You can be in a huge group of people, even a busy group of people, and not have any community.
You may go to a huge church, and know a ton of people. You may even be active in that church. But if, in that group of people, you don’t have anyone that you can call in a pinch or anyone that you can just hang out with, or you feel as if you’re always imposing or you’re always out of place, then you can feel even lonelier than if you were alone.
And community matters in marriage.
We weren’t meant to live on our own. Your spouse cannot be your only social support, and when your spouse is your only one to rely on, then your marriage has to bear a weight it was never meant to.
We need mentors, to help us through hard times and give us good examples. As Joanna was saying to me last week, in her old church in Saskatoon, she could look to other couples who had walked through infertility and get encouragement there, but she could also look to people who had never had children and still had full lives, and get encouragement there, too.
We need people with whom we can laugh, have fun and create memories, because life was not meant to exist only in front of a screen. We need people to rely on, to ask for help from, and to help ourselves. And that’s what community is:
Community is having a group of people (even if they don’t all know each other) that you can be authentic with and who can be authentic with you. It’s having people that you know will be there for you if you need them, but that you are also there for when they need you. It’s caring for others, and being cared for yourself. It’s having people that you mentor, and also people who mentor you (and sometimes it’s the same people, with you switching roles, because you each have your own strengths!). It’s having friends who you can laugh with and have fun with, but also people who will hold you accountable and spur you on to love and good deeds.
Why wouldn’t you have real community?
Sometimes you’re surrounded by toxic people, or the group you’re in is unsafe
Community is not something you can force. You can’t tell people, “okay, now it’s time to confess your sins to each other and share your secrets with each other, and now it’s time to sacrifice financially for each other and support one another” and expect this to happen automatically.
And yet, far too often, churches confuse form with substance. We know that community grows best in smaller groups, so we tell the church to break up into small groups and then expect that these small groups will automatically be this rich, deep community.
When churches take this to an extreme, it can even get abusive. You should not be forced to reveal your salary or net worth, or to confess your sins, in order to join a small group. You should not be forced to let strangers into your life in a boundary-less existence to have community.
That’s because real community is something organic that comes from people spending time together, feeling cared for, and being able to open up more. You can’t force authenticity and vulnerability; it has to be natural, that comes from feeling safe with others.
Here’s a great example of unsafe “community groups” which verge on cults. (I share this not to be super-negative, but just because this practice is far too common in some churches, and when you’re in the middle of it, you may not know it’s wrong. So I just want to raise awareness for those who may be being hurt).
Many churches mean well, but when they require people become completely vulnerable without providing any safety or protection, it isn’t real community.
Community can also be toxic if you feel as if sharing what you’re really feeling or struggling with will cause you to be ostracized. There’s more on that in this post:
Sometimes there’s no community because there’s a mismatch
You may be an introverted, deep thinker, and you’re attending a highly charismatic church which focuses on emotion and worship. Or maybe you’re someone deep in the arts who loves authentic and expressive worship, and you’re attending a church which focuses only on intellectual Bible studies.
I wish that there were even more expressions of church rather than the traditional “meet in a building once a week to listen to music and hear a sermon”, because I think many of us experience a significant mismatch. Rebecca and I will be talking about this more on the podcast this week!
Real community is something organic that comes from people spending time together, feeling cared for, and being able to open up more. You can’t force authenticity and vulnerability; it has to be natural, that comes from feeling safe with others.
or Sometimes you need to make more of an effort
I know a couple who went to three different churches in the space of a year and always left in a huff, because nobody really reached out to them. However, they never made any effort to join a group or volunteer or get involved. Another woman I know was in a huff because no one from church visited her when she was in recovery from surgery, but she had also not been attending regularly, she hadn’t been volunteering, and she hadn’t let anyone know she had had surgery.
Community is not about people serving you; it’s about a mutual relationship. And many times, those who really understand that sentiment end up fitting in even with very cliquey groups.
My daughter’s church, for instance, recently gained a new young couple to the congregation. The “young people” group is quite close-knit, and as a result it can be tricky to break into because everyone is so close that even if they try to invite people in, it seems to fizzle out.
But this couple wanted friends, and they wanted to make a great community fast. So they volunteered. They even started helping to run the young adults group and were at every single event.
