This week, a friend asked me ‘What does community look like with a lifestyle like yours?’ The lifestyle referred to involves my husband and I both working part-time so that one of us is always home with the children; but ‘part time’ can exceed 40 hours per week, and may be comprised of unusual and antisocial shifts such that we can often pass several days and only see each other long enough to ‘hand over’ the essential information about the children. The question was motivated by concern for my wellbeing, and I believe, a specific concern about my spiritual wellbeing and the opportunities I have to develop relationships where I can encourage others and be encouraged in my faith. However, it was also a question that caused me a small amount of frustration, as it had a hint of a rhetorical tone, perhaps even an implication that ‘community’ is not possible when one lives as we do.
Beginning this reflection, it is helpful to consider the definition of community. ‘A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’ or ‘the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common’.
I think that is quite fundamental – one forms community with those who have something in common. Specifically, as it relates to my own life, I experience community in these areas (and I am deliberately combining secular and spiritual at this point in my discussion):
1) With my neighbours, as we meet going about our daily business. This is perhaps mostly experienced with those who either have young children, or who can fondly reflect back to the time when their children were young. My husband and I often reflect that since having had children and both being part time, we know our neighbours far better than in the days when we got up, went to work and then came home basically to eat and sleep.
2) On my route to work; I run the three miles there and back, and often pass the same people at the same times of day. Often this is not much more than a friendly greeting, but repeated short conversations at traffic lights can build into a form of relationship over the years.
3) Meeting other like-minded parents out and about with their children. When I say ‘like minded’, I mean those who are likely to be in similar places doing similar things. I’ve blogged elsewhere about my astonishment how few families with children are out in the open air enjoying nature, for example. I have built relationships with several families who can be found sheltering under sycamore trees in the pouring rain, or jumping across the stepping stones, splashing in puddles, building shelters in the undergrowth and generally embracing the beauty that surrounds them, whatever the weather. It doesn’t take long before these shared pleasures form the basis of relationships where we talk about more significant matters than the amount of mud on our babies’ faces.
4) In my workplace, building relationships with those who have shared motivations and interests. Specifically, I often become involved in mentoring of young women who wish to combine their academic pursuits with a healthy life-work balance. Often conversations will lead to a discussion of what things are truly of lasting value, and are an opportunity to give consideration to those matters of eternal significance.
5) Through a faith-based organisation focussing on the field in which we work. Often the challenges discussed relate to long, irregular hours, evenings spent revising for exams or preparing research proposals, feelings of misunderstanding from within the church when one cannot always be regular at meetings (and this can be interpreted as lack of commitment) and grapplings with various ethical and moral issues that arise. Through a shared meal, and honest conversation about things that matter much to us, a real sense of community develops. Some of my closest friends are involved in this organisation, and the bond grows as we are able to be genuine about the things that matter most to us, and honest about the challenges of living an authentic Christian life in the workplace.
6) Through home schooling events and networks locally. Both a general network which brings a diverse range of families with many different motivations and aims for home education, and a Christian home education group where we share some of the more specific ideological reasons for our choices
7) Through blogs and networks online, relating to both home education and also matters relating to the outworking of our Christian faith in the midst of an increasingly secular, post-modern society. Whilst there is no substitute for real-life relationships and time spent together, I believe the internet is an extremely valuable resource especially for the home-educating family who may feel a little isolated.
8) Through spending time with people who identify with our children and see them as an intrinsic part of the family. By this, I mean those who treat the children as individuals, and who are happy to go places and do things that suit them best – such as a walk in the park, a trip to an art gallery or museum, a brisk stroll along the beach etc. When the children are happy and included, then as parents we are much more free to build relationships. To try and push the children aside to allow time for ‘adult conversation’ does not enhance my sense of being in community, but rather of isolation and misunderstanding. I recently reflected on this after meeting up with some missionary friends of ours. And my appreciation that children are an intrinsic part of life, community, ministry, whatever you may term it was enhanced during ten weeks in West Africa where our children were key to the role we had in the village.
9) Through specific Bible studies and Christian meetings – but I suppose for me this does come a little far down the list. As a family, we are currently in a slightly unsettled, far from ideal situation of being ‘between churches’ although we have been attending a place of worship every Sunday. I love discussing the Bible, how it relates to our lives, how we can seek to radiate the love of Christ to those around us, how we can raise our children in a God-honouring way, and just generally marvelling at all God has done for us. But I suppose I also enjoy a lot of this through points 5, 6, 7 and 8 above.
