Small town or big city – what’s your preference? If people are people wherever you go, maybe it doesn’t matter. Yet, the feeling of living among people in one locale or another can be very different. How do you account for it?
Part of the difference, we suspect, is that larger communities allow us selectivity of our companions. Among a great multitude of folks, we can be pretty well assured we’ll be able to locate some others who are pretty much like us – people who share our love of Italian food, let’s say, or our peculiar taste in music, or our political convictions. And there, safe in our enclave of sameness, we may feel secure and affirmed, but we’re likely to remain unchallenged, and maybe we’ll even become a little bored.
In smaller settings, on the other hand, we don’t have as great a possibility of finding and forming a group of people who are just like us, which leads to a challenge. As writer, Philip Yancey points out, “Anyone can form a club; but it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.” Smaller settings usually force us to do the hard work necessary to form a real community, no matter how aggravating that may be.
A wonderfully sensitive observer of human existence once wrote that “community” is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. And while we suspect that this remark was made somewhat facetiously, there’s a ring of truth to the observation. A real community, one which includes us all, is likely to harbor one or more folks we’d rather have excluded. We’re stuck with those we find troubling, and they are stuck with us. This is the curse of community, but maybe also its source of blessing.
In the Apostle Paul’s letters, consider how much space is devoted to exhorting the new Christian communities to demonstrate forbearance and mutual appreciation. He worked hard to convey to early Christians the conviction that distinctions among them were insignificant beside the call to unity. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.” And even if we’d like to see another person as irrelevant to our lives and our plans, we cannot. Says Paul, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
The fact is, smaller groupings of people, people who comprise a community, are more or less forced to recognize their interdependence, despite their blemishes and failings, their gifts and graces. But we think that is part of why our families, our churches or synagogues, and our service groups are so important to us. Within such groups we come to see that we need each other. That’s a perspective on the world that we might otherwise cheerfully ignore. Membership in a small community does not let us forget it.
And so when we meet people who tell us they don’t need to belong to a faith group because they can be spiritual on their own, we sometimes encourage them to reconsider. Perhaps they don’t currently feel the need of the community of others. But, maybe the others need them! We humans are made to be connected in significant ways. And isn’t it nice to be needed?