Thinking about Christian Community

Thinking about Christian Community January 2, 2019

As I consider the changes occurring in our society and the movement towards a post-Christian world, I have concluded that one of the most important things we can do as Christians is to focus on the development of our own community. What do you think about when you hear the word “community?” Traditionally, we think about community as people we see every day or even weekly. We might think of our family as the core of the community and the neighborhood around us as an extension of that community. Perhaps some of our co-workers are part of that community as well. And of course if we faithfully attend a place of worship, then we tend to have friends there that are part of our idea of community. Basically people we physically see on a regular basis are part of what we generally see as part of our community.

One of the great pictures of this traditional way of community can be seen in the tradition of barn raising. A barn raising occurred when a family in the community needed a new barn. So everyone in the community would come together, have a dinner, and build the barn. It was a community where everyone for one day would sacrifice their own needs to meet the needs of a neighbor. The unspoken assumption is that when you need the time from your neighbor that the neighbor would be there to help. Thus a community would be made up of people who support each other. Historically they supported each other in part because in living so close together, they shared similar concerns and needs.

But that is becoming an outdated way to understand community. Our shared needs are not developing as much from living close to each other as they once did. So we are developing communities with people that we do not physically see on regular basis. Our technology allows us to interact with people we do not even meet face-to-face. It started off with the phone and our ability to have conservations with others halfway across the world. But today with development of the internet, social media and our ability to develop relationships with others who are not in our immediate vicinity, community has taken on a different meaning. We can spend our time with like-minded individuals with no regard of where they actually live.

In some ways this may be problematic since individuals can live in an ideological silo whereby they have few interactions with people with different political and social ideas than themselves. There is proper concern about the ability of social media to increase the polarization in our society due to our propensity to only interact with people with whom we agree. But social media tools are an opportunity. They are an opportunity to create supportive communities of like-minded individuals. Modern community is not either long-distance online relationships or those in our everyday lives. It is both. In a post-Christian world the ability to support one another is critical, and we should consider how to use both sources of community.

If Christians are headed to, or have arrived in, a post-Christian society, then we are in a society whereby we are no longer the dominant group. In key segments of our society Christians already face a degree of social marginalization that they have not experienced before. In a post-Christian world we can no longer rely on the larger culture, and perhaps we never should have done so, for support of our religious identity. We have to develop a strong social identity that strengthens our loyalty to other believers. We need to strengthen our Christian identity in ways that allow us to withstand the pressures in our larger society.

Emile Durkheim developed important ideas about the changing nature of solidarity. Think of solidarity as the social forces that convince us of the value of our social identity. He argued that in early human societies this solidarity developed because everyone had the same type of lifestyle. For example, in a fishing community the most important unifying factor was that everyone contributed to the fishing industry. Thus everyone had the same economic interest tied to that industry and could relate to the fears and concerns of others in their community. This often led to similar social, ideological and even religious beliefs by those in the fishing community. Thus a social identity develops out of a need to serve the common lifestyle of everyone in the community.

But in modern culture we do not all share the same lifestyle. Economic and cultural diversity is a key feature of modern society. We cannot rely on individuals having similar social interests as a way for the community to develop a common social identity. Durkheim argues that we still are able to develop a social identity in modern culture due to division of labor if we are able to appreciate the fact that we are working together as a team. Not everyone has the same responsibilities on that team, but we are all working together to make sure that society functions properly. We are not all engaged in the fishing industry, but those of us who like to eat fish do appreciate what they do for us. Thus we see them as part of our community even though we have different lifestyles and distinct needs.

It will be valuable for Christians to develop this type of “team” mentality. We do not have to agree on everything. If we still have the same basic commitment to a Christian and biblically based life, then we can work together to build our community no matter what other ways where we have different perspectives. For the sake of the team we forget those differences so that we can work on common projects that further our community and support our larger team.

