The importance of community
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Creating and sustaining community interaction has been difficult since the start of the pandemic. For us at St. Paul's this challenge has been more acute because we continued being separated from one another for a time after Hurricane Ida in 2021. While people are slowly returning to church (at St. Paul's and elsewhere), many others have drifted away. This seems to be particularly so with the boomer generation who studies show have slowed or stopped their church attendance at greater rates than millennials and Gen Z.
The much touted "loneliness epidemic" of the last few years seems to be having a disproportionate effect on people over 50, although loneliness affects demographics across the board. Church is not, of course, the only way people participate in community, but the Church, especially for this older group, has traditionally been a place of connection and community.
From a theological point of view, God did not design human beings for isolation. In fact, in Genesis 2:18, after the creation of the first man Adam, "the Lord God said, 'It's not good that the human is alone. I will make a helper that is perfect for him.'" This is more than just the impetus for the creation of women, but fundamentally about God creating us to be social creatures. It's indeed not good for us to be alone, and all the scientific studies seem to bear this out. God intends for us to be connected.
"It is not good for the human is alone." -- Genesis 2:18 (CEB)
As Christians, it should make sense to us that God would want us to be connected for one very simple reason: Christians believe that God is a community. We believe in one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And in the New Testament, we see the Trinity living out three essential components of community. These components come from Pastor Andy Stanley who teaches about the ABCs of community:
The example that always comes to mind for me is running a race. When I'm in good enough shape to run I notice that the training runs which I do by myself are sometimes a struggle. My running app has a voice programmed to encourage me, but it's still just a computer. On race day, however, things are totally different. My best pace times, and the most enjoyment I get out of running, always comes on race day. The Crescent City Classic is one of my favorites, and I love watching the people around me. The excitement of being part of the crowd gives me an extra boost. When someone is just ahead of me I will try to catch up to them. People alongside the road are holding up signs, cheering all the runners on. Sometimes, I'll run with a partner and we're able to encourage one another. This is what accountability looks like. It's having people alongside me and around who are rooting me on, providing good examples to follow, encouraging me, and letting me know when I can do better that I think I can. I always run my best times on race day because of the accountability the community around me is providing.
There is an accountability component within the Trinity. Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew writes, "Then Jesus went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed, 'My Father, if it's possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However--not what I want but what you want'" (Matt. 26:39, CEB). Jesus did not want to experience what was coming next. It was only by his heavenly Father's encouragement and directive that he had the strength to move forward.
Healthy communities provide people with a sense of belonging. When describing belonging, Andy Stanley uses the example of the show Cheers. Remember that show? When Norm would walk into the bar everyone would shout, "Norm!" They all knew him. It was clear he belonged. The theme song to Cheers includes the lyric, "You wanna go where everybody knows your name." I know that feeling! I love being a regular at coffee shops or restaurants. I love to have people tell me hello by name when I walk in, and love that they already know what I'm going to order. It makes me feel like I belong.
Jesus clearly felt belonging when describing his relationship with the Father. "I and the Father are one," Jesus tells his opponents in the Temple (John 10:30 ,CEB). Jesus knew what it meant to belong within the Trinitarian community, and for him that belonging felt like unity. When Jesus later prays for his disciples during his final discourse in John, he says, "I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the word will believe that you sent me" (John 17:21, CEB). Jesus' wish is that we, too, will find belonging in the divine community.
We all want to know that others care for us. We want to know that if we're not around they'll notice, and that they'll seek us out to check on us. This can be difficult in larger communities when there are so many people to know and keep track of, but it's what we should strive for. We want to be among people who will listen to us, who will empathize with us, and offer their help when we need it.
Jesus knew what it was like to be loved and cared for. At his baptism, Jesus experienced the Spirit descend upon him like a dove, and heard the voice from heaven say, "This is my Son, whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him" (Matt. 3:17). In that moment we get to see something like a group embrace of the Trinitarian community. I can imagine Jesus felt truly cared for as he set forth from the Jordan in ministry.
"God is a community."
It can be easy to believe that we've got it all figured out for ourselves. That we do not need anyone's help or support. That's simply not true. God is a community, and that divine community created us to live in connection with God and each other. Life isn't meant to be lived in isolation. We need one another. We all need help sometimes. We all need people around us to offer us accountability, belonging, and care. Don't go it alone. Whether it's your church or another group of friends, let others help you with your ABCs.
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