By Jonathan Davis, Small Town Churches Network
The struggle for community is real. Across America people long for community, whatever that means, and whatever that means, community seems increasingly elusive.
I’ve lived in suburbia before, and the sense of isolation can be overwhelming. In one neighborhood we used to live in, all the houses lined up in rows. People came home from their commute and immediately pulled into the garage. Whether people were home or away, it was impossible to tell because there were no cars in driveways. The living rooms were in the back of most houses, so even when the neighbors were home, you couldn’t see any lights on in the houses.
A neighborhood full of people who didn’t know each other, and didn’t even know if the neighbors were home. A park that was mostly empty because everyone set up a swing set in their own back yard. A perfectly good community with no community.
Small towns pride themselves on community, and achieve it in many ways, but the struggle for community still exists, although differently. Not only does everyone know your name, everyone knows your business. Community for many means that decisions (be they in church or local government) are controlled by “from heres” and not “come heres.”
New residents in rural communities often struggle to find community because they may not be welcomed into the close-knit circles of lifelong residents. Trust takes time to build, and despite small-town charm and Mayberry stereotypes, trust (and friendship) in small communities isn’t always given freely.
Also, communities need people of all ages to thrive, and many small towns block all forms of economic development, making it difficult (or even impossible) for young families to remain in the area (if they want careers). Some communities pride themselves on community, but struggle to thrive because of their own sense of what community means.
Yes, big cities too, struggle to create community. Bureaucrats in transportation departments make recommendations to state legislatures about highway infrastructure, and people who mostly live in suburbia vote to cut communities in half with concrete and steel in order to reduce their own commute time.
Land developers make investment grabs and slate entire neighborhoods for “re-gentrification,” which is also a nice way of saying “price longtime residents out of their own homes as real-estate values rise.” High rise apartments may go up next to one story frame homes.
Food deserts in urban jungles make it almost impossible to feed one’s family a healthy meal.
Headquarters of Fortune 500 companies stand tall and major league teams win championships, but highways run through neighborhoods, long-time residents get sidestepped for profit, and many people can’t buy fresh vegetables. Great cities, struggling to create stable communities – despite the lights, despite the wealth, despite the bustle.
It doesn’t matter where you live in this country. The struggle for community is real.
So, what is your church doing to create and sustain healthy communities in your ministry context? In one location, community may look like walking across the street and introducing yourself to a neighbor, even if the driveway is empty and the garage is closed. In another location, community may look like working to create a local economy that keeps young families in the area. Yet in another location, community may look like resisting urban sprawl and planting a neighborhood garden.
What if the Christian community (the Church) was at the center of creating community in all of these ways, and more? Some might call that community, “the light of the world.”
What if the divides between the “Christian” community and the “secular” community began to fade as we radically embraced God’s call to love our neighbor? Some might call that practice, “Christian witness.”
What if each congregation embodied what it means to be the body of Christ, creating new realities of grace and hope in each corner world? Some might call that “incarnation.”
Come to think of it, this whole Christianity thing has a lot to do with creating and celebrating healthy communities. For the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of the world, how is your church embracing the community beyond the four walls? This may be at the heart of being light, of proclaiming Godly witness, and of embodying Divine incarnation to the world.
What does ministering in the community look like where you live?
Jonathan Davis pastors Urbanna Baptist Church, in Urbanna, VA. He serves on the Virginia Baptist Mission Council and is a doctor of ministry candidate at Logdson Seminary, where his research focuses on equipping small-town churches for 21st century ministry. He is the founder of the Small Town Churches Network (www.smalltownchurches.org), which is dedicated to sharing research, ideas and tools to help small-town churches. Follow him on Twitter @jonathandavis_.
We’d love for you to join our community of lifelong learners! The Center for Lifelong Learning offers an abundance of courses and for pastors and lay-persons seeking vibrant learning and cohort opportunities specifically created to build and enhance skills in Christian education and formation, church leadership, spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Our courses are designed for people at all stages of their ministry. Check out our current classes here.