When I ask newcomers what brings them to our church, the most common reply is, “I’m looking for community.”
I often wince hearing that phrase, fearing they won’t stay for long. It’s not that desiring community is a bad thing. The problem is the assumption that community is found, like stumbling upon a hidden treasure.
One cannot “find” community, because it isn’t something to be discovered. Community is never found, only built.
Why Do We Look?
Facebook, Instagram, and similar technologies are marketed as tools to help us connect with others—yet in the process these technologies are reshaping our notions of connection and community. It’s a sad irony that, in the social-media age, more and more people report feeling lonely even as we’re more “connected” than ever before. What gives?
The internet has redefined community in terms of choice. For most of history, community has been a given—something bound to your physical location and comprising your neighbors and classmates and church down the street. You were literally stuck in a community, which forced you to forge relationships with the people you had.
Community is never found, only built.
Those days are gone. You can now form a community with anyone, anywhere. You can find a Facebook group for virtually any hobby or interest; you can interact with faraway people’s daily lives via Instagram stories from the comfort of your bed; you can now even attend “church” in the palm of your hand.
We now treat community like a stop at Chipotle. You can curate your community, just like your burrito, down to your exact preference. In turn, our nation and churches have become more polarized and tribal than ever before.
Age of Bailing
Turning community into a consumer commodity has also led to what The New York Times columnist David Brooks has dubbed “The Golden Age of Bailing.” If community is “found,” it is just as easily left. “Technology makes it all so easy,” Brooks observes. “You just pull out your phone, and bailing on a rendezvous is as easy as canceling an Uber driver.”
This trend is also present in our churches. “Church hopping” is a common term within American church vernacular. I know of a pastor who was guest speaking at another church’s retreat and was surprised to see in the audience someone who had just gone through the membership class at his own church. I’ve seen in my pastoral ministry how quickly people bail—at the first disappointment or disagreement. And when I follow up with the pastor of the next church they tried, it’s no surprise to learn they also bailed there.
Build, Don’t Shop
When we try to “find” a church community, we only treat the church as a consumer. We look for the perfect fit and bail at the first sign of discomfort. We avoid the depth needed to truly transform and sustain our souls. We need to stop thinking like shoppers and more like builders.
How do we go about building, rather than looking for, a community?
1. Don’t be an architect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”
Many of us choose to be architects rather than builders of our communities, dreaming up an ideal church rather than committing to a real church. Yet the more we clutch our own blueprints rather than embrace the people God has placed in front of us, the more grief we will bring to ourselves and to them. Brett McCracken puts it this way: “However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure.”
2. Building requires friction, not comfort.
Consumer approaches to “finding community” naturally favor the easiest and smoothest route. If community is something you choose, naturally you choose one that will make your life simpler, not more complex. Yet it’s only through effort, sweat, and tears that anything worthy is built—community included. The New Testament epistles are filled with imperatives to care, love, and forgive one another. Any genuine and lasting community will have to work through conflict.
Don’t avoid conflict. Use it to make the community even stronger. When we bail at the first offense, we lose an opportunity to reconcile and glorify God in the process of forming a beautiful, unlikely, gospel-shaped family.
3. Build on the foundation of Christ.
We are desperate to find community in hopes that it will fill some empty part of our souls. Yet no community—even the church—can be our ultimate source of life. Rather, the church exists to remind us of where the fountain of life can be truly found. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19–20, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
Let’s not look to find a community that fits our plans, but to build the household of God according to his.
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