Rethinking Christian Community (Part 2): The Problem of Mobility

It’s easy to complain about the church. It’s not my intent, in this series, to complain. My hope is to highlight some areas of weakness in the modern church that we can address in order to cultivate more Biblical community. The problems I intend to address will focus largely on the American church, and particularly that branch of it that I am more familiar with. I also want to note upfront that I am hardly the first person to raise these concerns and I won’t be the last. Nothing that I say here is new and much of it is a synthesis of the works of smarter people. Nonetheless it is worth thinking carefully about what makes Christian community so anemic in our modern culture. One specific challenge to Biblical community is mobility.

It was economic pressure, mostly, which created our cultural transience. The rise of large cities created more job opportunities for people and so it became necessary to move. Increasingly, however, we have become more and more disconnected from the places we live and as a result from each other. It’s not just about moving to find work, we’ve begun to live more fragmented lives in general. As Brandon Rhodes writes:

This American life is a life dispersed: we work ten miles away with people who live twenty miles beyond that, buy food grown a thousand miles away from grocery clerks who live in a different subdivision, date people from the other side of town, and worship with people who live an hour’s drive from one another…There is little sense of consonance, commitment, spontaneity, or stability in this paved new world. (The Intentional Christian Community Handbook, 31)

Within this context we are not likely to “do life” together. We like the idea of a Christian community, but unless it occurs within the controlled environment of the church building during a regularly scheduled program it doesn’t usually happen. When we live, worship, work, shop, and play at so many spread out locations there is little chance for spontaneous socializing or serving. We don’t develop natural, deep, and meaningful connections when everything must be strategically planned and organized by institutional boundaries. Not that institutional organization and planning is bad, it’s just not the only thing we need. We need something more, something deeper, something that cultivates genuine interest and investment in one another, not just commitment to the organization.

This disconnected way of living has also directly impacted the organization of the church. Our automobility caused the church of the 1980s to create megachurch campuses, complete with gyms and cafes. Now you could get all the things you wanted at a one-stop shop. The way people thought about church began to shift, it was now a marketplace with products and services to consume. This trend began to impact even the way the church “marketed” itself. Since parishioners had cars they didn’t have to commit to the church on their block, they could shop around and find a place with more of what they personally wanted. So, church shopping became the norm and competing for priority in the marketplace became the expectation. Churches felt compelled to sell themselves to potential “customers” and as a result lost sight of Biblical priorities. The idea of community became less relevant because parishioners were consumers not members of the body of Christ.

The hole this trend left in our discipleship as churches has been tremendous! Willow Creek saw this first-hand as they explored and evaluated the growth of their members. In their book Reveal authors Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson discuss a three-year study that found that despite their best intentions and assumptions, the people in their congregation were not growing as they thought. As one of the leading megachurches in the country, whose programs had been bought by churches everywhere, they were failing to make equipped and mature disciples. Our transience and mobility, which offered us a shopper’s market, has had a very negative effect on church culture and discipleship in particular.

In our modern context people are deeply disconnected. Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking work on the “collapse…of American community” revealed how deep the problem was at the beginning of the century (Bowling Alone). It hasn’t really improved. And, of course, we could insert here the negative contribution that technology, smartphones, and social media have made to our sense of connectedness. All of these examples, however, are simply evidence that we have a problem! What can we do?

Identifying problems is always easier than working out solutions. I won’t pretend to know, at this moment, all that we should do to help overcome our transient tendencies as a culture. I think one important thing we can do to start with, however, is identify the members of your church that live, work, and play in your part of town and begin regularly connecting with them. Who do you know from your church who works near you (perhaps in your building or on your block)? Who do you know from your church who eats at restaurants near you, plays at the park near you, frequents your local library, etc.? Who do you know from your church that lives near you? Arrange to spend more time with these individuals. Begin building report, relationship, and connection with these people specifically. Encourage one another to frequent the same places, to visit at one another’s homes, to drop in and check on one another. Plan meals, and drop off meals for one another. Pray together over lunches. Help one another on home projects. Carpool together. Find ways to connect that encourage more natural relationships and commitments. Invest in one another’s spiritual well being.

Connectivity is hard when we are so dispersed throughout the week. Focusing on proximity as a means of helping to build that connectivity is one way to encourage more consistent communion and build bridges towards better community. Our mobility has created some problems with the development and the sustainment of Christian community. One way we can seek to address this challenge is by focusing on those members of our church who live, work, and play within a reasonable proximity to us. Creating more overlap in our interactions will provide more opportunity for community to develop.

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