I lived in China as an instructor at a Chinese boarding school for a year when I was still in college. Among all the cultural differences I observed, I couldn’t help but notice how different the Chinese students who lived on the campus related to each other compared to American students I had observed before. Their sense of community is different and its very noticeable.
In the class, no one was ever left out of activities. Even if it was obvious certain students didn’t get along, it was never an option to not include everyone in activities. Being part of the group was a given for them.
In our Western culture, this is not so.
Everyone has to earn their place in the group, which can be exhausting. There is always the chance that you will mess up badly enough that you will be kicked out and rejected. This undercurrent of fear keeps people from being completely authentic with each other also.
Part of this is due to our modern society with its continuous motion. In the past, most people lived their entire lives in the same community. They often had to rely upon one another just to survive. This forced people to learn to get along with each other, even those they really didn’t like. Everyone knew the group was too important to sacrifice to petty differences. They truly saw that they needed each other.
Now it is easy to walk away.
We no longer “need” each other in the ways people did in the past. When someone offends us, we don’t have to stay and deal with it. While there are some definite benefits to this, there are major drawbacks. In a survey conducted by Barna in 2015, they found that 1 in 5 adults are lonely with the preponderance of this loneliness occurring with millennials and generation x.
Most people do not feel like they belong anywhere or they work hard to make themselves a part of specialized communities based on preference (based on politics, entertainment, etc). Because many relationships are built upon common interests, these relationships can fall apart when real crises occur.
This is where the church has the potential to transform lives.
If we are able to provide real, unwavering community, we are offering something rare in our busy, online world. Real community means being patient and kind with one another, providing for each others’ needs in times of difficulty, and doing the hard work of speaking truth with love. This is difficult–particularly in the climate of America today that has battle lines drawn along political viewpoints.
We can start by learning to love those who attend our church. Be bold and don’t just invest in relationships with people who are just like you in age, socioeconomic status, or race. Be a part of or start a community group that actively invests in one another regardless of common interests. Don’t expect it to be comfortable, because community is never comfortable, but expect it to be life-changing.
Jesus calls us to be unified.
The church needs to look different from the dominant culture by pursuing loving community, knowing this is Christ’s heart. In fact, in his very last prayer before his crucifixion, his desire was for unity among believers.
In John 17:20-21 (ESV), he prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (bold mine).
Jesus’s words confirm that a large part of our witness and the acceptance of the truthfulness of the Gospel depends upon the unity we display to the world. Unity does not mean that we all think the same–that is conformity. Instead, it means we are committed to one another for the long haul, united in our love of Christ.
I learned a lot about community during my time in China and by reading God’s Word. Church, we need each other and the way we live this out amongst ourselves has the potential to change the world. We don’t have to miss out on community anymore–we need to build it.