January 15, 2021

Another Look: Some Thoughts on “Community”


This post was first published in August, 2010.

Today, I heard an interesting interview on the NPR program, Fresh Air with Todd S. Purdum, national editor of Vanity Fair, who has written a piece in the latest edition called, “Washington: We Have a Problem”.

For this article, Purdum spent a day at the White House with the president and his top aides, learning about the incredible challenges of governing in an age when “the modern-day presidency would be unrecognizable to previous chief executives — “thanks to the enormous bureaucracy, congressional paralysis, systematic corruption and disintegrating media.”

This post is not about that. Save your political points for another time, OK?

Today, I’m writing about something Purdum said in his interview about Congress, and how things have changed historically with regard to relationships between the members. Congress functions differently today, partly because the nature of the human connections between the members has changed.

Here’s part of what Todd Purdum said:

Several things are strikingly different. Fifty years ago or so, Congress met for six to nine months a year, and when it was in session, it met mostly five days a week. Most members brought their families to live in the Washington area, and their kids went to school here and they knew each other and socialized with each other on the weekends. Quite frequently members drove home to their districts together at the end of the session to save money in a carpool. There was also no air conditioning, so people weren’t holed up in their individual offices the way they are now.

That really began to change in the 1970s and then accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. And when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, he urged members to keep their families back so they would have to go home every weekend if possible. That’s a necessity for campaigning and fundraising. But it has the effect of meaning members don’t really know each other. They haven’t spoken to each other in human ways. So it’s a lot easier to be nasty and say nasty things about someone you don’t know than to say nasty things about someone who you go to church with or see in the supermarket. or whose wife is friends with your wife or husband, and that’s something that’s, culturally, quite different.

A lot of younger members now live in their offices and take showers in the House gym. They don’t rent, even apartments, here. I talked to a friend of mine who works for a senior member from a Sunbelt state. He’s been in Congress for eight years. And my friend said that this member doesn’t really know anybody except the fellow Republicans in his home state delegation, and his neighbors on either side of his office building, but that, in terms of broad acquaintanceship with members of the House, he doesn’t really have any, and he’s been there for eight years.

Community in a Technological Age

The subject of community is huge in conversations about the church today. Perhaps these remarks about Congressional relationships can help us see why it is such a challenge in today’s environment.

What struck me in Purdum’s observations is the relationship between technology and the loss of human contact. It seems possible that the more we choose the efficiencies that new technologies afford us, the more separated we can become from one another.

For example, because members of Congress can so easily communicate and travel in efficient and cost effective ways over long distances these days, they don’t have to bring their families to Washington, settle down, or spend time with their fellow members as they were forced to do before. They are able to live in an insulated world of work, pursuing their own agendas and “taking care of business” while in the capitol, and then easily, almost magically be translated into a different world where they can see their families and go out on the stump in their home districts.

They can keep these worlds separate and work efficiently and productively across both worlds because of the technology available to them. Collegiality, on the other hand, is not immediately productive, and so it has become optional to the task at hand. Members of Congress need not speak to or relate to their colleagues in “human ways;” it’s all about getting results.

Life in today’s world, more than ever before, is about this — getting things done, controlling our environment so that we can create the results we want. As Os Guinness has written,

What counts in the rationalized world is efficiency, predictability, quantifiability, productivity, the substitution of technology for the human, and-from first to last-control over uncertainty.

The first thing that must be said about true community in the world we live in today — the kind of fellowship that the NT describes — the kind of relational unity and partnership in Christ that fulfills the “one another” instructions of the epistles — is this:

It may require that we take some steps away from and out of the secularized patterns of modern life that our technologies have produced.

alfalfaThe Problem: Secularism or Secularization?

Overall, I don’t think Christians have thought seriously enough about this.

Our preachers have pronounced fervent warnings against secularism—a philosophical worldview that leaves God out of the equation.

But haven’t we failed to fully appreciate the impact of secularization—the process that “flattens” the world and causes us to look more and more at life from a human point of view due to our increasing knowledge and skill?

