When I was a child, my social studies teacher taught us a lesson in civics through the ancient medium of storytelling. "There once was a company that decided to build a new plant out in the desert of Arizona, next to the Colorado River," she began. As the story unfolded, the plant manager moved into a trailer and lived next to the plant site. At first, they hauled water in five gallon containers, and ran a generator for electricity. But as more people moved in, a community began to emerge. Trailers lined up in orderly rows. Rows became streets, underscored by power lines, sewage pipes, and telephone wires. Soon more roads were built for more homes, only now the houses were of brick and stucco.
Before long, grocers and other vendors began to offer their services to the emerging community. Some of the people gathered as a committee and formed a rudimentary government to plan and finance the surfacing of roads, and establish rules by which everyone would agree to live. The committee eventually became a council, elected by the citizens. As their sense of belonging grew, they named their streets, their little park, and even the town itself, using monikers that were more meaningful to them than the generations that would follow. This is how a community begins.
It must have been a good civics lesson, because I still remember the story decades later. But I don’t recall many stories behind the story: the gathering of folks around tea and cookies to get to know each other; the grand opening of the plant; the first hoedown; the hugs and tears that came when someone passed away; the first new citizen born at the hospital a hundred miles away, and her baptism at the river’s edge; the first little worship service in the home of someone aching to thank God; the first wedding performed in the little chapel built out of left over lumber and concrete. Do not these things form community as well?
It is an important question, because there are many attempts at community building that miss the mark. We have seen stretches of farmland transformed into a planned community, with all the amenities you might hope for. Yet like many other places, the people who move there stay cocooned in their homes and commute to their jobs without ever knowing their next door neighbor. Colleges try to manufacture a "global community" by building ethnic, class, and national diversity into their student body. But in reality, the students tend to huddle together into homogeneous groups, like silos brought from their native countries and plopped down onto the campus. Online communities form through the magic of the worldwide web, but what depth can come from such a one-dimensional exposure to the personalities of others? The winsome lass you fall in love with may actually be the avatar of some middle aged man’s imagination.
While a town is defined by its infrastructure, community is formed through shared story, vision commitment, and practice. Some of the most influential communities in history have been formed with words more than brick and asphalt. "Come with me, and I’ll make you fish for people."
Later this little group of 12 expanded to thousands under new leadership. Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost, according to the book of Acts, brought thousands to the baptismal waters. The writer did not use the word, "community," but said it plainly: "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
This community continues to this day, but like others around it, it suffers from the corrosive effects of pseudo-community. Some people bring their best selves to Sunday worship, while leaving their whole selves, with all their stress and brokenness, at home in their cocoons, sequestered from the healing effects of community. Some people share the pew without sharing the vision or the story of the church. And commitment is a word that has passed out of style, like groovy and gramophone. But the invitation is still there. And you can be a part of it.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.