“Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.”
– Stanley Hauerwas
“To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” – Bell Hooks
“There are people who are shocked and appalled to find out that there are other people in their congregation that have completely different views on the best way to handle a pandemic.” – Pastor Trevin Wax
Several years ago, the journalist Aaron Gell decided to write an article about a small, annual men’s gathering in upstate New York. So he went to the gathering, and got involved in the relationship network being created by it. He was impressed by their desire to not simply create an event, but an ongoing community. And he realized how rare that kind of community really is.
He went on to write about this, reflecting on the challenge of finding — and maintaining — meaningful community. I lost track of the article (and can’t find it online), but I did save a quote, and it seems even more relevant today.
Here’s his reflection about the challenge of maintaining meaningful community, in our social-media age of isolation:
“The truth is it’s not easy to build an intentional community. Or even a tribe. The truth is it’s almost impossible. Just about every aspect of our culture mitigates against it. Even with our smartphones always charged and within easy reach, human beings are probably more isolated now than we have ever been.”
Why are we so isolated? Many reasons, of course. In fact, shelves of books have been written about this already, and social scientists and anthropologists are still writing more all the time.
In reflecting about the men’s group community, Gell identifies one of the new challenges we face today: when differences of opinion erupt into conflict … which then gets amplified by social media:
“Releasing the kraken of Outrage Twitter is a simple matter, but what good does do anyone? If the internet has become a pool of bile, that bile is a sign that something is seriously wrong with us, deep in the gut. That stuff we’ve been coughing up each day, repugnant as it is, is critical evidence of an chronic affliction that is no less agonizing for being shared by everyone we know.”
What Gell noticed a year or two ago has now gotten worse … much worse. Our social, racial, and political differences are being amplified by our increasingly polarized mass media and social media. These media don’t create the problems, they reveal and amplify them. As he says, “that bile is a sign that something is seriously wrong with us, deep in the gut.”
And of course, the coronavirus pandemic is making all this worse. I wrote about this in a June article, so I won’t go into it again.
I bring it up here because I’m aware of how much of a drag this is on communities, particularly churches. People are stressed out, on edge, and deeply divided.
Churches and other communities — even families! — are sharply divided about politics, racial justice and policing, and coronavirus mitigation efforts. Recent articles like this one point out that many churches are now struggling with conflict about how to deal with coronavirus concerns.
These issues frequently overlap and battle lines get drawn along political lines. And as we get close to our nation’s presidential election, it’s only getting worse. More ads. More stories. More fear-mongering.
Here is what I am doing myself, and encouraging people in the church where I pastor:
Pray for peace, pray for our nation, pray for wisdom and discernment. Of course I would say this because I’m a pastor, right? But I don’t take this lightly. We need to pray for two reasons:
First, we need to pray because we need it ourselves. We pray so that our hearts are changed, so that we can calm down, so that we turn from our old/small/false selves, dominated by fear, prejudice, pride, and self-interest … and turn towards our new selves, directed by the Holy Spirit within us.
But we also pray because others need it, the world needs it, our nation needs it. The Bible instructs us to pray because it changes things. The Bible reminds us that God is attentive to our requests, and active in the human, physical, and political realm. In 2 Chronicles 2:14, it’s recorded that God told king Solomon: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Don’t fall into the lure of cynicism or despair. As citizens of a democracy like ours, we have a voice, and it’s our responsibility to use it. So vote.
3. Be kind
You can have strong beliefs … but be kind. You can share your views, but don’t be a jerk about it. And above all else: stop arguing on social media! Or how about this: stop posting on social media altogether — at least about anything of substance, politically or socially. I have. (But keep the family updates and pictures coming, please. And cats … any funny memes about cats.)
I have determined that if I have something to say, I’ll say it here, in long form, either in an email newsletter or on my web site. If people have a question or issue, they can email me, and we can talk about it. I’m done trying to do that on Facebook or Twitter.
The chances of someone’s opinion — especially about political or social issues — being changed by what you post on social media is essentially zero. (If you doubt this, just ask yourself if you’ve ever changed your views because of what someone tweeted or commented.) Just let it go. Bless people who disagree, and let it go.
4. Guard your peace of mind (and sobriety if you struggle with addiction)
Proverbs 4:23 says “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” One of the implications of this verse is that our heart needs protecting! The danger of over-exposure to violence, negativity, tragedy, and outrage is very real. Hearts can grow weary, hearts can grow anxious, and hearts can grow hardened if we don’t guard them.
This has huge implications for those who struggle with addictions of any kind. Hearts that are weary, anxious, or hardened and cynical are in desperate need of soothing … and addiction is often the “solution” for people who struggle. Addiction expert Patrick Carnes often says that “getting worked up and stressed out” puts a person in grave danger of relapse. Many of us need to be much more intentional about carving out time each day to withdraw from the busyness, stress, and cacophany of news and social media.
One final thought …
Community is hard. I pointed out above how our hearts need to be guarded. So do our communities. As Aaron Gell reminds us, “Just about every aspect of our culture mitigates against it.” So as leaders of communities, it will take our time, energy, focus, and prayer to maintain the health of our churches, organizations, or whatever community we’re responsible for. But it’s important work, and it will pay off.