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Do We Really Want Community?

We live in a culture that talks a lot about community. Politicians, civic and religious leaders, non-profits and businesses are always announcing programs and initiatives to build and protect community. It’s not always clear what we mean by the word community, but we appear to think that it’s important.

Still, it often seems that the more we talk about community, the less of it we actually experience. How many newly developed residential communities are little more than sleeping quarters for thousands of disconnected households? Even within these households, how much real community is there to be found?

Increasingly, even within the family, each individual is expected to follow their own path – whether in career, school, or romantic relationships. The famous Howard Thurman quote – Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. – is twisted into justifying boundless individualism. If it meets your needs, do it.

In such an environment, how could authentic community ever have the space to grow? Real community isn’t a product that can be bought, sold, or created through ad campaigns and urban planning. Community is created through the simple act of living together and depending on one another over time. It requires that we consider the needs of others on an ongoing basis, even when it frustrates our own desires.

If we desire enduring community, we’ll sometimes be required to sacrifice of our own priorities, even deeply felt ones, for the sake of the family, the congregation, and all those other types of committed fellowships that are increasingly disintegrating in our present day. This is a bitter pill for us as members of a culture that glorifies independence, choice, and individual autonomy. The decision to live in real community is a radically counter-cultural one.

In light of all this, it is fair to ask ourselves the question: Do we really want community? True community will limit our options in many ways; it will tie us down and force us to put up with people and situations that we would rather avoid. Do we truly believe that community is worth the cost?

In my experience, the only way to justify the sacrifices required by community is through recognizing shared needs that can only be met in cooperation with others. What are these needs? What is the shared mission that God is calling us to together, which we simply cannot accomplish as separate individuals?

  • Joanna Hoyt

    The next-to-last question can be answered at so many different levels…Our basic physical needs are met only by the help of others, and trying to meet those needs more through cooperation and shared work, less through exploitation, is part of what I know God calls me to do and what I think God calls us all to do.
    And the shared mission….I think the basic mission is to live sustainably, love God and love our neighbors. We can’t fully do any of those things alone. We can’t always wait for our neighbors to start doing them with us, either, though… we have to begin licing faithfully ourselves and also keep ourselves open to neighbors.
    This is the balance that I find so difficult. When is it most important to stay with the community and let go of one’s own will; when is it most important to follow a leading, however lonely that may be?

  • Ellen Deacon

    I have no disagreement with Joanna’s post. However, Micah, what you write draws from me another level of response:
    The need? To be challenged as we rarely are unless we welcome discomfort. The shared mission? To grow into who God wants us to be. I do not understand hermits, but somehow I suspect that even they find their way to some sort of “communion,” if not community, if they are to come more fully into the Light.
    I am sure that there are times we are called away from community in some sense — as John Woolman was when he traveled, for example (although even then he was testing his leadings in community and depending on the community he found along the way to sustain him in is journeys). And it is very true that community is far from easy. Still, my own deep experience over decades of life in community is that the “cost” is more than worth the “price.”
    If commitment to learning to live in relationship requires us to become open where we prefer to remain closed, to question parts of ourselves and our ways that we prefer not to have to admit to or feel ashamed of, or are attached to beyond reason, or otherwise would rather defend, my life tells me that these are precisely the places where God is reaching for me to learn how to yield to that Will beyond my own, that guides and grows and nurtures and heals. While I, like each of us, must make my own way, I cannot make it according to what God wants if I think I am to do it “on my own.”
    I am so glad to see this issue examined in this way, anew. It is always worth lifting up.

  • Brad

    Howdy. Good thoughts, thanks. Hope you don’t mind. I quoted you on QuakerQuaker.org using the paragraph that begins “If we desire enduring community…..” I used it in the context of a short forum discussion of shared, deep discipleship I started. And no worries, I gave blog info too!

    • Great, thanks, Brad! Mind posting a link to the discussion?