The latter happens automatically, imperceptibly, and inevitably as we humans develop better and more efficient ways of doing our work and controlling the world through science and technology. We are grateful for the benefits advancements bring; we don’t always recognize the other side of the coin.

The secularization of modern civilization is partly due to our inability to adjust the ethical and spiritual interests of mankind to the rapid advance of the physical sciences. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

The modern church (particularly U.S. church-growth oriented evangelicalism) has tended to see methods as neutral. We’ll use whatever works to bring folks in and build the organization. After all, we have a mission to reach people and get them involved in the church, so why not use every means at our disposal? But talking like this betrays our preoccupation with technology. The technological mind thinks about means and ends.

On the other hand, life is simply life, with all its twists and turns, with all its meanderings and messes, its enigmas and loose ends. Relationships (messy too!) are formed through organic connections between people, and this happens in the context of real life situations.

I know a woman who decided, early in her life as a mother, that the family would never own an automatic dishwasher. She and her daughter would do the dishes together every night after the family ate supper. That would be their time together. They worked together. They served the family together. Together, they turned a bit of chaos into order. They talked sometimes, and sometimes they just cleaned dishes. Year after year after year. She decided against technology that would have made her life easier in order to build a relationship that made her family’s life richer.

Community is not created or manufactured but planted, cultivated, and grown. We choose to give time to simply live with others, interacting with them in the daily activities and experiences of life.

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, The Message)

little-rascalsIt is not just a matter of belonging to the same organization, participating in the same program, playing on the same team, sitting in the same class, or attending the same event. It involves participating in “the life together,” the common life that is not divorced from but intimately engaged in the daily stuff of sitting down to eat a meal, taking a walk, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, picking up after the kids, changing diapers, borrowing and lending tools, visiting in the hospital, helping with school projects, baking cookies, pulling weeds in the garden, washing the dishes. It is unhurried conversations over coffee. It is having fun and laughing together. It’s being there when bad news comes. It is learning to speak words of affirmation and rebuke, confession and forgiveness. It is sitting silently together on the porch. It is friendship in Jesus.

We simply cannot experience community today unless we take some different approaches to life. To have these kinds of relationships, we must disengage from things, even good things, that work against our own human formation and the formation of human bonds with others.

If we want community, we may have to consider ways of changing our very style of living.



  1. Steve Newell says

    I have found that one of the best ways to build community is my church is to have people over to my home for dinner or to go others. When you go to someone’s home for a meal, you learn more about the family than you would ever learn in at church. Also when you share a meal, you have more time to have real conversations and not the church small talk that we all engage in.

    In the early church, the Christians gather together for corporate worship and in each other homes so share.

    This is how you can built a community is the most natural way.

    • Even that is so challenging today. Trying to get anyone to actually show up for a dinner meal seems to be impossible with various schedule conflicts, and so many people seem to be afraid and feel so awkward being in someone else’s house. One thing I learned (especially in the South United States) that although there is a reputation of friendliness, people feel very uncomfortable in a home setting.

      Combine that with various diets (vegetarian, vegan, low carb, high carb, glutten free, allergies) and planning a meal seems impossible.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Combine that with various diets (vegetarian, vegan, low carb, high carb, glutten free, allergies) and planning a meal seems impossible.

        Someone coined the term “orthorexia” for this. Remember how “anorexia” is not eating? Well, “orthorexia” is “Orthodox Eating”, i.e. eating only what is “correct”. Extreme food taboos proceeding from a belief system, kike kosher/halal on steroids. And when no two eaters have the same extreme (and often contradictory) food taboos… Sounds related to St Tommy A’s “gluttony of delicacy” and “tyranny of the most easily offended.”


        • Katharina von Bora says

          Excuse me did you actually say “k*ke kosher”? Is that kind of language acceptable here? Even “ironically”?

      • I have had much more success building community with my neighbors than my church members. I live in a flat, and there are always people around to do a barbecue or something.

