Community

I have experienced ready-made communities wherever I have lived. I attended a small liberal arts college, so my first venture from home involved moving into a community that was intentional about orienting new members, careful about forming community, and supportive of all of its members. A freshman talent show invited us to share a bit of ourselves with the wider community. Special social events were designed to help us get to know others and make friends. Dorm living makes it impossible to forget that you live with other people. My seminary experience was similar. Members of our small starting class have become life-long friends and we continue to think of some of those people as very important in our lives.

After graduation, we began serving churches. Each move, and there haven’t been many, was from an established community and into an established community. We knew that there were safe places and trusted adults for our children. We understood that people in the church were willing and eager to help us with the tasks of learning to live in a new place. We turned to church members for support when needed.

It is only upon reflection that I have begun to understand that not all people have such an experience. Last week I visited briefly with a couple who were shopping for a new church after having moved from another community in our state. They had good reasons for their move and it made sense to them, but they were also grieving the transition in relationships after decades of living in their former town. They were up to the challenge of finding new doctors, learning to shop in different stores, figuring out the best routes for getting around town and learning how to access essential services. They met lots of new people, but hadn’t formed many friendships. I hope that our congregation can become a community for them, where they feel welcomed and accepted. We’ve been able to be that for others.

The use of social media to form community can be meaningful to some. FaceBook has been especially effective for some people at the task of catching up with previous relationships. People have used the tool to reconnect with former school mates and others who once were friends, but whose life circumstances led them in different directions. I am almost totally passive on the forum, and yet I routinely get a “blast from the past,” in the form of a friend request from someone I once knew but from whom I’ve drifted away. My high school classmates were, for the most part, the same people I knew in elementary school, so we spend a few years together and shared quite a few experiences, but it has been 48 years since I moved away from my home town. I’ve had quite a few experiences in the intervening years and I’m hardly the same person I was back in those days.

While some are filled with nostalgia for the good old days, I have found the intervening years to be filled with meaning and rich experiences. I’ve no desire to go back to the petty drama of high school life, wondering about who is popular and who is not, trying to form a niche for myself in the school community, worrying about who is dating whom. I’ve enjoyed showing my wife, children and grandchildren the place where I grew up, but I’ve no particular desire to go back to the days before I had a wife, children and grandchildren.

By nature, I guess, I’m not much for reunions. Perhaps that will change as I age. My mother didn’t attend a high school reunion until the 50th anniversary of her graduation. She had so much fun that she didn’t miss a single annual gathering until her health prevented her from attending. Perhaps I’ll follow a similar path. It seems unlikely, however. Since I didn’t graduate from high school and went to college following my junior year, I’ve never figured out exactly which class is my reunion cohort. I guess I identify most with the class in which I was a member than the class who share the year of departure with me. And, after all of these years I have discovered that when I was in high school many of my friends were members of other class groupings. I did attend an all class reunion once and found out that I spent most of the time with a class two years ahead of ours, where there were more people I remembered.

We’ve had the privilege and honor of returning to the congregations that we served from time to time and have enjoyed seeing the people with whom we’ve shared ministry. We have life-long friends from those churches and see some of those people regularly. But going back is a good reminder that you can’t go back. The churches have changed. The membership of those churches is mostly of people who have joined since we left. A couple of the churches we served are no longer open as active congregations. And each return to those places includes conversations with people who remember us fondly and whom I don’t remember clearly at all. Life goes on. We form new relationships.

Still, I am deeply aware of how important community is. We need other people and we need to feel our place in a group of people. I watch young members of our congregation struggle to form community. Because attendance patterns are different than was the case with previous generations, they may find themselves sitting in church on a Sunday when the friends they long to see are not present. They catch a few activities that really help them to experience community and then there are long gaps of time before that same group of people is together again. Being a church community is just one priority among many others. I wonder if they find community in the sports activities of their children, which often take more time and energy than church. They do form significant friendships, but I’m not convinced that they do find community there.

We continue to seek to provide community for all who come to the church. It begins with a welcome. We are aware, however, that there is much work that remains to be done.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!