Godly Community — Part 1
This week, I read an article that included this sentence: “Communities are growing while almost 80 percent of churches are in stagnation or decline.”
I’m not sure how the author defines those “communities” that are growing, but his point is well-taken. By every metric out there, church attendance is declining; but sources of community are not. People are finding community in neighborhoods, affinity groups, political causes, mobile apps, and dozens of other sources. The cultural trend of uber-individualism and isolation has not only been recognized in the church. Our secular neighbors are also becoming intentional about investing in community.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The church has never had a corner on the community market. People from every race, class, religion and era of history have sought out community. It’s how we’re wired. It’s our DNA. There are some animals that nature has wired to live their whole lives in isolation, but not humans. We are a herd species.
Last month, authorities in Maine arrested a man named Christopher Thomas Knight who had lived alone in the woods of central Maine with no human contact for 27 years. Nicknamed the North Pond Hermit, Knight made his living by breaking into people’s vacation homes and stealing food and supplies. In 27 years, he only had one conversation: he passed a hiker in the woods and said, “Hi.” Complete isolation from the rest of humanity; utter aloneness for 27 years. What do we think of someone like that? We think they’re a little off! We think they’re not normal. Voluntary and extended isolation is not the sign of a healthy human being.
Last year, I read a book called Empire of the Summer Moon about early American Plains Indians, specifically about the Comanche. The Comanche were completely different than any culture we know. They shared none of the morality we understand. They were brutally violent. They shared wives. Their idea of property rights were nothing like ours. They had never heard the name of Jesus and had zero influence from any Judeo-Christian ethic. But you know what wasn’t normal for them? Isolation. They were tribal. They stuck together. They identified themselves by their group.
Community isn’t a western value or a Christian virtue. It’s a human need. It’s primal and universal. When a prison warden wants to punish an inmate to the extreme — whether it’s at Huntsville or Auschwitz — what does he do? He puts him in isolation. Solitary confinement.
One more example: I recently heard a radio news story about an organization called Sunday Assembly. It’s church for atheists. Started by two British comedians, Sunday Assembly has dozens of chapters in the US and UK where nonbelievers can gather for an encouraging lecture, some good music, and community.
Regardless or race, class or religious beliefs, humans are tribal people. We always seek out community. We draw our identity from groups. So when we say that church attendance is declining, we mustn’t assume that means people are living lonely, isolated, miserable lives. Small groups aren’t the only game in town. The question for the church is what should set our community apart? Is there anything different — should there be anything different — about Christian community that sets it apart from Sunday Assembly? And if so, what?
That’s what we’ll tackle in next week’s blog.