Years ago, a friend of mine was convinced that air conditioning was destroying the fabric of American community in the south. I thought he was over-reaching and I pushed back against his claim. But he noted that before air conditioning, at the end of the day, people were forced to spend their evenings taking walks or sitting on their front porches. The heat festering in the house simply drove them outside. They couldn’t avoid their neighbors. Today, many of us drive home, pull into our garages and close the automatic door behind us, hoping to only engage with the people with whom we cohabitate.
Maybe my friend’s theory about AC wasn’t that over-reaching.
We like our space, our TV shows (I mean, I live alone and have three TVs…why?), and our agenda. But, what’s so wrong with all of that? I think the bigger question is: what does our obsession “having it our way” cost us?
Stephen M. Lukes wrote, “Individualism can be described in terms of a kind of moderate selfishness that disposes humans to be concerned only with their own small circle of family and friends.” That definition stands in stark contrast to Philippians 2’s mandate to count others more significant than ourselves (2:3-4). Like you, I imagine, my love has a pecking order. It’s a fact that I love my close friends and family members more than a complete stranger. I’d rather be given a short list of people that I’m required to love and build into, than an open expectation that I’m supposed to die to my own agenda and show mercy to virtually anyone who crosses my path.
As Lukes defines above, I believe that our individualistic bent in our country and in evangelical circles may be impacting our ability to love others and develop healthy community. We all have a vision of what we wish our community looked like. It’s easy to love people who are like-minded, with the same interests and sense of humor. As Eugene Park wrote:
Many of us choose to be architects rather than builders of our communities, dreaming up an ideal church rather than committing to a real church. Yet the more we clutch our own blueprints rather than embrace the people God has placed in front of us, the more grief we will bring to ourselves and to them.
A Bigger View of Community
I remember during a difficult season of my Christian life, I longed for Christian community. I didn’t love the church I was attending. I didn’t have any like-minded friends. It seemed I couldn’t find any. I had just moved away from my family, so those relationships were constrained to time and space. So, I devoted my time and energy to my job. Not too long after that, depression and loneliness set in, for a number of reasons, including personal sin which went unchecked for a number of reasons, including the fact that I had no community. I found that I had become blind to sin, blind to selfishness, disconnected even though I regularly attended church and, quite honestly, extremely angry and prideful. I finally remembered an honest word an old friend once said: “Sue, you need to right now find a Bible-believing church (it won’t be perfect) and find some faithful women (they might not be your ‘first choice’ kind of friends). Die to your dream of the perfect church.” She said it quite sternly. I didn’t listen.
As I then moved on from that place, her words echoed in my ears, having never joined that church and never connected deeply with anyone. The odd thing is, as I prepared to move, I finally met my neighbor. She was an older woman, a seasoned believer who had a deep walk with the Lord. She lived across the street from me the whole time and I never knew her until a month before I moved. I never would have dreamed that she could have been a trusted friend. And she was right under my nose. She was delightful. Of course, I believe in the sovereign hand of God and his purposes in all things, but I often wonder what I missed in that relationship and how she and her community could have built into me (and I into it!).
The Lord intends us for community. We are made in the image of the Trinitarian God, so we all long for deep community. He also commands for us to live in community. We are the household of God, fellow citizens, members of one body, being built together by the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22). Our heavenly Father never promised us a gang like the in the Fast and the Furious movies or a cadre of friends like the Golden Girls, Ya-Ya Sisterhood or a sanctified version of Mean Girls, but he has promised to give us exactly what we need (Phil. 4:19). Could I challenge you, without looking longingly into the past for what once was or desperately into the future hoping for some dreamy ideal, to take a step toward building community exactly where you are rather than shopping for it somewhere else? Maybe it’s right under your nose.
About the Author:
Sue Harris serves the congregation at Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church (Birmingham) as the Women’s Ministry Director. She has a passion for spiritual formation as she earned her Master of Arts degree in Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta in 2014. She served Mission to the World for nine years challenging PCA congregations in missions as well as serving missionaries on the field through encouragement, teaching and short-term teams. Previously, she spent 12 years as a college women’s basketball coach, earning her MBA at Texas Woman’s University.