I grew up watching the sitcom, “Cheers!” – you may remember: the place “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” A regular group of people who came in from different work places and went off to different homes, but while they were together they shared the ups, downs and nothingness of life. Some might say that they were a community whose primary identity, as far as the audience was concerned, was the connection they shared at the drinking establishment. However though they existed together in a physical space, theirs was not a true community.
Many of us spend the majority of our days working alongside the same people, day after day, month after month, year after year. Some would say that our workplaces might also be considered a community. However, though sharing a common purpose in a shared physical space, community is often lacking in our workplaces as evidenced by the constant need for unions and human resources.
In my own neighbourhood, we are a great mix of people. Yes, we live within proximity, with sidewalks joining our homes and the eclectic assembling of our gardens and porches. However our social status is diverse, our ages are diverse, some of us work shift, others work out of province, some are retired, others are just starting out, etc. We take residence within the same postal code (zip code for my American friends) and yet there are many of us who can go weeks or months without knowing what is transpiring in each other’s lives. In fact, fewer of us still would have any great concern for the long term status of the neighbourhood. Many homes change owners quickly.
These unscientific personal observations give validity to Gill Valentine’s observation in his textbook Social Geographies: Space and Society: “It is argued that communities can exist without a territorial base or that neighbourhoods can have no sense of communal ties or cohesions, that community has no analytical value because it means so many different things to different people and that is probably only a romanticized concept anyway.” (p.117) Gill goes on to introduce us to new (for me) terminology that does describe the reality in which we live: Communities without propinquity – Propinquity is defined as a nearness or physical proximity. (p.118) Just as importantly, the opposing phenomena has also become a consequence of the diminishing value of community: propinquity without community: where the public space is abandoned in favour of the increasing virtual spaces in which we now connect. (p.121) Yet, whether propinquity (yes, I like this word) exists or not, there is a great need for people to experience true community. Perhaps this where the church should be of help.
The dangers of our narrow views of community whether they be near or far are important for us to consider as those who serve in leadership roles, particularly as part of the organizational church. If the church, the assembling of followers of Jesus Christ, is to fulfill the mandate that God has given to it, then it must seek to be more than a shared physical space. The church must also seek to embrace the uniqueness of its individual members and it must continually look to communicate and motivate according to the vision that God has given to it. Those three criticisms of community: Privileges the ideal unity over differences, Generates exclusions and Unrealistic vision can legitimately be levied against many of our churches. (p.135)
In order to address the growing need for community among those in our neighborhoods, workplaces and cities, the church must learn to first address itself. Our God has not designed us to be uniform in our beings, or in our assembly, therefore we cannot impose uniformity on our congregants or our society. As God has made us free to choose Him, we must be the embodiment of the fulfillment of life that He offers. And we must do it in the midst of a society that still allows us the freedom of religion. Unity is that which embraces difference around a common bond, which in the case of the church is Jesus Christ, and is continually looking to expand it’s expression through recasting of vision and retelling of stories.
There’s more to life than settling into a place, through local, virtual or globally connections. God’s design is much grander than our fears and preferences place upon Him. Ultimately He wants everyone to know that He knows their name, and He’s asking us to be part of letting them know, as He addresses our collective need for “community”.
- Who was your favourite character on “Cheers”? Why?
- How does the preservation of our buildings and our denominational distinctives keep us from uniting together (as believers of Jesus Christ on mission to the world) in a town, city or region?
- What one recommendation would you give to your church leadership to help people understand the difference between the danger of uniformity and the strength of unity?