If you were to put the phrase “authentic community” into Google, you would notice very quickly that the overwhelming majority of hits on the first few pages comes from church web sites. The phrase is usually, but not always, used within the context of small group ministries, where the congregation is broken down into groups of 4 to 8 for more intense peer-led study, usually at times other than the typical Sunday morning. While I find it incredibly gratifying that churches are thinking about social isolation, I have to wonder how well “authentic community” serves as the answer. I must ask the good Lutheran question, “What does this mean?”
We must start by defining “authentic community,” or at least identifying how evangelicals have come to define it. Where it exists as more than just a marketing catchphrase, authentic community usually means something like, “an environment where believers can honestly and openly discuss their successes, concerns, fears, and sins, without fear of judgment or ridicule, but rather with the expectation of prayerful support, sympathy, and accountability towards improvement,” within the context of small group designed to educate about the Bible and Christianity. The supporting scripture for such a group would be something like Galatians 6, especially 6:2 (“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”). This is a rather lofty vision for a small group, but I think we can all agree that where even part of it can be made manifest, that would be a good thing.
Does this vision work? It must to some extent otherwise churches wouldn’t be using it so often. It’s certainly not perfect. One can certainly think of instances where it does not work — such as where a small group becomes a social gathering rather than a study or where the lack of theological training transforms the study into an exercise of the blind leading the blind — but it works for enough churches for it to become standard practice. But is a small group as defined above really the best way to achieve the “authentic community” many Christians are looking for? Perhaps it’s the best we’ve got, but I’m not convinced it’s ideal. First, I wonder why Christians can’t have the sort of transparent honesty they’re expected to have with their small group with non-Christians as well. In fact, maybe we should, just to prove that we’re not all holier-than-thou or have everything figured out. Second, I wonder why this kind of honesty and accountability is generally spoken of in just the small group environment, when it seems an entire church would benefit strongly from good relationship transparency in its members. But more on topic, it seems to me “authentic community” should be made of stronger stuff than what is described above.
One of the guys in my small group regularly says something like, “wouldn’t it be cool if we all could get houses in the same neighborhood?” I must admit the idea, while pretty unfeasible, has some appeal. I think part of it is nostalgia for the open-door-days of the freshman year of college, where one could stop by a friend’s room at at time of day to chat or hang out and be welcomed, and another part is a very grown up desire to live in a place that is safe, desirable, where you know your neighbors, and where one’s (in my case hypothetical) children would be looked out for no matter where they were in the neighborhood. Respected Christian blogger Dan Edelen of Cerculean Sanctum proposed an even more radical arrangement some two years ago on his blog.
I guess what I’m getting at is that when I think of “authentic community,” my mind drifts more to the concept of intentional community, which is essentially “authentic community” plus the appreciation of place. Most of our small groups have no concept of place; in my case, we have guys that drive 30 minutes or more to attend our weekly gatherings. We do the best we can with this situation, but it does limit the time we can spend interacting with each other (at worst, we see each other only once a week), as well as make it easier for members to fall off the grid completely, either intentionally or unintentionally. If we all lived in the same apartment complex, on the other hand, we could visit each other more often, hold each other accountable, and council each other better when work or women throw us the proverbial curve ball.
I’m sure to the non-Christian reading this, it all sounds like bizarre inside baseball, but I’m convinced of two things: first, social isolation is a very real phenomenon in the United States, and second, based on my readings of the Bible and theologians like Bonhoeffer, Christians are not supposed to be isolated from each other, but rather support one another however they can (see Galatians 6, cited above, and Acts 2, for example). Does this quest for “authentic community” ring true for anyone else? And is there a better way to be going about it?