I read an article a few years back (that I can no longer find) about how making friends in your thirties was an extremely difficult process because the nature of friendship takes a dramatic change in this decade. Now, I can only speak for the thirties, but this has been extremely true for me and my family. And I can’t envision it getting easier as I get older.
Grown up friends are difficult. And truth be told, I suck at it. Part of this is being an introvert. As an introvert, small talk can be excruciating. But small talk is a necessary requirement for new people. I would do much better with new people if they had very deep interesting topics to discuss right off the bat.
But the deeper part of it is that making friendships in my thirties feels extremely vulnerable and dangerous. It takes a lot of work to make a new friend, and you have no guarantees it is going to work out.
This week, Sarah takes on “community.” She talks about how “community” is such a church-y buzz word it often loses its meaning. And I love that she talks about this in a separate chapter from church. Because, as she points out, community doesn’t always mean church and church doesn’t always mean community.
Not only that, but she extends what we mean by community to “being a person in a community.”
I think this distinction is so important. Because the way we talk about and even try to implement “community” in churches often loses the person element. We often forget that the things we talk about in church are to be loved out in actual life by real human persons.
When we first started looking for a church in Oklahoma, we found one we really liked. They had good worship, we liked the pastor, and our kids enjoyed it. But we never really found a way to plug in with people. I cannot tell you what an awful and lonely feeling it is to go through a good worship service and at the end have no one to talk to.
Sometimes we assume that just by showing up, we are experiencing community. But showing up is not being a person in a community. It is not the real stuff of friendship and sharing lives. In our case, we ended up finding persons in a community outside of any formal church structure, and that was what led us to a church. Perhaps one of the reasons churches like the word “community” is because we realize church and community often are two separate things entirely.
How we implement “community” in churches can also be difficult. In our tradition, we have “community groups” or “small groups.” The basic idea is that you sign up for a group of people to meet together weekly, answer a set of predetermined questions about spiritual things, and at the end you have community.
But this loses the all-important “person” element. Because what we really mean by being a person in community is friendship. I know it seems so un-hipster-Christian or un-Biblical to say friendship, but that is what it really is. We call it community so we can formalize it and feel good about it. Friendship is for real persons taking care of each other’s actual needs and talking about things that matter. Too often we speak of community as a pre-selected group around formalized questions.
I think we like the idea that community can be packaged. Packaged community takes all the hard work out of friendship. I can go to church and be around 500 of my closest friends. Community.
I can go to small group and talk about spiritual things in one word answers and tell a generic prayer request so people can pray about my “life.” Community.
I can do all of the things that appear like friendship without the real work of friendship.
Programmatized (Microsoft Office believes I made this word up. I might have. But I like it. So I will use it.) community takes all the real work out of friendship. Because friendship is hard and vulnerable, and it is a lot easier when someone else does all the scheduling and even the conversation topics.
But perhaps we shouldn’t give up on programs all together.
If we are going to programmatize community, the goal should not be to take the difficulty out of friendship, the goal should be to provide support through the difficulties of adult friendship.
Let me give an example.
When I was a pastor, I was leading a small group which had a bunch of people who didn’t know each other. It was difficult to get people to commit and if we didn’t have the right set of people the discussion was excruciating. I had a couple of people complain because they felt like it wasn’t going well, and this was their only chance to discuss spiritual things.
I told them to be patient. Keep showing up. Keep talking. Keep making small talk. It will get there.
And it did. Because that is the work of real friendship. We keep showing up. We “[share] stories slowly as they unfold with each earned moment of trust, of listening, of being a person.” (Sarah)
What things like small groups can do for us is they give us a discipline of showing up and being a person. They provide opportunities for the real work of friendship to happen. So if you are doing this now, don’t give up, keep going. Keep showing up. The people there need you as much as you need them. Because adulting is hard. And being a person around other persons is such a gift.
The same process is found not just in churches but all over. We keep having lunch with a person and talk about small, seemingly insignificant things. And then one day it gets real.
We work next to the person day after day and eventually we peel back the curtain just enough to not only show them we are a person, but recognize they are too.
We keep inviting that couple over for dinner who barely talk when they come and cancel often, until one day they invite us over because we are important people in their lives.
We keep going. We keep showing up.
Being a person is hard enough. We need to be willing to do the hard work of being persons together in community and friendship.