Which Community?

Here’s a thought to start the year:

“The community” doesn’t exist. It’s an abstraction. Let’s drop it in the service of people and groups of people in need of something more durable than what most of us mean when we say “community.”

This thought has been brewing since I heard a church consultant state the obvious to a room full of pastors and elders, that the church ought to serve “the community” rather than its own members. “Ought” is where the weight falls in that sentiment. I’ve never met a church leader who said the opposite, that the church ought to serve those already in it and that we ought to leave the community to its own devices.

We may act that way out of instinct, but nobody is proclaiming that God so loved the church . . . .

Maybe this is the problem: maybe “the community” is too vague a thing to serve in a concrete way. Maybe churches remain inward-focused because we don’t know “the community” well enough anymore. If that’s the case, then there’s a cacophony of consultants and demographic studies we can pore over to learn all about our . . . “community.”

But we still won’t know it. Because it’s not a thing.

Our cities, neighborhoods, and zip codes are populated by countless (and frequently overlapping) networks–communities–of relationships: schools and their students’ families; youth soccer leagues; colleges; adult softball teams; the chamber of commerce; groups of teenagers who play video games at one anothers’ houses; panhandlers outside the downtown shops; homeless encampments under freeway bridges. The community–such as it is–comes about from the interactions among all of these networks of relationships, which means that the community is always changing as those relational networks change.

What if a church tried to serve one of those relational networks instead of “the community?” What if, when we said we were serving “the community,” we could narrate the people and relationships we mean?

The next time somebody makes mention of “the community” where you live, ask them, “Which one?”

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