Thinking About Community

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Image found at nesta.org.uk

In the past few months, I’ve come to a realization about the United States: We’re a culture of obsessive bean counters. For example, consider how most church denominations measure successful ministries. Number of baptisms. People in pews. Amount of tithes and offering. There are now church consultants who will show up to your Sunday meeting place and tell your pastor how he (or she) can get more visitors in the door. They talk about marketing, events, branding, website SEO–terms more commonly heard in the corporate offices of Apple and McDonald’s.

Rarely do we realize how much corporate culture affects our thinking and worldview. But it does. It permeates everything–including how we view ourselves and how we live our lives.

Individualism is one of those “gifts” from America’s corporate culture. One person can make a difference, we say, if they try hard enough. The poor immigrant can become a CEO. We can be “an Army of one.” We measure our lives–and our success, and our value as people–by stats and checklists. “Today, I was productive. I ran eight errands, paid three bills, and washed two loads of laundry. And I did it all by myself. Yay me!” It’s as if we’re being tracked by a magical task ticker in the sky. How many accolades can I list on my resume? How many cars can I fit in the driveway? How many widgets can I make in an hour? How much poverty can I survive without accepting charity or welfare?

I’ve seen the kind of anxiety this thinking produces in people. I hear it in the statements they make everyday. I feel it myself–the drive to accomplish something, to prove my skill and worth in the public sphere.

But what if that’s the worst way of evaluating one’s life?  

I’ve been in a bit of an identity crisis for a while, especially as I’ve struggled with chronic pain and falling energy levels over the past year. I’ve dropped several volunteer activities, and last fall I cut my hours at work to be more available to my children. I’ve spent many days (and therapy sessions) asking where I belong in the wider world. Who am I? What do I want to achieve? And when or where will I find the time and strength to achieve it?

Then one day, a couple of weeks ago, it hit me: What if, instead, I think of my life in relation to my community? What if I measure success by the roles I occupy and my reputation with others?

Suddenly, I experienced a significant shift in my perspective. I realized that I already have a role in my community and a reputation within it. It’s not a big, visible role. I’m not a celebrity, standing in spotlight. My name doesn’t get mentioned from the pulpit at church. But I am known by others. And to those people, I have importance. I am appreciated and loved. I have an identity.

It’s an identity that I like. The goal now is to continue in that identity, nurture it, make it stronger.

I think the problem with our churches today is that we’re not encouraging community. Oh, we talk a lot about community; it’s the buzzword of the decade. It’s why we have teams of greeters and coffee shops in church lobbies. But most pastors–and people in general–are still stuck in individualistic, corporate-style thinking. Success is still measured in numbers of visitors invited and bodies dunked in tanks. We can’t just say we’re interested in community; we have to believe it already exists and start operating in it.

In Western culture, people are valued by what they achieve. In community, people are valued because they exist. In Western culture, the person with the biggest title or the biggest paycheck is the most important. In community, people realize that even menial tasks are vital to living. Western culture attempts to turn out cookie-cutter followers that dress, talk, and think alike. Community embraces diversity, teaching that each person has their unique place in the world.

 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  ~ 1 Corinthians 12:21-26

Sadly, I don’t think the majority of our churches are giving honor to the parts that lack it. We’re constantly focused on the head, the head, the head–the person on stage and at the top of the hierarchy–when Jesus said the greatest among us would be a servant.

Not a servant leader. Just a servant. Doing good deeds in secret.

Individualism is at odds with a gospel that calls us to honor the lowly. Individualism stands in opposition to a gospel that commands us to bear one another’s burdens. You can have celebrity culture, or you can have community. Not both.

In community, you don’t have to make yourself known. You are known by those you personally touch. Instead of counting beans (or conversations, or baptisms, or visitors), I have another suggestion. Think about the people you were able to serve this week: their names, their faces, their circumstances. Did someone experience Christ’s love through your smile, your kindness, your charity?

