I was talking to a local minister who works on a UPA estate the other day, and he was telling me about the make up of his community. In his area, people have very strong social bonds with their extended family group, who, by-and-large, haven’t moved far away from the home they grew up in. A number of such groups exist on the estate, and there is little crossover between them. The result is that if you get to know one or two members of a group you then get access to the whole group. In his case, a couple from one group started coming to his church, and soon enough most of the group were coming. This reminded me of hearing about some historical cultures, and some tribal cultures today, where the religion of the tribe or group depends on the religion of the chief. Still today, some orthodox Christians in Ukraine date their conversion to 988, the year King Vladimir was baptised in the River Dniepr. As the king goes, so goes the country.
Often Fresh Expressions of church focus on building community, and that is exactly what we are trying to do here. A sense of community is something tangible that new-build developments often lack, and people notice it most when they stop work and have their first child. Their previous social networks are closed to them or more difficult to access so other local and child-friendly networks are needed. But this is a middle-class area, which is different to UPA areas. It seems, as you climb higher up the social ladder, finding a meaningful community which springs out of the locality becomes increasingly difficult.
This is something that Trystan Hughes picks up on his recent book, The Compassion Quest. Isolation is seen as something to be sought:
We are taught from an early age, either consciously or subconsciously, that detachment is something for which we should aim. It may even seem to us that the more successful we are, the more we earn the ‘privilege’ of privacy. We may well begin our adult lives in a terraced house, but then we work hard so that we can ‘upgrade’ to a semi-detached house. Then our dream is to purchase a detached house. If money is no issue, we might then buy a house with a large garden surrounding it, separating us from our neighbours. Worse still, for security reasons we might then erect large fences and gates around our shiny new house , which shut us in and shut the rest of the world out.
There is talk in Christian circles of a return to community living (or at least community principles), and there have been experimentations in ‘New Monasticism’ – a community which lives by a rule of life (and which may or may not live together). But contemporary expectations in housing, and even in the design of our new developments are often at odds with community-building. For instance, how do you live i community when all you have to work with are distinct single-family dwellings? Development design is slightly better than it was twenty years ago, but only marginally. Houses are designed as mini-castles. Now, the front garden, a place where you may have once sat outside saying ‘hello’ to passers-by, or where you may have done the gardening, are commonly replaced by hardstanding parking or removed altogether. (Most of the houses on my development have only a few feet of front garden). Outside space is now only in small, private, back gardens. In many cases, parking is at the back of the house meaning that people don’t use their front doors – another opportunity to bump into your neighbours is gone. In a neighbouring development (20-30 years old), there is no public place to meet besides the play park. At least we have a coffee shop and, hopefully soon, a community centre.
We need to be connected yet in many ways, our current society makes it more difficult than ever to form close communities. It remains a challenge for those in Christian groups to build community and live out our interconnectedness. God is connected to each one of us and we find we share in his riches better together than alone. In fact, the desire for connectedness and relationship is an integral human need. We are hoping that our connection to God demonstrates itself in the way we relate to other people. The first two commandments that Jesus affirms in Mark 12: are actually two sides of the same coin. There can be no love for God without love for one another, as he is Father and Creator of all. It is also He who informs, guides and enables our love for others.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (mark 12:28-34)