Monday, February 13, 2006

What do we mean by "Community"?

In a Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes: 'Community has become a buzzword in the church in recent years. Overbusy individuals hope they can cram it into their overstuffed schedules like their membership to a health and fitness club (which they never have time to use). Churches hope they can conjure it with candles, programs, or training videos' (208). He then goes on to speak of the Anabaptists practice of 'community in creation' (208-210).

The issue I wish to raise here is What exactly do we mean by "community"? Has it simply become a word so often thrown around without careful thought as to what is being meant? And does this problem exist within the work of scholarship, the talk of the church, or both?

In contemporary everyday usage, the term refers to a group of people associated by way of some shared characteristics. Most naturaly, a community is a group of people who live within a certain proximity to one another, thus I am part of the community of Glenfield. Beyond this, shared characteristics can range from religion (e.g. the Muslim community of London) and ethnicity (e.g. the Polynesian community of South Auckland), to shared interests (e.g. the aggressive skating community of New Zealand). Even where the community is defined by something other than proximity, locality always plays a role in the defenition as seen above. If I was to make a statement about the Polynesian community, your liekly to ask which one, whereas if I was to say something about Poynesians you would not. I may speak of the skating community of Auckland, or New Zealand, but I would rarely speak of the global skating community. Even when I do, locality comes into play (hence 'global'). It seems that locality or proximity (however wide) is never truly perged from our use of the term as community is a term used to limit the scope of our reference.[1]

However, within Christian discourse I get the impression that the term is being used to point to some ideal state of human affairs or relationships. We are told that we need to 'build' community, that this is what is lacking in our church life, we are missing whatever would make it or us a community. What then characterizes community used in this sense? What are we missing?

Here we see the ambiguity of the term. Are we looking for proximity? Certain practices that we do not all yet share? Or is it some other aspect of 'community life'? If it is the latter, where do we get these characteristics from? What actual 'community' would we wish to model it on or Who would we wish to emulate as living this ideal state of affairs?[2]

If the call for community is indeed a biblical one, then we should not be looking for communities to emulate. But the term community is an english one, what we find in the New Testament is ekklesia, and perhaps what we need is not community in need of defenition but a re-worked vision of church?

E. Stegemann and W. Stegemann examine ekklesia in the NT and conclude that 'the Christ-confessing ekklesia is an assembly in which its members come together, and it is a community or group whose members are bound together even outside their actual meetings through reciprocal social interaction.'[3] Who needs the ill-defined term community when we have ekklesia, complete with instructions as to how life within this group should function (e.g. hospitality, service, assistance, etc.)??

[1] Steve Reilly protests the wide scope given the term and offers a more restricted definition: 'This abused and ill-defined term refers to associations of individuals bound together by a shared local environment, rather than by consious interests or by links defined by a single characteristic such as class or ethnicity. Its exact boundaries are unclear, but set by scale and accidents of geography rather than by choice. A community is said to be a source of identity beyond family and close personal life, but with great intimacy and more subtle obligations and and rewards than those of national identity.' 'community', 144, in Bullock, A. and Trombley, S. (eds.), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (London: Harper Collins, 1977, [2000, Third Edition paper back])
[2] Perhaps what is being looked for is some extended involvement in each others lives, akin to what would be experienced in a small isolated town where everyone knows everyone else. But here proximity is the catalyst and what sustains the life style, something that so many Christians do not experience in regard to their fellow church goers.
[3] The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 264


Andy Rowell said...

My friend JR Briggs is posting some stuff on the same subject here:

Also, I have really liked The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee as a popular introduction to this topic. I require it for my students in the class I'm teaching now. He says "yes" it is about both shared beliefs which he names and shared space. He encourages people to live near each other and capitalize on proximity.

Here are the core beliefs he suggests:

eddie said...

Cheers andy!

Sean du Toit said...

Community = Communion, at least in the biblical tradition, especially the NT. Proximity is important, because we need to hear, taste, touch, feel, breathe one another's lives for it to be authentic community. Otherwise, it's just "meeting" with one another. Which is not the vision of the NT.