article in Relevant magazine. My wife and I were discussing the other day about how the “weeks of small-talk before someone finally says, ‘Would you like to come for dinner?'” has recently been expanding into months and even years of small talk. When you visit a church, it is almost like you as the new person are supposed to chase after the existing members and make them accept you. I have always said that if Jesus had followed this model it would be “Jesus and the three disciples” instead of “Jesus and the twelve disciples.”

    1. I really appreciated this comment, Matt! Thanks for stopping by and for your insight. I love how you put it: how so often it seems like the new person is supposed to “chase” the existing members. How true that feels.

  11. I also found your blog through Relevant. Loved the article there…

    This post really struck home for me. I moved across the country, away from family and friends and my hometown, about 2 1/2 years ago. In some ways it’s been a really good experience and God has taught me a lot of things about myself. In other ways it’s been absolutely miserable. I’ve struggled so hard to find that “community” of my childhood (I’m one of 5 kids and we were all homeschooled so a very close-knit family). It’s difficult for me to even go back to visit my family because I always cry on the trip back. I’m not a very “social” person, particularly in terms of groups. I’ve had a rough time meeting people, particularly at church because I never meet people through the Bible Studies/small groups I’ve attended etc. I know it’s probably my own fault for not reaching out more but sometimes I hate how I can go to church all alone and no one says anything to me (beyond the obligatory “meet and greet”) and most of them are sitting with friends and/or family. Sometimes I feel even worse at church and I didn’t even go for a while because of that reason.

    I think I’ve realize that what community looked like in my childhood was largely based on my family and relatives in the area, plus the church friends we saw every Sunday. That is a very difficult thing to recreate when you’re single and on your own.

    1. I completely get this, Calah. I went through the exact same thing, even as a married person. It seemed like just so much work to connect at church, and I just think that’s so unfortunate.

      All that to say, I’m sorry you’re struggling. I know it’s lonely. I hope that little by little, piece by piece, you find friendship and love until all of the sudden, you look up and realize you have everything you ever wanted.

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