Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend of late. It seems so many in our modern, gadget-obsessed culture are searching for community. The problem is, do we really know what we are looking for? If we stumbled on one, would we recognize it?
The arts community, dance, school, LGBTQIA+ (pick your letter), black, latino, sports and faiths of all shapes and sizes. It seems communities are everywhere yet people are searching for one. Why are they so hard to find?
Nowhere is the challenge more significant than in what is commonly known as the “Christian community”. Institutional churches (large denominations and even small neighbourhood churches) have been seeing people leave in large numbers for some time (see Barna Group report from 2014). While it is likely a stretch to say the primary reason is because of dissatisfaction with their relationship experience in those communities, it is one of the primary issues. Note this quote from the Barna report “And in spite of a growing epidemic of loneliness, just one in 10 report going to church because they are looking for community.” In short, people don’t expect to find relationship in church.
While other societal groups may have their own challenges, what is unique about the Christian church is the historical record found in the New Testament regarding the first century communities of believers. Even after disappointing or hurtful relationship experiences, it is still very common to hear a wandering refugee from the institutional church say something like “I’m searching for community like they had back in the first century.” This is usually said with a wistful look as one who is looking for a long lost lover or friend. Perhaps it is time to revisit this from a new perspective, which may result in some insight into much more than just the “Christian community” issue.
Consider the reality of the situation back in the first century CE (2,000 or so years ago) in the Roman Empire. Reflect on the following:
- No Internet, email or social media of any kind.
- No telephone (landline or wireless).
- No television, radio or daily newspaper.
- No printing press and therefore very few books in circulation since they had to be hand copied by scribes.
- No high-speed transportation of any kind (cars, buses, planes, trains, etc).
- The large majority (at least 95%) of what is commonly called the “Christian community” was illiterate.
Add all of this together and the picture that emerges is that it was near impossible to communicate any other way than face to face. Instant communication simply did not exist. This should help highlight some key things that may not be obvious in a casual reading of the New Testament:
- Most of the New Testament books are actually letters from the writer (eg. Paul, Peter, John, Luke, James, etc) to a “community” in another physical place.
- These letters were hand delivered by individuals much like a modern day courier. There was no postal system in place at the time. These journeys (or journeys for the writer to visit the recipients) took weeks or months to complete.
- Because the recipients were primarily illiterate, the letters were read to the assembled “community”. This is why they were often addressed to the “church at Corinth” rather than an individual.
- In Paul’s letters he often said things like “I long to come and see you to discover whether you are still in the faith”. This is because he had no idea how they were doing since he had no way of knowing unless someone delivered a letter to him or he made a personal visit.
In short, the situation at that time was entirely unlike how we live today. While this may seem obvious, perhaps the implications are not. There was simply no way to instantly communicate with anyone other than those who were in your immediate physical vicinity. “Community” was a physical, intimate concept, more like your immediate neighbours within a radius of a few city blocks. This means that any instructions or teachings on how community was to function were based on the concept of close, in your face, intimate relationships. Our modern busy lifestyle with multiple, short burst, non-intimate, surface communication has no similarity at all to this environment. Why then do we pine for something that may as well be a community of alien life forms on another planet? Could it be because our modern forms of communication and community are not working for us? We can’t get there from here without a major shift in thinking.
Institutions of all kinds are under stress in the 21st century. People are dissatisfied with the lack of relational experience and are searching for community of a different kind. In our modern, hyper-connected world of instant communications, “friends” on social media platforms that we have never met and short burst “conversations” we are lacking real connection. Gathering people together one or twice a week into a religious meeting, college class or entertainment event will not do it. We may call it community but it is just an illusion or cheap substitute for the real thing.
However, all is not lost. What we can do is extract some ideas from the first century community settings that if implemented may help us find what we are looking for. How about:
- Putting down your electronic device and having a real conversation and relationship with a flesh and blood human being.
- Intentionally forsaking the crowd and being satisfied with a handful of meaningful face-to-face relationships.
- Invest your time and energy in your local community, people within a few minutes walk, cycle or drive that you can actually touch.
- Recognize that the individual on your television, computer or hand held device screen is not real but is only a partial and likely inaccurate image of what he or she is in person.
- Commit to more real conversations instead of tweets, comments, memes and emojis.
We can’t leave the 21st century entirely but if we are truly searching for community it is likely that we will only find it right in front of our nose.