This does not mean that we accept everyone as part of the team. Some individuals call themselves Christians but do little to promote the cause of Christ. Some have nothing good to say of other Christians and are a detriment to the faith and the causes we are fighting for. We have every right, and indeed responsibility, to discern whether an individual is part of the same team we are on. We need to determine whether we share the same larger long-term goals, even if we have different intermediate goals or ways of achieving our long-term desires. If individuals are truly not on the team, then we would be wise to not work with them or to allow them to sabotage our efforts.

One of the values of developing a strong community is that such a community will help us to develop a stronger identity with our faith. This is a lesson that we can learn by looking towards other cultures that are not in a dominant social positon. For example, Mormons have never had a dominant positon in our society, although they have been very powerful in certain areas of the United States. Because they do not have access to the resources of the dominant society, they have developed their own subculture that selectively accepts some of the values of the larger culture. But Mormons retain their distinctiveness. Thus while they accept some of the larger cultural values in our society, they have an adherence to a traditional family structure that makes them distinct from the rest of the society. This allows the Mormon society identity to mean something that differentiates them from the larger society.

Some Christians have acted in ways that allow them to blend into the culture more seamlessly. This is particularly true with mainline denominations who often accept some of the very values that are moving us towards a post-Christian society. What has been the result of this failure to differentiate the mainline churches from the rest of the culture? Decades ago Dean Kelley looked at this question and came to the conclusion that the failure of mainline churches to be distinct from the rest of the society resulted in their declining numbers of adherents. Indeed Kelley went as far as to argue that the strictness of more conservative churches played an important role in helping those churches to thrive. This strictness signaled that what they had to offer was valuable. Requiring the members of their churches to resist the basic values of the larger culture turned out to be an asset for growth among conservative churches. Looking like the rest of society will not save the church in a post-Christian world. As a matter of fact, looking like the rest of society is more likely to hasten the collapse of the church.

When Christians look different from the rest of society, then they will have the ability to develop a social identity that helps orient them to see themselves as distinct. It will help others to appreciate that we have something to offer the larger society and what they have is precious. What we have is worth defending from the secularizing forces of the larger culture. This is the type of social identity that Mormons have developed. This is the type of social identity that Christians must develop as well.

To have this type of social identity we need social support. And that is why building our social communities is so important. Having our own institutions help to reinforce our values and socializing our children is vital to help us maintain the type of social identity that can withstand the anti-Christian pressures that have come, and will still continue to come. The Mormons did not run away to monasteries and nunneries. They still live within our general society. We must do the same. We are not running for the hills. But we do need to strengthen institutions in our own communities and be mindful of the social dynamics that can threaten the health of our Christian identity. Taking deliberate steps to develop a Christian community is critical so that we can develop the resources to maintain a powerful Christian social identity.

In the past it was relatively easy to proclaim a Christian identity. We lived in a culture that supported the idea of Christianity, even if many individuals in that culture did not live out Christian ideals. But in a post-Christian world there may soon be a price to be paid for openly accepting a Christian identity whereby one believes the Bible is the Word of God or that Christ is the only way. In that world, having a community that supports a Christian identity when the larger community rejects that identity will be essential. Thus as we talk about the development of a Christian community, please understand that we are also looking towards the development of a Christian social identity that will be critical if we, as a people, are going to get through this post-Christian reality.

There is going to be a temptation to accept the values of the larger society to escape being insulted as being bigoted or backwards. But if we give in to that desire then we cease to be that salt of the world that we are called to be. We cease to be distinct from the larger society. We cannot preserve our fellow citizens from the dysfunctions of our fallen society if we have given into that society. Rebuilding our Christian community is not merely for our own self-interest. It is also to preserve our values for a time when they will be more appreciated. Our Christian voice is too important to let it disappear in a post-Christian world.

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  • Nat

    “The Mormons did not run away to monasteries and nunneries.”

    But isn’t that (in effect) what they did by migrating to Utah? And then after they built their own institutions during a period of isolation, they re-entered mainstream society. In other words, Mormons don’t seem like a good contrast to the Benedict Option, if that’s what you were suggestion. Or am I missing something?