For me, this has been an affirming shift. When I evaluate my life and purpose through the lens of community, all that old anxiety over achievement begins to melt away. The yolk becomes easy and the burden is lightened. See if it works for you.

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4 responses to “Thinking About Community

  1. For me, too, my shift in perspective came with the onset of my chronic pain. I was about 19, fiercely ambitious, independent, and individualistic. I am still all of those things, but I realize that I do not stand alone. Everything is connected. Everything in my body and soul is connected, I am connected with all of my people, all of my people are connected, and so on. I had a major shift towards valuing the community, the value of each person simply because they are part of the community… And I feel like that has made me a more loving person. Great post!

  2. Thanks. That was encouraging. It is hard feeling like you have something God wants to do with you, but then He does something that is much more simpler and basic. And you wonder….Is that it? It just may be…and if it is…..it is good!

  3. I have always liked this item, which is present in the book “What Color Is Your Parachute?” by Richard Nelson Bolles. It is often wrongly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and sometimes to Joseph Mitchell Chapple or Bessie A. Stanley. Several different versions of it exist, and it appears to have been rehashed, reduced, embellished, and whatever else by numerous unknown hands over the years, meaning no one knows for sure who wrote the original and the various versions that came after it. Nonetheless, one version has always been my favorite, and It is shared with you here:

    Success in life is to:

    Laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty. To find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.

  4. Hi. This is a droopy, emotionally down day for me—but one more thought crossed my mind…well…two really—so here goes:

    1) When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Tennessee, my parents, aunts, uncles, and old lady school teachers taught me to treat every new person who entered my life with one word “respect.” This meant to treat them kindly, gently, lovingly, friendly, and in a dignified way—assume the best in them—whatever. You get my point. Well, about 15 years ago, especially in the various media, I notice being bombarded with a new message: Respect is not something you just give to another person—respect has to be earned.” In translation, that comes across to me as: Assume everyone new person you meet is a total, mean-spirited, and undeserving jerk until they do something to prove to you that they are not—then you can respect them.” This seems to be pervasive in our contemporary culture today—and I am even encountering some version of it while out hunting for a job. It is really depressing. No one trusts anyone with anything out here on the American landscape—not anymore. The way I grew up feels better—and I cannot go along with treating people this new way. It just does not feel right to me. Surely, that has some effect on a sense of community.

    2) I took a new job in 2010, and after taking that job, I made a firm decision. I am going to take Jesus seriously and totally at his word and do everything I do in this job with a totally “servant” approach and attitude—kind, gentle, friendly, highest quality work—and even go the extra mile in doing it—sometimes for no pay on Saturday or Sunday. Guess what was learned? During my last two years, I had the best performance review in the office—something my boss told me outright—something most bosses would never do—but she wanted me to know that. Everyone in the office was my friend and appeared to love me—and I certainly did love them and still do. However, when our office was closed down and everyone was laid off because of a big contract bid we lost, none of those so-called “friends” (save one) lifted a finger to help me network to a new job. All of them had new jobs within a week or less of leaving.

    Here is what I learned in the trenches—and it is the thing Jesus failed to mention in his talk about servanthood leading to being the “greatness among you.” People are anywhere from lukewarm to totally resentful toward that person who becomes the “greatest among you” through servanthood. They play along like you are the greatest friend they ever had—but when trouble comes—they run out on you just like the disciples did in Gethsemane. (And no, I did not do those “other awful things” things you are thinking right now.)

    Jesus was right. He was totally right about servanthood—but that “greatest among you” that comes out of it comes at a terrible price. You need to know that going into it. I found out the hard way. The “community” often secretly resents its greatest servant—and does it with a big and friendly smile on its face. The man or woman who gets truly welcomed by the “community,” and who stays in the “community,” and is really appreciated is the one who conforms to the community’s joint demand to meet the low-bar standard of what our culture has traditionally called “the respectable C” in everything the “community” does. The community does not like greatest servants—and the “community” will eventually show you their displeasure in some way. As the old saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished” in this world.

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