The way community has been formed for much of the last 4,000 years has come unravelled in the last few decades. Where agrarian societies were primarily stable farming communities — your farm and your neighbors’ farms kept you rooted to a single place and to one another — we have entered into a new nomadic era.
Where farm cultures are settled and take value from the soil they till and then put value right back into it, nomadic cultures are mobile, moving to wherever they find value. With the dwindling of many farming communities since World War II, the rise of cities, and the birth of an information/communication economy, the jobs we do and the places we live have become more interchangeable.
Much of the growth of the city I live in (Bend, Oregon) has come from people whose work enables them to live anywhere they want, because they can do their work online and/or over the phone. And since they can live anywhere they want, they’ve chosen to move to a less-crowded and truly beautiful place. This phenomenon is being repeated all over the world.
So, how do people who have been cut loose from the connecting bonds of an agrarian culture form community? With difficulty.
People who move to Bend never complain about the outdoor activities here. They got what they came for. And they never complain about their beer choices or other cultural activities. This is the #1 beer city in the country after all. But what they do complain about is their struggle to make meaningful relationships. Friends are hard to come by not because Bend in an unfriendly city — we find the people here quite friendly — but because it’s such an unsettled city. People are constantly moving in and out of Bend, keeping friendships always in flux.
Because of this, attempts to make friendships seem forced.
In a conversation about community with two good friends, one referred to an episode from the old TV show Friends. In it, one person says something about two kids: “You can’t just put them in a playpen and make them be friends.” My friend’s point is that that’s what our attempts at community often come down to: putting people in an awkward and forced situation and saying, “You’re community now. So, play with each other.”
But the reality is that that’s how it’s always been done. Starting new relationships has always been awkward and forced.
Forced doesn’t mean fake.
Was there anything more forced that Jesus telling twelve young men, “Follow me,” and throwing them in together as his disciples? At least eleven of them became community over time.
Even in agrarian societies, we’ve been plopped into classes, onto sports teams, into Sunday schools, into cabins at camp, and so on where we were put into situations with people we didn’t know and told, “This is your new group. Get along.”
The only difference is that in settled communities (as opposed to fluctuating communities) we do most of this forced community-making when we’re kids. By the time we’re adults, we’ve already formed our basic relationships.
I’ve lived in 10 cities over my 47 years of life. Only one of those was a small, fairly static community. Entering into relationships there in Lebanon, Oregon, was tough, because most adults had already settled into lifelong friendships and don’t need any more friends. For them, the settledness of the community is great. For newcomers, it’s a rough go. In larger, constantly changing cities, the need to make new friends is continual, since cities are just massive revolving doors.
Some of us like the revolving door, welcoming new friends and the new experiences that new friends bring with them. And some of us hate the revolving door, feeling like we’ve wasted our energy on relationships that went away. And some of us are simply mystified by the revolving door and need help making friends in our ever-changing situation.
Proximity + frequency + Spontaneity = community
Alan Hirsch writes that there are three ingredients of community: proximity, frequency, and spontaneity.
Proximity. Being near people leads to the sharing of common lives and common concerns. If people drive too fast down your neighborhood street, you and your neighbors are brought together by it. If you have kids in the same classroom or sports team as another parent, you’re brought together. There are so many things that bring together people who are in near proximity with one another that just don’t happen with people who are a few extra miles apart. There’s a reason why most people marry someone who lives within three miles of them.
Frequency. Proximity isn’t enough. There are people who live nearby with whom we never develop significant relationships. In fact, there are people who live just a couple doors down from you that you probably don’t even know by name. We have to have frequent interactions with people in order to have relational depth with them.
Spontaneity. But even proximity and frequency aren’t enough. There has to be open and unstructured time for play and conversation and meals together and all those other things that glue relationships together. When I began pastoring a church of 130 members, I was shocked that people who had been worshiping together for decades didn’t really know each other. They lived in the same small town (proximity) and gathered in the same building for worship each week (frequency), but they didn’t play together. They didn’t go out together. They didn’t do those unexpected, unstructured things that friends do. So, we began throwing parties, hosting game nights, going on camping trips, and all kinds of unchurchy things to facilitate spontaneity.
If you’re not putting yourself in the same place with people on a regular basis where there is no agenda other than simply being together, you’re going to find community elusive.
You need to need people.
Being available and helpful to other people is great. But those who do community well are people who are comfortable needing others. In fact, those who excel at community are those who create personal needs simply to empower others to help them. They’re not helpless; they just make other people more helpful.
Try this. Go to a neighbor’s home and ask for an egg for a baking project. Go to another neighbor and ask for a cup of flour. Go to a third neighbor and ask for some sugar or vanilla. As you do, notice how happy they are to provide what you’re missing (even if you actually have the thing you’re asking for). Then bake cookies or a cake or whatever it is and then take some to the neighbors you borrowed from. Guess what? Proximity will have given birth to spontaneity.
Borrow tools instead of buying them. Ask for help if you have to move across town or if you’ve got a big project around the house that could use a few extra hands. Ask neighbors to keep an eye on your home when you’re heading out on a trip for a few days. There are lots of simple ways to need others.
People like to help others who are in need. And when we’re the ones who need others first, it opens up others to ask us for help later on. Vulnerability begets vulnerability.
Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Being open to new relationships requires putting yourself in awkward situations where you don’t know what’s going on. And most of us don’t like not knowing what’s going on.
Love the community you’ve already got.
In his classic on Christian community Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the biggest enemy to real community is the wish-dreams we have for community. We often love the idea of community that we’ve created in our heads more than the actual community God in his wisdom has given us.
We have a bulletin board covered with photos from friends all over the world. Incredible people. Accomplished people. Wise people. One day, I was looking at these photos and it came to mind what a great church we’d have if we were all in the same place like when many of us were studying theology at Regent College. But that thought was quickly replaced by another thought: God doesn’t want a superstar church. He wants real community.
We don’t get the community we dream about. We get to love the community we’re given.
Stick it out.
The biggest problem people have with community is not giving it enough time or effort.
Community takes time. Some people connect with others more quickly and some more slowly, but neither get to community quickly. It just doesn’t happen that way. There is often a honeymoon period of initial surface connections. But this is always followed by a time of disillusionment. And disillusionment is essential, since illusions aren’t real and we want to get to real relationship. The question is: Are you willing to stick it out through the messy part? If not, stop asking why you don’t experience community.
Community takes effort. It requires picking up the phone, going out for coffee or a beer, hosting a party, sending texts, saying “Yes” to invites, going for walks, watching neighbors’ pets, shoveling snow, baking cookies, changing plans at the last minute, playing games, learning new things, keeping the lawn mowed, putting up with personality quirks, and so on.
Community is more difficult to enter into now that it was just a few decades ago. But the new nomadicism is here to stay. There’s no use in lamenting the loss of stable neighborhoods where people lived in the same home for 30+ years.
Community isn’t just going to happen. Community only happens in the playpen. So, stop complaining about it, get in the playpen, and play.
One last story. When I told another good friend about the playpen story from Friends, he told me about how, when he was a kid, his mom told him that they were going over to another family’s house for the day. Nick was angry. The other family had a kid his age and he was adamant that he didn’t want to be forced to be with him.
He poutingly said (as if this were a bad thing), “If we go over there, I’ll have to play with him. And then he’ll become my friend!”
And that’s exactly what happened.