Overused Words That No One Really Understands, No. 1: Community

If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware.  The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils Of Online Christian Community, May 5, 2015

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Our idealized picture of "community".

Our idealized picture of “community”.

We in the churches are devoted as much to buzzwords as we are to Christ. Nothing makes us feel as good as when we all use words that, whether or not everyone agrees on a meaning, at least seem to define us. As the first in an occasional series on Church buzzwords that are, for all practical purposes, are meaningless yet used all the time in a kind of mindless mantra, a Zen incantation that clears the mind of thought to soothe our often frayed nerves, I want to offer the word “Community” for our consideration. While sparked by Drew McIntyre’s post about online community, it is long past time for me to vent my frustration about this over-used, undefined word that has become a substitute for real thought.

I want it understood up front that, as much as I have taken Drew to task in previous posts, this post is not at all directed at him. On the contrary, in many ways his description of the perils of “online community” apply just as much to face-to-face interactions in the Church. My objection is not at all about the content of his post. It is, rather, aimed at the overabundance of this particular word in Church dialogue, an overabundance that has rendered it meaningless.

For me, “community” has always meant those already existing networks of relationships among groups of people, however they are formed, into which we are either born or enter through education, shared interest, or perhaps through voluntary association. So our local neighborhoods, towns, even cities – these are communities, and sometimes interconnected, overlapping, and conflicting communities all at the same time. Communities offer us the chance for identity, for being more than just an isolated “I”. For example, I am a part of the community of folks who live in the Red Oak subdivision on the southeast side of Rockford, IL. Each layer of that description is more and more inclusive, identifying me to others who know about our income, social status, and relative place both in the smaller and larger scheme of things. That my wife is clergy means ours is a clergy-family, for all that might or might not imply about who we are, how our family is organized, what kind of a couple Lisa and I are, how are children are raised, etc.

I could go further. We are also a specifically United Methodist clergy family, which links us to other such families. It of course means we are connected to  other such in our city, the Rockford District, and the Northern Illinois Conference, each layer giving particular meanings to who we are. Sometimes these meanings are challenged by particular individuals and families, sometimes accepted, but always that through which we are placed by others who understand the implications of these communal associations.

Churches, of course, are often referred to as communities. In a theological sense, of course, this is most certainly true enough to a point: Congregations are the places where we Christians are claimed, named, and sent by the God who creates us, saves us, and will offer true redemption to us. Congregations come in many sizes and shapes, colors and voices, yet they are “congregations” because they are this or that particular group who worship together, pray together, and fulfill a specific calling and mission offered by the Father in the Son through the Spirit. How much and how well these congregations incarnate these realities, well, that’s always a matter of work and prayer, the occasional argument, yet a dynamic, ongoing, and most of all organic process through which people who have come together, creating this living thing work together to be this particular part of the Body of Christ.

To me at any rate – perhaps under the influence of a Heideggerian understanding of existentialism – communities are things that already exist, into which we enter either through birth, through where we choose to live, and how we choose to fulfill both our avocation and our vocation. They are also living things, which means that as already existing things there are processes and unspoken rules for interactions, for determining who is and is not a leader, and for growth and change. These, too, of course, are subject to change. In order for real change to come about, however, there needs to be a general recognition that they exist, and that they exist in particular forms and not others.

Too often, however, I see and hear the word “community” tossed around as if it suddenly described just any group of people; worse, and sadly, I have seen it used in ways that indicate some people (particularly the hierarchy in the United Methodist Church) believe it is possible to create community out of whole cloth. You know what I mean: Church plantings that seem to believe “Build it and they will come” isn’t a stupid line from a stupid movie, but some kind of theological imperative. Here in the Northern Illinois Conference, for example, there was a huge push from the top down to start new congregations across the map. All the good intentions in the world, all the prayerful consideration any group of people can give, all the encouragement from Scripture doesn’t change the reality that only congregations that come together and offer themselves as members of the denomination and Conference will survive.

My wife has served what were, in essence, new church starts. Both, however, were the result of the merger of already-existing congregations that realized they would be stronger together. Thus, both Community UMC in Lamoille, IL and Cornerstone UMC in rural Elgin, IL are thriving, real communities with mission and ministries that work because there was an already existing base from which these churches could grow. Others, however, have not fared well because just plopping a building down on some land, letting people know its there, then waiting to see what happens isn’t how church works. Ever.

Worse, however, is the whole idea of “online communities”. For example, I am now or have been, a part of several Facebook groups, both public and private. I do not now and would never claim that my identity is tied up with these memberships. All I have joined or been allowed to join because I wished to do so; that does not, however, make them communities. Precisely because of the nature of the medium, there can be nothing organic about these groups. Rather than offer us identity, members give the group identity. Rather than be places where our life becomes richer, these (and other kinds of online groups) are limited precisely because of the medium as to the nature of our interactions. We are limited, due to the nature of these groups, as to what and how far we allow ourselves the comfort of exposing our thoughts. The medium, being electronic and technical, cannot by its very nature offer organic interactions that offer the opportunities for growth and change that really existing, face-to-face communities offer. Precisely because the medium offers people opportunities to interact with people with whom they do not have to live, there is the chance to speak in such a way one would never do in any community of which they are a part.

Some see a virtue in this kind of interaction. Yet, precisely because real communities have boundaries and rules that define how interactions take place, we know what is and is not acceptable. Online, it is perfectly acceptable to slander, defame, and otherwise belittle others, sometimes from the security and comfort of near-perfect anonymity. We often think it would be more honest if, in our face-to-face interactions, we could be as “honest” as we seem free to do online. Communities, however, have rules against “honesty” that is actually hostility masked as “truth-telling” in order to maintain the good order and on-going health of the whole group. All groups, of course, are plagued by clumsy, rude, poorly-socialized, over-bearing, and too-powerful individuals. The nice things is there are ways to address these matters that do not threaten the health of the whole; ways that do not expose some as bitter, hostile, grudge-carrying petty people. When I see any such things online, whether anonymous or not, I have to wonder how well such folks do in the world.

Community is a really-existing thing. It is not a word that can be used willy-nilly as a way either of defining anything we wish or describing just any group of people. We in the churches have stripped the word of any power or meaning precisely because we just toss it around as a cure-all, calling our churches “communities” whether that word actually describes them, because let’s face it: Some churches aren’t communities at all, their dysfunction so clear even to themselves they barely function at all. Nor does the church “create” community. At its best, churches are already-existing communities that, coming together through the Spirit’s call, offer themselves to God. Members of these communities go out and tell their stories, offering a place for others to come not only to praise and worship God, but through membership and attendance, through communal prayer and offerings, to enter in to a whole new identity that will change their lives as well as the lives of others in the congregation.

So rather than just tossing the word “community” around remember: Words mean things. Overuse, thoughtless and careless use rob words of their meaning as much as lack of use.

Rant over. For now.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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