When I was in seminary, community was the thing. We were taught how to use models of group discernment to help us make important life decisions. We had a student government, run on Quaker principles, that was supposed to help us work together as a community. We had shared worship that was meant to draw us into a corporate relationship with God.
Despite all these good intentions, my experience of seminary was largely an individual one. I was on my journey, and others were on their own. I made friends and shared great experiences with others, but the reality was that my fellow students and I were generally only going to be around for a few years. Once we were done earning our degree, we’d be off to some other part of the world.
It was hard to build really strong community in such circumstances. Despite all our ideals about communal decision-making and discernment, there’s only so far you can go when you know that nobody is going to be around three years from now.
Fast forward to my present ministry context: Washington, DC. In many ways, it’s not so different from seminary. I know lots of wonderful people, and we have a good time together. I learn a lot from my friends here, and we support one another as best we’re able. But in the end, we’re all on our own journeys. Some of us will be here a long time; others will be moving on in just a few short years. It’s not always clear who will fall into which category.
Life is in a state of near-constant flux. At any given moment, some of our friends may be leaving the city. At the same time, new and wonderful people will emerge to take their place. Our city is an amazing environment for networking, for making new friends.
Forming community that transcends our individual choices is tougher. What does it look like to bind ourselves together in community when we’re so focused on maximizing our own personal dreams – career, family, life’s work?
These are worthy goals that we’re pursuing. We’ve got jobs we love, children we adore, hopes that we nurture, and ambitions that excite us. It makes me wonder, is it possible that my desire for committed, intentional community has been misguided all along? What if we’d be better off encouraging each individual (or family) to follow God’s call for them? Would we be more faithful if the church embraced individualism?
Even if this kind of radical individualism isn’t the best path to enlightenment, it surely is more in keeping with the spirit of our age. When I look at the movements and networks that are growing and thriving, it is those that allow individuals to take autonomous action to improve their lives, and the lives of others. Most successful movements in our time are those that invite you to come, just as you are, and participate in your own way. No strings attached.
At least not at first.
While I can’t imagine that Christ is truly calling the church to embrace individualism, neither can I believe that our present situation calls for the same type of community that was life-giving in centuries past. Electronic communication and rapid transit have fundamentally altered our reality. The world has changed. What does the faithful church of Jesus Christ look like in these new circumstances? What does it look like to be the body of Christ in such a mobile, fluid, creative, and exhausting age?
Our answer to this question will be crucial for the development of a living faith in our time. Have you found part of the answer? Please share.