Church is a community. In particular it’s a covenant community: women and men of various ages commit to a shared life of worship and service, and they pledge their Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights and a week in July and a percentage of their paycheck to pay a staff and keep the roof on a building.
Sometimes this covenant community enjoys close personal relationships. The experience of deep friendship with high levels of personal sharing: this is what some people mean when they call the church a “community.” That can be enlivening and sustaining when you find it in church.
But I’ve been wondering lately how much community, for church, must involve these close personal friendships. Especially in a large church, especially in a church whose members are blessed with lots of these friendships with people outside of Sunday morning, say in their neighborhood or school or workplace, maybe community-as-intimate-friendships is the wrong lens.
I think a lot about this little book I read over a decade ago called The Search To Belong by Joseph Myers. His argument is that defaulting to intimacy is harmful. Insisting that the right way to belong to a church community is to have lots of intimate friendships there privileges one kind of experience of church over others and ignores the meaning that many people find in church whose involvement is more public and less intimate, say only on Sunday mornings. I think about that argument a lot.
I think about it in light of my interaction with a man whose family used to participate in our church preschool, years ago when his kids were little. They’re grown now, but as he’s telling me about those years he’s getting emotional. They came to a couple of worship services maybe and never joined, certainly never went to a potluck or a Bible study. Yet that church community was profoundly meaningful to him and his family.
Where it happens, close personal friendships strengthen the covenant community of church. But we should be careful to not equate the two.