      • Allen, I am one of the people you would feel awkward about inviting over. I can’t eat anything made of wheat, dairy, corn, or peanuts, and I don’t do well with too much sugar, However, I NEVER mind going to someone’s house just to visit and not eat anything if I’m not able to; I’m still thrilled to be asked over. If people ask about allergies, I mention them but still tell them that the company is more important than the food. I can eat my rice cakes and almond butter at home alone. So while I know it can be discouraging when guests don’t take advantage of what you offer, please ask them anyway. There are creative ways to manage: potlucks/pitch-ins enable people with limited diets to contribute something they can eat, too, or you can have an off-meal party of vegies, snacks, or fruit.

      • David Cornwell says

        Another alternative is to invite a small number of persons home for desert. In advance inquiries can be made as likes and dislikes, or what to avoid. Normally this will not involve a large amount of prep. And people informally gathered can usually have a good time together.

      • Christiane says

        when my husband and I lived in a lake community in NJ, there was a beach and a clubhouse (with a bar) and it was the kind of clubhouse that was family-friendly with a pool-table, and a shuffle-board, a player-piano, etc

        lots of interaction, and both my husband and I spent our time serving on the board of the organization . . . and it occurs that even with the ‘groups’ within the group that formed, it was still better than people not interacting with one another ‘in human ways’ . . .

        now we were loud and rude and disagreed and partied and had one too many on a Saturday night and the politics even at one point went to court, but it was still ‘life’ being lived ‘in a human fashion’, and when the lakes had competitions, our lake association pulled together and we worked as one unit in order to win,
        and when a family had trouble, all kinds of members responded to help and showed concern, like a ‘family’ in ‘a human way’.

        I miss that crazy place, for all the nonsense, at least there was life there, being lived loud and most of the time joyously. My daughter still considers it her ‘home’, though we gave up the lake house twenty years ago.
        Life is messy when it is lived ‘in community’ . . . but the other option of isolation is dehumanizing in ways that have hurt us as a people.

    • Steve, I would agree with you that the dinner table is a great place to start with building community. You know, we get so fixated on hospitality in the church building…We must have a greeters ministry, a follow up phone call and postcard, and possibly, even a visit from someone on staff at the church…But how about good old fashioned inviting someone to lunch after church? We have been attending the same church for three years now, and not once have been invited to lunch. We’ve been invited to serve in different ministries and on committees. We were invited to a Sunday School class cookout once. But not once has anyone invited us to lunch. You know what, though? We haven’t invited anyone either, so shame on us. “If you want friends, show yourself friendly.”

      We live in a world where we are infinitely connected to people, through electronic means and social media, but we have a profound deficit in terms of intimate relationships. Sharing a meal is a great place to start. Think about it…We know tons of people, but how many of them actually know where we live? And of those, how many have been inside our homes? An even smaller portion has been inside the home and shared a meal with us. Sharing a meal is an intimate activity. It involves very personal parts of your body…Your mouth and your hands. I may shake a stranger’s hand, but I likely won’t hold it with caring (I’ll probably also use hand sanitizer afterwards, because I know people pick their noses in their cars and don’t wash afterwards). The number of people that I allow access to my mouth is definitely limited. Sharing a meal opens us up and leaves us vulnerable and exposed, and we relax and share more openly there. That’s why most adulterous relationships start by innocently sharing lunch in the workplace with a co-worker.

      I get some of Allen’s points, but I think we can use the same excuses for not inviting people into our church communities…”They won’t like our order of worship”…”We don’t offer a singles’ ministry”…”They won’t enjoy our current pastor”…and so on. We can’t worry about creating a perfect environment for relationships to be fostered, but instead, we have to anticipate that relationships might be messy. Aren’t they always? But part of community is working through those issues as they arise.

      So I’ll take this opportunity to invite someone to lunch after church this Sunday. I’m going to do it. Maybe we can some follow-up on how it turns out, CM?

