Does Biblical Community Happen When You Live Where Everyone Knows Your Name?

Every time I walk past an American Legion building in a nearby town, there are always a couple of grizzled dudes hanging around outside. Sometimes they’re smoking. Other times, they’re tinkering under the hood of a 10-year old Buick or polishing a spit-shiny Goldwing. When I peer through the darkened windows of the place, I can see a handful of guys watching a game. Snatches of conversation punctuated by the occasional shouted instructions of the coaches hugging the barstools floats out of the door. The place has the feeling of a comfortable living room, and the guys who hang out there give me the impression many of them are like family to one another.

I envy those guys. These old soldiers have the common denominator of military service as a starting point for their relationships, and continue to have each other’s backs as they march into their golden years. A few days ago, I read Scott Emery’s post at the Missio Alliance blog where the young church planter considered his own endeavors:

Perhaps it is from the reading I’ve been doing. Perhaps it is from the community I’ve been attempting to cultivate. Perhaps it is from seeing pictures of my friends and family from yesteryear. Perhaps it was a simple contrast of a table of older friends with my younger family. But I wonder, what do we need to do to have a community that grows old together? What intentional decisions and sacrifices need to be made to move towards that end?

There are others asking these questions. They are minority voices in contemporary church culture, to be sure, but the upcoming book by Christopher Smith and John Pattison, the rooted example of poet Wendell Barry, and the countless leaders and church members who become family to one another by staying in the same congregation for decades – or generations – speaks a descant to the church experience of most of us.

When I’ve listened to Garrison Keillor spin his Lake Woebegone stories, or read Jan Karon’s Mitford series, I’ve been left with a feeling of nostalgia for a Cheers/Mayberry sort of connectedness. It’s the same sort of comradeship I see among the vets living out their days together at the American Legion. The writers and pastors who are trying to figure out how to cultivate bonded, life-long community are looking away from the modern Evangelical habits of programs and projects, which excel at fostering shallow acquaintanceships. They’re banking on the fact that living life rooted in one place over many years may be the real key to developing Biblical community.  

During our nine years in Wisconsin, we experienced what it was like to live in a small-town sort of place where people tended to stay put for generations. There were beautiful strengths in this kind of rootedness – tradition, comfort, security, and familiarity. But the strengths were also liabilities. Even after nine years there, we were still treated as outsiders by many. The boundaries of those WI family tribes never stretched far enough to fully enfold “new people”; thus, it wasn’t really community for everyone. I observed that years of living in the same place, going to the same church, and hitting up the same place each week for Friday night fish fry with your cousins won’t create the kind of supernatural community described in Acts 4:32-35.

I admire the work of those asking these questions and trying to respond in new/old ways to the bowling alone isolation of modern life. To tell you the truth, I have a touch of envy about the kinds of questions they’re asking on behalf of those to whom they’re called, because we’ve never really been included in anyone’s longitudinal commitment to form and sustain a community. (A couple of key churches to which we belonged either imploded or split by dysfunction meant that the words of commitment we heard from leaders didn’t translate into long-term life together.)

But their questions leave me with a question of my own. What is the connection between long-term commitment to a place and people and the kind of community described in the early chapters of the book of Acts? I don’t know. 

But I’d love to hear what you think, my friends.  

 

About Michelle Van Loon
  • Pat68

    Hmm….I think there’s only a connection to the extent that those long-term folks have actually embodied the scripture and the radical love of Jesus which flows outside of set boundaries. To the extent that they have not done that, well, you have cliques formed by long-term members that, as you said, do not “fully enfold “new people””. There’s the power family or clique and then everybody else.

  • Marie Butson

    We had an experience in Ohio that was similar to your Wisconsin years. For many family was in town or within a 2 hour drive; not true for us. Even though we tried to fit in ands”chat up” with others in an effort to get to know them, it seems as tho everyone’s dance card was chock full. It wasn’t malicious or rudeness, but a reflection that we can keep only so many close relationships going. The ones that lasted and built a sense of community and safety were those where there was honesty and no “playing the game.” If you were hurting, we talked about lament and how we bind together and bring the lament to God together. In our group, it wasn’t the light and happy times, but the events that broke our hearts and being unable to hide the brokenness with a smile or a “howdy-do?” Walking through those experiences made the times of celebration truly joyful. I remember my last women’s group that I led as a group of women who risked being true to one another able to share the secrets we try to hide when we are in the larger community. Where i worship now, it’s the determination to “stick it out” when things are rough, and remembering our commitment to this church body as our church family. Everyone may not like me, and may think i’m a nutcase, but there’s still love there, and safety– the responsibility to offer ourselves to one another. And that’s why I love our community.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Marie, I like your phrase “the responsibility to offer ourselves to one another”. What are some ways in which you see that responsibility cultivated in the culture of your church?