I’ve specifically been broad in these points, and jumped from the neighbourhood where we live, through to relationships formed on the way to and at work, through to relationships based around the shared pursuit of raising children, through to specific Christian groups (or ‘para-church’ networks) focussing on both personal and professional outworkings of our faith, and finally moved onto the organised church itself. I’ve chosen this order in part to stimulate thought.
Community does not take the shape of a neatly packaged box.
Christian community, or as it is often termed ‘fellowship’, springs from the concept of ‘koinonia’. This refers to the idealised state of harmony within the Christian church. The Acts of the Apostles details the events which took place following the death and resurrection of Christ. I am often taken by how the disciples ‘had everything in common’ and would break bread together, and move from house to house sharing all they had. The relationship of Christians to each other is deep, and often is closer than that experienced in biological families; Christ Himself said that ‘by this all men shall know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’. It is counter-cultural and challenges the self-centred mentality seen in the world today.
But what does koinonia look like in 2013?
I will not attempt to replicate the detailed work of several wise Christian authors. But the point to be made is that there is not, nor cannot be, a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is extremely easy for one Christian ‘box’ to be replaced by another. One form of meeting is replaced by another, but all that has really changed is the time or the place or the structure. The important thing is what is attempted to be achieved by such meetings; to facilitate the type of relationships where one can truly share one’s life, to move beyond ‘community’ into that deeper sense of fellowship, of koinonia, of being part of the body of Christ on earth.
So how does it work for the person who works shifts or moves around frequently? Is true fellowship impossible? That cannot be so, but creative ways may need to be found to maximise the opportunities available. And often, for that individual, feeling tired and isolated, it may not be easy to think creatively at all. I do believe that the church as a whole must take care not to further discourage such people by making them feel strange, or uncommitted, or simply wrong in their choices.
My understanding of the Biblical principles behind some of this is that we will be placed within a biological family, within a neighbourhood, perhaps within a workplace, where we are given the task of being salt and light (being a visible and distinct presence with a worldview based on our relationship with God rather than secular values). We cannot all be the same, nor should we be. There may come a time when a Christian reflects on their responsibilities and time-management and realises that difficult choices have to be made; this may involve changing or leaving a job, moving to a new neighbourhood, making simpler financial decisions etc. But one cannot extrapolate a Biblical precedent to say that we all need to be living in a stereotyped way.
For me, the biggest challenge, perhaps the biggest frustration is not from the long hours, irregular shifts or moving between cities or countries. It relates more to the attitude many have towards children, even (or perhaps especially) within the church. I’ve blogged about the concept of family-integrated church – of whether this is a realistic possibility or an unattainable ideal. I believe the challenges are two-fold. Firstly, there is a general lack of discipline in our generation which means that children do not know how to conduct themselves in certain situations; it is perhaps easier for them to be pushed aside or kept in a separate room so that the adults can focus on the ‘important’ matters. But the other side to that is that our expectations of our children are often too low; they know when they are being given a simplified version of something, and can feel patronised or excluded when they are treated as though they cannot understand what the adults are talking about. Personally, I find that other people get defensive when you do something different with your own children, perhaps seeing it as some form of indirect criticism. As well as placing a strain on a relationship, it also can increase my sense of isolation as others seem to see me as being somehow immune from fatigue, discouragement or exposure to the general cares of this world. (That I also resolve never to moan about my children, about tiredness or ill health, about lack of ‘me time’ etc is also a little counter-cultural, even within church circles).
So, what can I conclude? Community is possible for all of us. As John Donne wisely said, ‘No man is an island’. We all experience some level of community with others as we live our lives; but for some this may not take the same shape as for the majority. Fellowship, that deeper level of Christian relationship, is also possible with a wide range of lifestyles and working patterns; it just may not fit the stereotyped expectations of others. For us, we are often involved in ministries/ discipleship etc with others from a range of different congregations. Is this right or wrong? Or neutral? I believe the church is bigger than one individual congregation or group of believers, although commitment to (and perhaps even membership of) a local church is clearly an important priority.
I’ve touched on a large range of different topics and am approaching 2000 words. So, I’ll stop here! I’d love to know your own thoughts and experiences of community, and how this relates to your own unique circumstances.