      Here’s a thought from Henri Nouwen…

      “The word ‘community’ has many connotations, some positive, some negative. Community can make us think of a safe togetherness, shared meals, common goals, and joyful celebrations. It also can call forth images of sectarian exclusivity, in-group language, self-satisfied isolation, and romantic naiveté. However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own (see Philippians 2:4). The question, therefore, is not “How can we make community?” but “How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?”

      With CM’s blessing, I’ll close by sharing a link to some great quotes on community that I posted a while back….


      • Sorry, I meant to say, “So I’ll take this opportunity to challenge all y’all to invite someone to lunch after church this Sunday. I’m going to do it. Maybe we can have some follow-up on how it turns out, CM?

        Wow, my brain is really not working this morning…

      • Thanks, Lee. Yes I’d love some follow up on efforts in this regard.

        To follow up on your comment, one thing that has changed dramatically in my lifetime is our approach to Sundays. In rural and small town communities, Sunday used to be the day to “visit” — not only to share meals but to go sit on the front porch and drink lemonade and catch up with our neighbors. Now it’s about football, and youth sports, and church programs, and getting personal errands done, etc. It’s hard enough to consistently have Sunday dinner with our own families.

        • Some of you might want to check out Chris Smith’s blog, Slow Church. Here is what it’s about:

          “Slow Church can help us unmask and repent of our industrialized approaches to church. It can also spur our imaginations with a rich vision of the holistic, interconnected, and abundant life together to which God has called us in Christ Jesus.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Now it’s about football, and youth sports, and church programs, and getting personal errands done, etc.

          Don’t forget the child psychiatrist appointments after the youth sports and special tutoring and music lessons and scheduled structured play dates. I am NOT making that up.

        • “…sit on the front porch and drink lemonade and catch up with our neighbors.”

          Sadly, the front porch has gone the way of the dodo. Instead we now have the back deck where we can enjoy our isolation.

          • And even then, only rarely is the back deck used. We’ve lived in our new house for 3 years and have never seen our neighbors use their screened deck.

  2. For a group who has integrated community into not only its ecclesiology, but its approach to life, once again I bring up Anabaptism.

    • Clay Crouch says

      Do you bring it up as a cautionary tale? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems these groups tend to practice community to the exclusion of all others. Healthy community does not equal sameness.

    • I grew up in an Anabaptist family and church. You’re right, the community was very close knit. Sunday morning church, Sunday afternoon pot luck, Sunday evening hymn sing. Wednesday meetings and helping each other all throughout the week. There was very little need to go outside the community for anything. Someone usually had the skill that was needed or, on the other side of things, could offer you a job. Problem was that it was VERY exclusionary. The term “like precious faith” was used often. Anyone within the church was “brother/sister” and anyone outside the church (so-called Christians) was “friend.” You didn’t want to be called “friend” as it meant that you were probably going to hell.

      So how do we foster community without being exclusive? Can that even be done or is some level of exclusivity a prerequisite to intimacy?

      • Well, it may be that real community MUST be somewhat exclusive, just as a real marriage must be. There is no such thing as a global community that includes everyone — not the kind of community that shares meals and knows secrets and drops in on Sunday afternoon. The challenge is to be open-hearted and humble towards different groups rather than superior or judgmental, even if one doesn’t invest in them much.

        • Good point, Damaris.

          Many of the religious communities that thrived or thrived in the past even have an ethnic consistency. Unfortunately everyone seems to want to whine about Sunday morning being the most segregated time of the week. And then there are the constant exhortations for us to love everyone in general and nobody in particular.

          I remember reading an article in ‘Outside’ magazine many, many moons ago about someone whom I cannot even remember, but there was a quote that I found quite clever, albeit mostly a load of crap: “How can I be faithful to just one woman, without being unfaithful to the rest of them?” It seems, however that much of what I’ll hear in the range rather than depthers (posing as outwardly focused, of course), sounds like the same thing.