      • Marie Butson

        I see this when one comes along side another to pray facing a loss that many have trouble talking about (divorce, miscarriage, abortion), or in confession of sin –not being shocked, but listening, praying, talking together, reminder of God’s forgiveness.. Maintaining confidentiality- often in Bible studies it needs to be stated “nothing said here should be shared with anyone else;” being at a church where this goes with out saying minimizes gossip. I’ve rarely been “in the loop”, but knowing there is a lack of chatter among congregants about people’s lives makes for a safe community. It also makes room for people to speak into your life; I had a friend tell me that one of her concerns for me was that I tend to Isolate myself. She didn’t want to see me pull away from relationships when I had to pull out of out triad group. I’m not as afraid to “own” my quirks, idiosyncrasies and personal issues that I wonder if they are sin or not. It’s not a perfect church body, but it is certainly the safest church body I’ve ever been a part of.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Safety and trust are certainly essential components of healthy community, Marie. I’m so glad you’ve had that experience at your church. Those elements are rarer than they should be in many congregations.

          But I am still wondering if those elements, plus the perseverance of determining to be rooted, equals the kind of community Acts describes. Any thoughts?

          • Marie Butson

            I would definitely agree that the committment to THIS church body for as long as we are here provides one kind of stability. At our church in Utah, one gal asked me “So, how long are you here for?” She said this right after being introduced and surprised me, but revealed a spatial instability of sorts. Many in our church (and Christian school) were “transplants” to Salt Lake and most were waiting for the next job to get them out of town. Consequently, the “long-termers” never knew who would stay or go, and getting rooted was tricky. On the other hand, when church members have family close by, it’s also difficult to navigate relationships and to get settled. We’d day “everyone’s dance card is filled”, filled with being with immediate and extended family activities and concerns. (It didn’t help being “square holes” in the Bible belt . .but we did find safe relationships in time.) Where we currently attend, many of our attendees are students, lending a vagabond quality to a portion of our community.The spatial instability is a given. We know and are prepared for the “come and go” nature of students.There’s temporal rootedness as well, I believe. My friends who have encouraged me in this “mid-life adjustment” into seminary and some kind of pastoral ministry are from all over the country: Utah, Minnesota, Iowa, South Carolina, Ohio . . .most of us have had to leave our church community to relocate. But being in the present, rooted in your community, refusing the tendency to “shop” for a church but to find one that seems to be a good fit and settling in– that takes and has taken work, perseverance and submission to the Spirit’s work in and through us, especially when there is disagreement. I am going to a visitation service for a long-time friend of ours; she and her husband were very close when we lived in the same community. When we did catch up with each other, it was like picking up where we left off from our last time together. I wonder what it will be like to go back to her family at this sad season in their lives. The “rootedness” we had in them and others in our church yielded long-term friends: friends who have earned the right to speak into our lives, whether to encourage or rebuke with love because they have known us through the years.

  • tearfang

    I think that the critique that the modern church doesn’t facilitate deep relationships well is correct. I’m sure, everyone knowing your name, does not help nearly as much as advertised. I just don’t see it in the small towns, colleges, and churches. I did undergrad at a small college and grad school at a large university. It was by far easier to connect with people at the large university! Why? Numbers. I join a club for something I was interested in and find a number of people who all already had something in common with me, giving us that connection and something to talk about to facilitate additional connections. What I read about in reasons to stay put is that you get to know the random set of people who happen to live around you. If you do this enough times you are bound to connect with someone… I just have my doubts that random is a good strategy for people to meet others to connect with. I certainly can’t think of anyone who’d avise I take that up as a strategy for dating… which isn’t what this is about but I think similar lessons could be applied.

  • Scott Emery

    Thanks for interacting with post at Missio Alliance. Humbled.

    This whole conversation and the action required for its embodiment is a difficult, difficult thing. We have found it an uphill battle to get through people’s already formed imaginations when it comes to community – including our own. So many factors go into it from distance to each other and group sizes and their inherent inclusivity to economic stresses and theologically nuanced differences between people. Yet, when I read Acts (and other biblical accounts) I can’t help but see the differences between folks and their connection to each other despite them. Greek/Jew, man/woman, slave/free, they all fade as a new humanity emerges. The more I follow Jesus, the more I pray this to be true.

    One thing I keep coming back to is the necessity for listening. For far too long, we haven’t listened well. It is a practice we must resurrect if any of the aforementioned realities are going to come to fruition. Jesus was a listener and a question-asker even more than he was a speaker and answer-provider. It seems to me that we’ve flipped these.

    Anyways, thanks for the interaction. I pray your journey is Spirit-filled.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I appreciated your question and the thinking that went in to your original post. In your search for answers, you will end up going somewhere very different than the person who is asking, “How can I grow my church numerically?” (Or “How can I become the Next Big Thing in church life?”)

      Blessings as you journey toward a deeper commitment in your church community.


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