Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Community: Does "place" matter?
I was reading Jimmy’s post and comments relating to his proposal for discernment committees and I started thinking about community. In a previous life I was a land use planner and I completed a year in a Ph.D. program in Urban Studies and Regional Science (regional science is a very cool field that blends economics and geography to try to explain how and why cities work the way they do). I was thinking that most churches don’t do a very good job creating or nurturing community. Jenell Paris (of the The Paris Project) was suggesting that a community should be involved in your life and help you through tough decisions and major life changes.

I think one of the main problems is a lot of Christians aren’t involved in communities that offer that kind of support. So I started wondering why. One interesting article I read in grad school (can’t remember what it was called, sorry) was about social networks. The authors were arguing that the availability of cheap automobile transportation to most Americans fundamentally changed the constitution of our social networks over the past 100 years. Before cars were widely affordable, people were primarily limited to relationships with those that lived near them. They mentioned the large percentage of children that lived close to their grandparents in the 1950s and the very small percentage that do now. Thus social networks were by necessity limited to those who were in close physical proximity.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect it was a very similar situation for churches. People probably attended a church that was close, and most likely with people who lived near them. I’m willing to bet that living close to members of their church increased viability of that church as a community – not just a place where people worshipped on Sunday.

The personal automobile had a dramatic impact on the physical community. It was no longer necessary to live close to where you worked and it was significantly easier to maintain relationships with family and friends that did not live in the same neighborhood. The car has enabled people to be more intentional about community. We can choose our church from the whole “marketplace” of churches, select schools based on academic achievement, select jobs with less concern that it will limit choices of churches and schools, and continue friendships with those who make different choices.

One consequence of our new freedom is that our church communities are now very loosely tied to the idea of “place.” It’s not uncommon for people to drive 30-45 minutes to attend the church of their choice. That also makes it harder to maintain a sense of physical community when the membership is very spread out. We can be intentional on Sunday, but it is a lot harder the rest of the week.

Another consequence is that our mobility dramatically reduces the chances of “accidental” community, at least in most large metropolitan areas. It is very unlikely that we’ll run into someone from our church at the grocery store or the park. Maintaining community outside of Sunday becomes a lot of work. We have to make a commitment to integrate our church community into our social network.

I’m not suggesting that we need to go back to the days where we can’t afford to venture beyond our neighborhoods (though with gas prices lately, it kind of feels like that!). Rather, community means something very different to us than it did to our grandparents and parents. Our new reality of community means we have to work harder to surround ourselves with people who will help us grow in faith and practice being Christian.



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