And you know what? They found their place, and it feels like they’ve been there forever now, because they made themselves an integral part of the larger community as a whole. You know you can count on them, they took initiative, they offered their help and their time, and through serving together and simply spending time together they have become really great friends to lots of people in the church and it keeps getting stronger.
On the other hand, there are often people who show up at young adults events but then don’t become involved in any deeper way. They don’t show up 20 minutes early to help set up, they don’t stick around to chat afterwards. And it’s really, really hard to get to know those people. It’s really easy for those people to slip through the cracks because they simply haven’t given people a chance to get to know them.
Community happens when we go above and beyond, even in small ways. It happens when we stop seeing church as a way to get what we need and instead as a relational experience. That mindset shift changes us, and it makes us more likely to show up a bit early or stay a bit later. And it’s by becoming someone that others can count on or serve together with that community is often found.
Living a life of community
We need to live a lifestyle that’s conducive with community, which means that we need to be able to drop anything and go. If you live a lifestyle where you’re not accessible to other people, it’s perhaps no wonder that you feel lonely! You can’t be in real community if you have no margins, because community requires some sacrifice. If you’re only able to take, and never to give, then you’re not a contributing member of a community, and you’ll never feel truly connected.
This is why long-term community is so important, because there are times when margins are not possible, and you have seasons where you need to rely on others. But that’s okay–if you have invested in others already.
Where can you find community?
Your community does not need to all be from the same place. When I think of my community, I think of my cousins, my sisters-in-law, my daughters and sons-in-law, and the young women who work on my blog. I think of my friends, none of whom go to my church, and who know each other only tangentially–Susan, Tammy, Donna, Lisa, Mollie, Jill. I think of some women whom I don’t see very often and whom I’ve never spent a ton of time with, but whom I’ve always clicked with and I’d love to see more of: Susie in Ottawa; Bonnie in Wingham; Elizabeth in Pittsburgh. Each of these women I could call at the drop of a hat to ask for help from or advice from, and each of these women I have helped in various ways over the years as well.
One of my best friends is actually my hairdresser. Yes, we also went to church together eons ago, but our friendship really formed in the chair in her shop.
And your community doesn’t have to be all people your age, either! It’s not necessarily about finding traditional friends, but about finding people who matter in your life.
I love talking to Joanna, one of my co-authors for The Great Sex rescue, but she’s 20 years younger than me. When I was 29, and I moved to the small town I’m in now, I joined a women’s Bible study, and one of my favourite aspects was the older women I met who encouraged me and gave me a perspective I didn’t know. Think of getting to know the younger people in your circle. Volunteer at youth group or help bring food to the college & career groups. Baby-sit for those younger than you.
My mom has “adopted” several grandchildren, whose moms don’t have parents at all or parents in the area. Every week she gets together with Samantha; with Mari (Joanna’s daughter); with Rachel and Elizabeth (who is named after my mom). There may be older women or older couples in your circle who would love to be surrogate grandparents!
I have often felt lonely, but sometimes it’s because I’m expecting too much.
I’ve had a hard time getting plugged in to a good church locally, mostly because I travel so much speaking, and when I am home on weekends, I really like to visit my daughters (and my grandson). So sometimes I go to church and get upset that people don’t seem to know me, or that I’m not more involved.
And yet I know that I have community–it’s just not at church.
This weekend I wasn’t in church because Keith and my mom and I flew out to Halifax. Tammy, my good friend and my main assistant on the blog, had her daughter getting married, and Keith and I were honoured to be the MCs. Two years ago this week, when Katie got married, Tammy’s husband Steeve officiated (and he officiated at our 25th anniversary renewal of the vows, too). I’ve got community, even if it’s not in the traditional church sense. And that’s really what matters.
This month, on our Monday series, we’re going to look at how to build the community we need.
Other Posts in the Community Series:
Being Lonely in a Group of People
10 Ways to Break Into A New Church and Find Friends
PODCAST: Are You a Community Giver or Taker?
How to Foster a Community that Can Talk about Sex!
Real Community Lets You Be Real: A Look at the Duggar Family Rules
PODCAST: Should We Re-Think the Way We Do Church?
What do you think? Where do you find community? Let’s talk in the comments!