Weekly Edgework #54 - July 11, 2005

Crisis and Community

Community develops naturally only in response to crisis…The only problem is that as soon as the crisis passes, so does community…One of the things that I deeply believe we need to do in our culture is to start dignifying crises, including certain types of depression and all types of existential suffering. It is only through such suffering and crisis that we grow (Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck, pp 145-149).

All of us long for community. Whether we admit it or not, one of our basic needs as human beings is to find a place of belonging – where one is accepted, appreciated and loved. It is no wonder then that most of the images describing the church in the New Testament are communitarian in nature. We are a body, a fellowship, a flock, branches of a vine, fellow citizens, living stones built into a spiritual house, a holy nation, God’s own people. No one can exist as an island for long. We were made to live in community.

Why is it so difficult then to find true community in the context of our churches? Oh it is fashionable to speak about fellowship and togetherness when referring to church, but often it is just that – talk. With the modern forces of independence and self-sufficiency dominating our lives most of the week, what we experience in church is frequently psuedo-community at best. An outward show of belonging without true bonds of fellowship.

It seems ironic to me that the more we verbalize a grand vision of true community, the more it eludes us. We can exegete biblical passages exhorting us to be the true body of Christ. We can get together to share with each other how we are triumphing over temptations and report on the many projects and programs which God is blessing. But when all is said and done many of us return to our personal pilgrimages, trying as best we can to keep our heads above water – often feeling disconnected and alone.

And then suddenly, when a crisis erupts, community is born in an instant. I remember well the Red River flood of 1997 in Southern Manitoba. With the water rising to levels not seen in more than a century, people from all walks of life rallied in an attempt to protect life and property. It was not uncommon for sand-bag crews to consist of the old and young, men and women, boys and girls. Hutterites, Grey Nuns, Anglicans, Mennonites, Catholics, Pentecostals, agnostics, atheists – and many more - passed sandbags down the line for hours on end without complaining. They all ate the sandwiches and drank the hot coffee the Salvation Army brought by. They encouraged one another. And always people were willing to rotate to take their places where the task was most grueling. I know. I was there. When the crisis passed we all returned to our more private lives and in some cases to “throwing stones” at the very persons we had labored together with in the context of the crisis.

A few years ago a windstorm toppled trees and flooded basements in my community. As soon as the storm let up people emerged from their homes to survey the damage, check on their neighbors and help out where they could. During one Sunday afternoon I got to know people I barely knew existed as we labored side by side. Everyone contributed equipment, time and expertise without a thought for remuneration. A few weeks later we all got together for a community barbeque. We all felt that true community was emerging. Sadly, I have not seen some of these neighbors since. But for a few short weeks most people in our part of town had tasted true community at its finest.

These experiences seem to give credence to Scott Peck’s assertion that community needs crisis to develop naturally. Most of us hope to get over crises quickly, even though we have to admit that the sense of community we experienced during these crises was something very precious. Our vision is that once the boat stops rocking we can get back to life as it was meant to be – peaceful, quiet and out of reach of crisis. Ironically though, as life returns to “normal” we often feel a sense of boredom and loneliness as routine takes over and a sense of belonging begins to dissipate.

Peck suggests that one of the reasons Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful in creating community is the fact that all members realize that they live in a continual state of crisis. Each is vulnerable, needy and needed all the time to ensure everyone stays sober. Could it be that people at AA are living life as it was meant to be lived?

Perhaps one of the biggest hindrances to true community in some churches is the spirit of triumphalism that permeates its life. In such settings one gets a sense that most people have it all together. They have mastered the art of living well and faithfully and are quite intent on leaving that impression with their pew partners. They are aware that there are a few persons in their congregation who have struggles and that is too bad. If only they would commit themselves more fully to God they could get their act together as well to make the picture complete. Where in such a setting is community?

If crisis is the context in which true community flourishes, it seems to me that, like member of AA, members of our churches should begin to think in such terms. However, that would require of them to peel back their masks, to share their pain tucked neatly underneath their facades of perfection, and to willingly enter into the pain and suffering of others. If this actually happened, there would be enough continual crises in our midst to naturally produce community in an on-going way. For many the price is too high. But for those willing to pay the price, the rewards and benefits derived from true community are limitless.