Thoughts on Community


We hear a lot about the idea of community.    Whether you’re talking about the fantastic sitcom of the same name, social networking, neighborhoods, churches or social interaction, we hear the term bandied about with great frequency.

But what is community?  How do we define it, measure it, adjust it and make it better or worse?  Should we do those things?

In the church, especially in big churches, we talk a lot about how to create community or how to help people experience community.  But again, what does that mean?  How should we go about that?  Or does it happen more naturally than we understand?

Sociologists (or as I like to call them, “Fancy-Named-Facebook-Addicts,” just kidding) have long discussed the idea of the third house, or third place.  The thinking is that our first house is our home, our second house is our place of work and our third house is our          “Cheers.”  It’s “where everybody knows your name.”  So the third house could be a pub, a coffee shop, the gym, a church, etc.  Traditionally in America the third house was the church.  It was a neighborhood center, potentially a place for public discourse, a place where most people knew one another and could be known.

This has changed over the last 30-40 years.  And the advent of the mega church, where it’s virtually impossible to know the majority of members has complicated it as well.  We find ourselves spending a great deal of time assessing the need for authentic community.

But what is that?  I’m reading “The Search to Belong; Rethinking Intimacy, Community, And Small Groups” by Joseph R Myers right now.  In it, Myers describes four the basic modes of belonging that make up a person’s sense of community and connectedness. Below are some very basic definitions of each:

Public:  The sense of belonging does not have to be mutual.  You can belong to a large church or group and no one there even know that you belong, but this does not change your personal sense of belonging.

Social:  This space allows for “snapshots” of reality.  We choose which snapshots to portray about ourselves and in turn take that information from others as signs.  We then choose to keep relationships in the Social space, or to assign them to another category

Personal: In this space, others know private, but not naked, information about us and us them.  Very close friends might occupy this space, but likely not spouses.

Intimate:  In this space we are “naked and unashamed.”  Myers notes aptly that shame and embarrassment are not the same.  “Shame,” he says, “is the experience of the intimate self exposed in an inappropriate space.”

As a sidebar, I can’t help but think of social media when I see these definitions.  For instance, the average American Facebook user has over 200 “friends.”  How many of us can imagine really knowing all of them?  Sharing personal or intimate information or experiences with 200+ people sounds exhausting if not impossible.

It is interesting/disheartening to see how many people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are willing to share highly intimate and sensitive relational information in what is, by these definitions, a public space.  What does this say about us?

Many have assumed, incorrectly, that the goal of community is to have as many “intimate” relationships as possible.  To them, “intimate” represents the paramount human relational experience and we ought to then seek as many intimate experiences as possible  and give that to as many people as possible.  Myers debunks that thinking this way, “Insisting that real, authentic, true community happens only when people get ‘close’ is a synthetic view of reality and may actually be harmful.”

Myers says that our lives are in harmony and balance when we allocate the spaces appropriately.  That is, when we have the most interactions in the Public space, next largest in the Social space, a smaller group in the Personal space and only a select few in the Intimate space.

With this in mind, how should we then look at building community?  Should we seek to get every person in our churches into a small group?  Or should we seek to intentionally  validate the sense of belonging that people experience in each of the four spaces?

And if so, how?


Why $2 Dinosaurs and Empty Boxes Rock

I had a fantastic experience this morning.  While working in my home office, I heard my son playing upstairs.  “ROOOOAAARRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!” He was playing with his new toys.

Last night we went to Target to get some window treatments, and bought our boy a couple $2 plastic toy dinosaurs.  The rest of the evening he had those two toys, he called them “Toorex” (t-rex) and “Staygo” (stegosaurus).  Staygo is the “good” dinosaur, and toorex the bad.  Turns out Toorex wanted to hurt a princess and Grant and Staygo were trying to save her by defeating Toorex with lot’s of loud “ROOOAAAARRS!”

So he went to bed holding them, and the moment he woke this morning, snatched them up and began the “ROAAAARRING,” afresh. I came upstairs  to see what all the commotion was about – and there he was, all bleary-eyed, still half-asleep, ROARING his heart out.

As a parent, those sounds are quite remarkable.  The sight of your child  just playing totally enjoying himself is amazing.  And it’s a great reminder that we don’t need all the latest, greatest stuff.  Kids are beautiful and innocent and creative and imaginative.  As adults, we often forget the fact that play involves those things more than it involves expensive toys.  You see it every Christmas morning across America when all those big expensive toys get pulled out of the boxes that become the favorite toy by the end of the day.

So this morning, my four-year-old reminded me of the wonder that life holds, if we’ll simply take the time to view it through the eyes of innocence and creativity.