          The reality is that the opposite is true: I am most faithful to all other women when I am most faithful to my wife. Of course I could have silly exclusivity rules that hurt both our relationship and the one’s I have with others, but committing to her is really a service to all women and the benefits of that commitment actually enable me to serve others outside our exclusive ‘community’ better.

  3. Interesting note about congress. It is interesting now to look back at the famous Carnegie book “How to win friends and influence people”. None of that seems to really work anymore. No one trusts anyone.

    • Regarding that side-note, I’m glad members of Congress go home instead of living in Washington, DC. I would rather have them connect with their constituents than the power mongers in that surreal place. The less time a human spends in DC the better.

      • D.C. is overflowing with lobbyists and policy wonks as it is! the way many people live there – 60-80 hrs. of work per week and such – is enough to kill most people.

        and D.C. is no longer the sleepy Southern town that it once was. now it has constant gridlocked traffic on all Beltways and on most other main roads, not to mention the worst air pollution on the East Coast.

  4. I agree – as followers of Jesus, we need to make hard choices to live a different type of lifestyle. Yes, families are busy, but do we really need to be? Its amazing that in this digital age, with all its time saving technology, we have so little time to be part of a community. Technology has actually remade us into creatures who stare at screens for hours a day, communicating with someone on the other side of the world, while we ignore those right next to us. You can only have so much community in a 4 inch screen, yet the iPhone (and others) has come to be the ultimate 21st century gathering place.

    • These technologies can certainly increase a certain kind of community. Otherwise I would have no interest in this blog. However, in this post, we are talking about face to face interaction as you suggest.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        These technologies can certainly increase a certain kind of community.

        “Waddaya mean, ‘isolated’, ‘atomistic’, ‘The Algorithm’? I have FIVE THOUSAND Facebook Friends! FIVE HUNDRED Twitter friends Twittering me (and me Twittering them) from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed!”

      • Yes, you are right technology enabled this Internet monk community and many others. In an ironic twist, it has been the new technologies that have provided a way for many of us to learn about the ancient ways. So for these reasons, I am grateful for the rise of technology.

      • i can’t help wondering if there was the same kind of reaction when the telephone made its debut – not to mention movies, the radio and – worst of all – TV.

        it’s how we use technology; not the tech itself that’s at fault.

        • I agree with that in general, but we must consider that each tech advance or change has its own unique impact on our lives and lifestyles. I’d probably say that TV has been the most impactful in changing the way we relate to each other in my lifetime.

          • TV: agreed, Mike.

          • It’s ironic (in some ways) that the internet is such a *huge* help for so many who do need community but cannot find it where they are.

            for myself, I am not certain I’d have survived the past 10+ years with sanity intact were it not for the very real support provided by fellow travelers (xtian and not) that I’ve “met” via the web. I live in an isolated area, and the internet does a great deal to lessen that very real geographical (and other) isolation.

  5. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    When I first started attending my current parish, I was in the middle of finishing my Master’s degree, and highly resisted getting “too involved” in the church for the simple reason that I had no time between night school and a full-time job. But, I resolved to “plug in” as soon as I finished the degree. Since my parish was (at the time) without our own building/facilities, the way to “plug in” was to join one of the home groups. I didn’t want to do it, but I had promised both myself and my pastor, so I did.

    It was then that I actually started developing relationships at church.

    We’d pray together, study the bible together, eat together, and generally get to know one another in the context of one of the folks’ homes. Later, when the group got too big, half the people decided to meet closer to where I lived (about 45 minutes away from the church) and the other half stay where they were (about 20 minutes away from the church). While our group didn’t flourish as well as the other, we still cultivated relationships and had good times. About once a quarter or so, both groups would get together for a potluck or something. It was very good.

    Less than a year ago, as I was moving toward ordination, and the church’s building was being completed, I decided to move closer to church. One of the other folks (also a priest at church) and his wife decided to do the same, and we ended up in the same apartment complex about 5 minutes from church. We also “plugged out” of that old home group, due to distance.

