Community. Fellowship. Relationships.
These words are often thrown around by Christians trying to describe what we want in our churches—either by creating conditions where they can happen in our churches or searching for churches where they are already real and accessible. Such desires become all the more relevant when we realize the sting of loneliness is growing in our society, but making “community” real takes far more work than merely articulating our desire for it.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation are unavoidable in human life, but recent studies and surveys seem to indicate such feelings are becoming more frequent—and more harmful. A recent summary of studies in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science links subjective and objective measures of loneliness to an increased risk of premature death. It isn’t surprising that this would be the case—the Bible frequently exhorts us to fellowship together and “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”
Even as the technological tools to “connect” with others have multiplied, they seem to have little positive effect on our ability to genuinely form relationships with the flesh-and-blood people we interact with every day. As valuable as online social networks can be, they can never be a substitute for the people who can bring us a meal when there’s a new baby in the house or visit us in the hospital when we fall ill. Furthermore, segregating on the basis of mutual interests and like-mindedness is sure to exclude the outcasts and other hard-to-love people we are called to invite into our lives. The world is full of people who lend a hashtag in support of abstract “people”; it is deficient in people who walk alongside the hurting and choose to offer them friendship.
Economic and cultural forces discourage us from attaching ourselves to any one particular place or investing in relationships where we might have costs. For generations, many Christians have given in to the cultural mores about accumulating wealth, reinforcing segregation, and remaining physically separate without much thought about how the Bible might call us to live in community. Even younger Christians tend toward treating “loving the poor,” “racial justice,” and “deep relationships” as abstractions because committing to actual love for poor people, submitting ourselves to oppressed people, and getting deep into relationships with hurting people all require that we surrender a certain amount of freedom and make ourselves vulnerable to hurts.
Such relationships take time, money, and energy to grow, especially across cultural boundaries. Such boundaries can (and whenever possible, should) include race or ethnicity, but just as often will involve socioeconomic class or age. The church is meant to be a diverse group of people coming together and learning from one another, but the relationships that form a strong body will not develop without sacrifice and hard work. If it takes the work of Christ on the cross to tear down the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, it takes us “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” to apply His love to others, putting to death our privileges and prejudices.
One of the most crucial areas where prejudice and privilege can (and must) be put to death in contemporary society has to do with where and how we live. While explicit segregation by race is no longer allowed by law, it still happens by default in many places where the poor are isolated. Far too often, when considering a place to live, we ask how comfortable it is, how safe the neighborhood is, and how well it fits our needs as individuals or families. What if, instead of asking whether our neighbors who don’t look like us would steal from us, we asked how we could bless our neighbors? What if, instead of asking how well a house could contain our stuff, we asked how well it could be used to host others?
We might even consider living together in the same home. My wife stayed with a family after she finished high school; the time with a stable family was invaluable for her growth as she watched how a husband and wife dealt with conflicts and learned to raise a child together. We’ve since taken on several single housemates in our five years of marriage, finding them to be a blessing to our growing family and an opportunity to be changed as we learn to love one another. Other friends of ours have intentionally made space in their home for the homeless and other people in crisis. There’s a whole movement to intentionally relocate to neighborhoods in need. Such commitments aren’t to be entered into lightly, but they do need to be considered more often as a means of fellowship, witness, and working for justice.
There is no ideal living situation that will meet all our needs. There will also be some seasons when we should always expect to be investing ourselves—our emotional and financial resources—in loving others and asking ourselves how our choice of where to live, work, worship, and play can affect our ability to form relationships and build community. As we elect not to submit to the limits of place, we will find ourselves open to deeper friendships and mutuality.