Community: Not just an idea

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that “community” is a serendipitous phenomena.

After a long, honest discussion with friends about the idea of community and of personal experiences with successful and failed communities, I’m more aware of how the elements of a thriving group of people who live in relationship with one another is nothing short of a miracle.

Post-discussion, here are five aspects of community I’m still thinking about. I know there are more, but these stand out to me as non-negotiable.

1. Time

As someone who’s moved twice within the past ten years, I’ve experienced firsthand that it takes a solid year-and-a-half to two-years for new friendships to gain traction (…if you’re lucky). The mere fact of knowing about someone’s existence and interacting with that person in a physical setting (not online, and however fleetingly) lays the foundation for the possibility of a friendship. There is no short-cut, even if there are ways to encourage & cultivate new friendships.

The trouble is that in many of the situations in which we find ourselves, people are not committed for an indefinite amount of time to live in the same place. When my wife and I moved to Murfreesboro, TN it was with the intention that we would only be here for a maximum of two years. Three years later, we still think of Murfreesboro as a temporary place for us: both our families live in different states, and I’m still toying with the idea of doctoral studies. It feels disingenuous to invest in a community when you know, or if you’re 90% sure, there’s a time limit.

2. Proximity

Community also requires close physical proximity. The church, school, and/or gym you attend is determined by where you live. Even if you attend a church, private school, or gym outside of town, you’ve made a calculation about how far you’re willing to drive in order to become a member of that community. You could not, for example, live on the West coast and feasibly attend a weekly church service on the East coast.

Proximity is a question of who you’re stuck with. Although there’s greater freedom in the 21st century to expand our community perimeters, limitations remain unavoidable.

3. Goal(s)/Common Good

Proximity, like time, is not enough. Communities form, in part, because of a shared interest. Throwing a bunch of people in a room does not a community make. But if you do throw a bunch of people in a room for a long period of time, they’ll begin talking with one another, sharing with one another, and eventually form a common bond. The “common bond” will emerge from a collective sense of purpose and shared interests. The purpose does not have to be an agreed upon destination or goal; it could simply be an agreement to wonder about the same questions, to ensure the health and safety of others, or to simply coexist.

The strength of the community, however, will be determined by the strength of its shared purpose(s). A purpose like “coexist” is flimsy at best and will have no staying power. A community that establishes a collectively shared moral system in order to achieve a common good, in contrast, will grow from strength to strength. Jake Meador is especially good on this point:

A community is not just a gaggle of people; it’s a group of people bound around a specific good. And that good can be the good of a city, the good of a certain sort of work, or the good of study and reflection. But the point is that there needs to be something for the community to do.

4. Trust

Unfortunately, the binding good of a community is often a point on which many communities fall apart. A shared understanding of the common good is fraught with disagreement and miscommunication–both of which can lead to a sense of distrust among the members. Without trust, there’s no authenticity. Without authenticity, productive work and dialogue halts. Instead, members become suspicious of each other’s motives. The result is a group of people alone together. The community no longer contains members but individuals seeking their personalized good(s).

5. Effort

Finally, there is no chance of a community without personal effort. Individuals must choose to form and then diligently maintain a community. Effort will involve sacrifice for the sake of the common good; it will require a willingness to trust others, to continue to live in close proximity with one another, and to allow for the time needed for relationships to take root and flourish.

Effort may seem like the most obvious component to community building, but that’s because we’re steeped in a culture that believes “will-power” is the secret to success. If we’ll simply start cleaning our rooms on a regular basis, or if we’ll balance our budget monthly, or if we’ll declutter our living spaces, then life will bend to our every desire.

Despite the will-power narrative, there remain forces beyond our control. Sometimes effort is an act of waiting and patience as much as an exertion of will over a set of circumstances. Effort also entails a set of prerequisite resources: without time, proximity, a common good, or trust, my efforts to form a community will diminish and finally dissolve.

Concluding Thought

Writing this brief and informal reflection on the components of community has proved more difficult than I anticipated. I realize that part of the reason is that the “idea of a community” and the “practice of community” don’t always correspond with each other. Some of my own frustrations with fledgling communities in the past, for example, often stemmed from the disjunction between my ideas and my experience.

The difficulty also has arisen from the fact that the components of a community are symbiotic. It’s difficult to talk about the time needed for building relationships without also talking about how proximity and effort make time fruitful, and vice versa. Each aspect infuses the others.

A “community,” in other words, is not a machine composed of separable parts. It can’t be replicated following a universal set of rules or procedures, and the individual parts are not inanimate or predictable. There are no blocks or cogs, only persons. And like human persons, communities flourish under the happy confluence of a certain set of circumstances: time, proximity, a common good, trust, effort, and a healthy amount of grace.

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