    Sad thing now is, other than that other priest and his wife, I really don’t spend much time with folks from church anymore, outside of Sunday morning services or occasional other official at-church gatherings. Other than them and my pastor’s son (who’s usually off at seminary in another state, but we’re close in age, and enjoy hanging out), I’ve never had anyone from church over to my flat. That’s just not how it ought to be.

    I’ve really been coming under conviction that I need to be more intentional about being hospitable to my neighbors and parishioners (especially with regards to having folks over for dinner or tea or something), but that’s really hard for this introvert to do at times. Fortunately, my fiance is much more inclined to do this sort of thing, and we’ve agreed that she’ll have a lot of liberty to do so once we’re married and living in the same city. I’ve even started making sure that the pantry and fridge are well enough stocked to have snacks and stuff if folks visit. For an introverted bachelor, that’s a HUGE step.

  6. Klasie Kraalogies says

    That is why, even in the office environment (and working in consulting, we are very technologically driven), I make a point of walking to someone’s office to ask them a question, ask how their weekends were etc etc. And for people far away, a phone call is better than an email.

    And yes, the occasional beer with a client is good – and then business is rarely on the agenda. Unless they are Chinese clients, in case of which you need a strong liver… 🙂

    No wonder I have better work relations than church ones. Which I have given up on.

  7. David Cornwell says

    From Todd Purdum’s piece:

    “They haven’t spoken to each other in human ways. So it’s a lot easier to be nasty and say nasty things about someone you don’t know than to say nasty things about someone who you go to church with or see in the supermarket. or whose wife is friends with your wife or husband, and that’s something that’s, culturally, quite different.”

    This brings back a memory. I went to a seminary in Washington D.C. 1961-1962. It was an exciting city then, because Kennedy had been elected President and his term was fresh and new. I know it was a much more personal city back then. Once I had been to the Library of Congress and was still near the Capital was getting toward dark. I stopped in at a food counter, probably Walgreens. Sitting there I overheard the conversation of two congressmen who had stopped in for a bite. They were talking to each other about their respective families and other personal matters. This impressed me. I heard little about their work or any kind of politics.

    I know for a fact that being face to face with a person, looking into their eyes, can change how that person is treated. Unkind and demeaning words do not flow so easily. My mother would say that if a person could not, or refused to look you in the eye, then he or she could not be trusted. Her words are a generalization perhaps. But if we look a person in the face and really attempt to see that person, it will make a difference.

  8. Our church recently decided to copy a community building program that another church in our area had done. “Dinner for eight” – start with a host family and then other couples sign up until a group of 8 is achieved, next time it is at the home of someone new. I really wanted to take part but my sarcastic side couldn’t since our church had to up the ante to being “Dinner for ten”. While the majority of our church members do have homes with dining rooms to fit ten, not so myself and my bride; six is tight and 8 is uncomfortable. The need to do it just a little bit bigger than ‘that other church’ soured me to the idea.

    • That is remarkable. Funny and sad at the same time.

    • Katharina von Bora says

      I am put off from any church that pushes this kind of “community building” because we are far less well off than apparently everyone else must be. I can’t imagine inviting our pastor and all the grand people from church who think of these ideas to come sit around our tiny kitchen table and enjoy tater tot casserole and steamed broccoli, our family of five living in a 2 bedroom apartment with lovely ambient noise from the nearby highway. I can’t imagine anyone would want to accept that offer, or be comfortable here if they did. I can easily imagine people sneering at our “decor” such that it is, talking behind our backs about how they pity us.

  9. Along the same lines I see how many of my friends on Facebook, who are actually ‘real’ life friends, will post preachy things, and say things that they would never have the nerve to say face to face. I have also found this with many preachers. The artificial separation between them and a passive audience embolden them to say things that they would either never be willing to say face to face or that would be so quickly challenged and dismantled that they would only be that bold once (one would hope).

    It is as if both situations have similar effects a a few beers aka cans of courage.

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