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What Does Community Mean When People Keep Leaving?

My wife Faith and I live together with two housemates. It’s great having other folks to share our home with, not to mention the gas and electric bill! I’ve always lived in some form of community or another, so it’s hard to even imagine life without anyone else in the house.

Right now, though, we’re in a time of transition. Both of our housemates, within 2 weeks of one another, let us know that they planned to move out.

That either of them would move out wasn’t surprising. It was always understood that they wouldn’t be with us forever. Still, it was rather startling to learn that both of them would be moving out this summer.

This shift has me thinking again about the overall transience of our city – Washington, DC. Many people, especially younger people, come here for a relatively short period of time. We come for work, fun, and adventure. But very few of us come with the intention to stay.

The fact that Faith and I have stayed in the District as long as we have is something of a miracle. I certainly didn’t think I’d be here for this long. With almost six years logged here in DC, I almost count as a veteran, at least among folks in my age range. Our city is often visited, but rarely settled.

What does this transience mean for the possibility of being part of a long-term, stable community? What does community even mean in the context of the unceasing ebb and flow of arrivals and departures? What does it mean to be the church, the people of God walking in the way of Jesus, when it often seems uncertain how long any of us will be here?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I invite your thoughts and wisdom into my perplexity.

Does community require stability, or can real gospel life be sustained even in environments of great upheaval and disconnection? How does that work? What does it mean to walk together as friends of Jesus in the midst of so much hustle and bustle?

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  • Duncan Pugh

    Actually I have had a similar experience but without the building a religious community aspect. I moved to London when I was 20 and was very much on my own when I arrived. Over time I managed to build a circle of friends through work and friends from my home town who were studying there. Many of my friends were also ‘looking for the streets paved with gold’ Dick Whittington types. Personally I was on an Orwell inspired journey of self-discovery. Others had their own narratives. I found that over 5 years that my circle of friends was constantly changing and I quickly became weary of this although the exciting nature of the reason people were always coming and going, like travelling the world and so on, also incentivised me to make the decision to go travelling and leave the rat race lifestyle of London far behind.

    These days I live in a medium sized UK city and although I miss the anonymity of London, I chose to settle here precisely because I would develop lasting relationships yet as I enter my 50s I realise that the truest friends I have, with the odd exception, are the ones from my hometown and a guy I met in London who now lives in New York and simply cannot understand why I choose to live in the back of beyond. Having children changes things a lot too, have you thought about that?

    I don’t have any answers, just a common experience. If I had built the foundation of a religiously motivated community in London well maybe I would have stayed.

  • I have a pet theory that every religious community (however defined) has a special mission it can rise to or ignore. When I was part of a urban meeting, about half of the attenders on any given day were people who were only going to be there for a few years—until school, jobs, or family responsibilities took them elsewhere. There was enough traffic that a surprising number of liberal Quaker meetings across the country had people who had attended this meeting for a period of time in their youth. It would have been interesting to see the long-term members of this meeting take on an identity that involved spiritual formation and training: continual intro-to-Quakerism courses, monthly lectures, frequent workshops on Quaker basics, active life counseling based on clearness committees, a clear and encouraging pathway for membership even for likely transients, and a support system to get them set up in their new locations (maybe even support for their starting a worship group). This would have consumed most of the energy of the meeting but perhaps that would be enough for one particular spiritual community.

    • That’s an interesting idea, Martin, and quite in line with what Adria Gulizia is saying over on Facebook and QuakerQuaker!

  • Bill Rushby

    I returned to Michigan State for the 1972-73 academic year, plus most of the 1973 summer. I attended both the Friends Meeting (which met in mid-afternoon) and the Mennonite Fellowship, which met in the morning and evening; everything on Sunday, of course. At the end of the academic year, I dropped out of meeting, and just attended the M. fellowship.

    The Friends Meeting was really too liberal for me. They put me to work teaching First day School, so I actually participated in meeting very little. This shows that they were not too concerned about what the children were taught or, perhaps, they trusted me to do no harm; I don’t know!

    My closest relationships and personal sympathies were with the Mennonite fellowship. I often did things with friends in the group, and the fellowship was very supportive of me, even though I was among a very few who were more conservative in appearance than most group members. Most of the Friends looked upon my appearance with incredulity, I imagined. So, what’s my point???

    Though the Mennonite fellowship approximated the Friends meeting in the relative transiency of its members, my involvement there was much more intensive. The Friends didn’t get into each other’s homes, and they rarely saw each other outside of meeting. And, at meeting, the unprogrammed format meant that there was little or no meeting of minds or personal sharing. Other than for the *few* Friends I knew from earlier years in the meeting, I don’t even remember the folks who attended!

    The Mennonite fellowship offered a stark contrast. Nowadays, I rarely see anyone from the group, but I remember most of the people who were involved, including small details such as jokes they told, how good they were at racquet ball, etc. One caveat: the small groups, called K(oinonia) groups, were divided into those with children and those without. Those with children met on Sunday afternoons, and those without met in the evening. I was much more involved with the members of the evening group, which I participated in.

    Moral of the story: members of an urban fellowship need to find ways to approximate the multi-stranded relationships common among co-religionists in rural areas. Other things being equal, this won’t just happen. It needs to be worked at, for a meaningful sense of community to develop among group members.

    • Thanks, Bill. I think you’re right that we need “multi-stranded” relationships, as you say. And I also think you’re correct that these kind of relationships don’t come naturally in much of the (post)modern world. This is something that the Friends of Jesus Fellowship has been working on for a few years now, and it’s very challenging. Going against the flow of the surrounding culture is hard, especially when it’s difficult to articulate what the problem is!

  • This may miss the point, but maybe not. My sense is that community, especially Quaker community, has always been fluid. People died, and mortality was a real issue in the old days, people travelled frequently, people moved. Perhaps we put too much value in physical proximity.


      On the other hand, there is true value in stability, with or without a vow there to.

  • Mark Russ

    Thanks for this Micah. This chimes very much with my experience.

    I was part of a Quaker Bible study group for a number of years. For the first few years, the group had a core of committed people. It was something we all valued highly, and so came at the top of our list of priorities. It grew to a point where we experimented with splitting into two groups. After that one of the groups dies out. Then the group I was in became a group where it was a different combination of people each time. Eventually I realised I was the only person for whom this was a priority, so I laid it down. Whilst we had people who were committed, it was a place of real depth, growth and healing. When it became an optional activity among many other activities, I felt it really lost its vitality.

    I think an element of transience is fine, as long as there’s a committed core who feel adequately strong and supported amongst themselves. Friends House Meeting in London, because of its location, has a huge number of newcomers every week, which I know some regular Friends House Quakers find exhausting.

    I’m really looking forward to committing to a locality (Birmingham) in September. London is such a hard place to build community because it is so transient and unpredictable.

    • Thanks, Mark. Your experience rings very true for me! It’s not whether people leave or not, it’s about the nature of the core group that persists long-term.

      I actually think your comment resonates quite a bit with what Bill Rushby commented, above.

  • Bill Rushby

    Social structures vary in “density”, depending on how multi-stranded the relationships are among those who participate in them. My impression is that liberal Friends meetings, especially in urban areas, are very low in social density.