One of the early responses I got to an earlier post on community was, “Tim, most people in the evangelical world can’t relate to the experience you’re describing. They don’t have anybody present in their homes, much less participating in the family life.”
The question I want to ask is: why not? How can it be that the people of God, the visible reflection of the Trinity on earth, do not live in each other’s lives?
And the answer is, “Because we’re rich.” This is most definitely a first-world problem; the rest of the world is very different, and the rest of time more so. But here we are in the first world, and if it’s a first-world problem, we have it.
In a first-century village (or even a city), people lived on top of each other. They knew each other’s business in the same way that I know when my upstairs neighbors take a shower, make love, or leave for work in the morning. The ceiling’s not soundproof, and I can’t really help knowing what’s going on up there sometimes. By contrast, the American dream is to use our wealth to separate ourselves from each other rather than to grow more interdependent. We live in single-family homes. We park in attached garages; we’re already ensconced in our little steel-and-glass universes, radio tuned to our favorite station, before the garage door opens to the outside world. We shop in stores that serve a wide enough area that we usually don’t run into anybody we know. (I live in a relatively small town, and have a fairly wide circle of acquaintance. I run into someone at the grocery store every now and again, but it’s pretty unusual. Back when I lived in a big city (or the suburbs, before that), it was vanishingly rare.)
If the culture makes it hard to follow Jesus, then we need to be countercultural; it’s that simple. Wordliness is not about what kind of car you drive or how many iPads you have or hemlines and necklines (although it can be expressed in all those things). Worldliness is about how much The Way Things Are dictates your willingness to be obedient to Christ. When our culture makes sin look normal and easy, and righteousness look strange and costly, what will you do? Will you be carried by the stream, or swim against it? Will you follow Jesus when it makes you weird?
In the culture we’ve built for ourselves, it is actually very difficult to live in close community with one another. We’d have to go well out of our way to do it. Which is to say that our repentance really will be costly. But it will also be rewarding.
I’ve been seeking tight community since early adulthood. I managed a form of it…and then I moved cross-country to a new state eight years ago, and had to start all over again.
It wasn’t easy; I’m not a naturally outgoing person. But I got there. In my community now, I’ve called for help at 1 in the morning, and gotten it. I’ve been called for help, and dropped everything to go help with…whatever. Taking chicken soup to a sick friend. Babysitting during a family emergency (or to salvage a date night when the regular babysitter got sick at the last minute.) Providing a ride to the hospital. Taking my massage chair and oils to relieve a headache or back spasm. Running to the bank because my friend’s small business was out of quarters.
As I make my final editing pass through this post, there’s a spool of grey thread on the counter. I’ll drop it off with one of my friends later today, so she can mend a hole in a pair of her daughter’s pants. We noticed the hole yesterday; she doesn’t have the right thread, and I do. It’s a simple thing, a small extra errand.
But it’s also an extra errand in an already crowded day, and it would have been easy enough to avoid. All I needed to do was keep my mouth shut instead of saying, “I think I have the right color thread for that at home.” Why complicate my life? Because the right kind of complications are glorious.
Marriage complicates your life. Having children complicates your life. Making lasagne or bread or soup from scratch complicates your life. Deciding to build your own piñata for the birthday party instead of just buying one complicates your life. Calling a friend instead of an Uber complicates both your lives. Making music with your friends rather than just popping in a CD complicates your life. Close community is made of just such complications. We are choosing that rich complication over convenience. We want to live closely. We live for the triune God, and therefore for each other, not simply for ourselves and our own realization of the American dream.
How did I get there?
Not, I can assure you, through some virtuoso display of relational acumen. I’m actually kinda awkward. But I keep showing up, and I keep loving people. I followed God’s leading, and as I participated in His mission on earth, I found some fellow-travelers that would walk alongside me. We supported each other in our shared mission, and along the way, we became friends. We walk with God together, worship together. We support one another, day in and day out, in all kinds of ways. And we face the world together, caring for broken and hurting people, supporting the weak, bringing healing to the brokenhearted and light to the darkness.
When we ask each other, “How are you doing?” we actually want a real answer — first of all because we love each other and we care, and second because we do rough work together and if somebody can’t bring their A game today, we gotta know so we can adjust. (And it’s ok — nobody brings their A game every day. We cover for each other as needed. But precisely for that reason, honesty is prized.)
In the suburban churches I came of age in, there was far too little of all this. There was an awful lot of country-club Christianity: folks were saved, sure, and lived a generally non-scandalous red-state existence. Beyond that, their faith often seemed to make very little day-to-day difference in their lives. They came to church and pretended everything was great, no matter what was actually happening. I saw at least one family utterly ostracized for telling the truth about the ruin and hurt in their lives.
The teenagers, with their gift for cynicism, saw right through it all. They still see right through it all, and they’re disenchanted with the church, in droves. Rather be anywhere else. They want something real, and in too many churches, that’s simply not on offer.
In other words, the way we’re called to live is everything your jaded suburban teenager craves and doesn’t know how to ask for…and they are the future of the church. Get ’em involved in something real. Let them spend time with addicts and drunks and soccer moms and restaurateurs…people of all kinds, just like Jesus did. Let them serve, and bless, and have hard conversations, like Jesus did. Debrief with them, just like Jesus did with the disciples. And like Jesus did, lead by example–which means you go first.
It will do your heart good, trust me.