It has been interesting for me, over the last ten years or so, to witness the increased popularity of the word “community” in Christian circles. As I have grown up, I have noticed within myself and other millennial Christians a heightened desire for a life shared with and shaped by others. We are finally beginning to see that the rugged American individualism so glorified all these years may be doing more harm than good, and that a Christian faith unaffected by the presence or absence of a community of believers is no Christian faith at all. We are tired of masking our loneliness with our carefully curated social media profiles and “personal relationships with Jesus.”
And yet it seems that my generation has not been able to rid themselves fully of the desire for autonomy, because, as I see it, we lack a real understanding of what community actually is. Notice how Wendell Berry, the patron saint of community, defines it in The Long-Legged House:
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
Perhaps the most important component of this definition, at least with respect to contemporary needs and concerns, is that it revolves around a shared place. This stands in stark contrast to the kinds of “communities” in which we place ourselves today—artistic, academic, political, theological, and the rest. Community, as we functionally understand it, is a voluntary collection of individuals around a common interest or persuasion. Place isn’t accounted for in this definition, and doesn’t really need to be. And that’s a problem. Any definition of community without a concern for place is incomplete—and ultimately harmful.
Why? What is it about a shared place that is so central to community? There are a few, to be sure, but the one I want to focus on here is that a shared place is one of those things in life we don’t get to choose for ourselves (at least at the beginnings of our lives). In the age of highways and fifteen-hour flights across the world, it is easy to forget that we aren’t afforded the luxury of choosing where we are born—and that, for the vast majority of people throughout history, where you were born was where you lived your life. While automobiles, cell phones, and the internet make us feel unlimited, a true community constantly presents us with our limitations. We do not get to choose our hometowns, our families, our neighbors, or our histories.
And if we look at the ways in which we’re currently trying to “live in community,” we’ll discover that we’re attempting to get the “pros” of community without any of the perceived “cons.” True, we’ve realized that we can’t live alone, and that we want and need our lives to be shaped by others. But in choosing the specific "communities" we want to be a part of, we are betraying the fact that we still, deep down, want to be the center of our own universes. We only want to be shaped by others in the ways that we want to be shaped by others. And that isn’t community.
Rather than being something centered on a shared perspective or idea, community is rooted in place—and, deeper still, shared humanity and history. Community is not an echo chamber for a group of politicians or painters. Community is sitting in the living room with a group of relatives with whom you have nothing in common and recognizing that they are worth your time. It is staying close to home because Dad can’t work as well as he used to. It is tense political conversations, school plays, and funerals. It is a God who identified himself with a people who wanted nothing to do with him, and united himself to them against all odds. Any sort of community that avoids personal discomfort or inconvenience cannot be honestly described by the term. The truth of the matter is we don't get to decide who our people are—our people are our people.
It’s a painful thing. But like all the greatest stories and pleasures in life, pain is a necessary ingredient. And if we are really committed to defying the American idols of independence and self-interest, we must embrace the pain that comes with the pleasure. The unavoidable reality of true community is that we don’t always get what we want—but what we want isn’t always what we need. To choose daily the people, places, and limitations that we have received—this is what constitutes community. This is what makes life worth living.