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.