Phill Pickering is the Director of Services here at Christians Against Poverty (CAP). Earlier this year he shared with our staff his thoughts on what it means to be ‘created for community’. We hope you are as inspired by this as we are.
I want you to imagine for a minute, a small group of friends that meet once a week for breakfast. Can you hear the clink of cutlery and the whirr of the coffee machine? They’ve been doing this — whoever can make it — for almost 30 years. Life-style trends have come and gone over the years as customers come in to grab their morning brew. The café has changed hands several times over the decades, but this group of friends has sat in the same corner booth near the front, for the whole time. Over eggs on toast, and coffee in all its forms, the friends have shared their lives.
New relationships, and marriages, as well as deep betrayal and divorce. They’ve held newborns, and grieved the passing of children, spouses and parents. Over this time, some of the group have prospered while others have struggled week to week. Peaks of joy and the depths of depression have shared the same conversation place. This is a safe place. There is history and a sense of perspective that enables them to be honest. This group are in community where they can be deeply known and loved just as they are.
I believe I was created for community like this. I feel it deep to my bones. I long for it from God, and I long for this close communion with other people. I’m not saying I find it easy – the opposite in fact. But I know intuitively that it’s good for me – it’s something precious.
This picture of close community is harder to picture for some than others. Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay suggests that we may be living in a more socially fragmented society than any previous generation in our history.
He says, “We’ve had 26 years of economic growth, but things have not necessarily improved. At the same time, more people are living alone, there are more relationship breakdowns, more kids are living with just one of their parents. There are a lot more feelings of social isolation.”
It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reasons for this. Many have tried but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. But when people complain that “things just aren’t the same as they used to be…”— they’re right!
Hugh Mackay outlines a few social changes that he thinks are crucial in causing this social fragmentation. He says communities are being influenced by a series of social changes, including:
• We are all "busy" and few people seem to have the time or the energy to devote to maintaining connections in their local community.
• The IT revolution — which is both a convenient and clever way of connecting but removes the need for human presence and makes it even easier to stay apart from each other.
• We have become more mobile, with Australians moving on average once every six years.
• Our households are shrinking — and loneliness is now in the top five social challenges that Australia is facing.
• Roughly 40% of marriages in Australia are ending in divorce, with half a million children now involved in a 'mass migration' once a week, or once a fortnight, from one home to another.
• We are in the middle of loss of trust, particularly in large institutions that used to be pillars of our democracy, and only 35% of Australians say that they trust their next-door neighbours.
I'm not judging any of these as right or wrong, or even avoidable. They are all very complex. I'm merely suggesting that they are observable realities in our day-to-day lives.
Mackay argues that a socially fragmented society naturally breeds addiction and anxiety. And, in a secular recommendation, highlights the need for personal revolutions of forgiveness and friendship.
He seems to be getting at something very simple — love your neighbour.
When I consider the statistics, as I live and work in my community, and as I talk with my friends and observe the world around me, I can’t help but agree with Mackay. It’s no co-incidence that forgiveness and friendship is central to the Christian faith. When I study the words of Jesus in His sermon on the mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), and when I consider His teaching to love others as I love myself, I hear a profound call to forgive and love others in friendship. In fact, if being an apprentice of Jesus isn’t the answer to the social fragmentation that I’ve just described, then I feel like I know nothing. The communities we minister in and to are addicted and anxious and fragmented — the Gospel of Jesus Christ has never been as relevant as it is right here in our communities in 2019.
If you’re like me and you crave authentic community — that’s because it’s hardwired. It’s how God designed me, and how He designed you. You and I are created in His own image — in the image of a trinity — a community. John 1 says that when creation was formed it was done in community. Community — deep relationship — is at the very core of who we are. We cannot be who we truly are in isolation because we are personal people, living in a personal world.
I think we can easily dismiss a word like ‘friendship’ because of the meaning drift in our culture. In the dizzying accumulation of Facebook friends and LinkedIn connects we often forget what that word even means. For many of us it simply means: people we hang out with who are similar to us. It’s a word that I think has lost most of its depth. The Bible calls us to so much more. If you consider true friendship as the act of knowing someone (really knowing someone) and loving them anyway, it starts to make more sense why Jesus himself gave us the model of His own friendship, to function as a guide. “This is my command, love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than he lay down his life for his friends”.
Jean Vanier described friendship as “to reveal the image of God in another person, to themselves”. This sounds like the Jesus I read about. Constantly calling up people to who they truly were. The next time you catch me debating with someone about the theology of atonement, and the precise rationale for Jesus’ death, I need you to remind me: “Phill – Jesus died for you because He’s your friend”. Salvation is relational. Suffering doesn’t make sense unless it’s relational. Discipleship is relational. Our mission is entirely relational. Our entire Christian faith is relational. And we belittle it when we consider it as anything else. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that when we are weak and suffering we do not want to be considered as a ‘problem to be solved’, but rather a ‘person to know and love’. I don’t want to be fixed. I want to be known.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like if social change and justice in Australia was treated less like a problem to be solved and more like people in need of life-giving community.
Imagine with me for a moment, what it would feel like if, as an outsider, you were invited to become a new member of the breakfast group we imagined earlier. Perhaps you’ve sat alone in a different seat and watched these friends before from afar. What would it be like to be welcomed into that tightly knit group? One with such a long, rich history. I wonder how it might feel if someone were to pull over an extra chair for you and signal for you to sit down, and say “welcome, this is for you”.
Of course, you and I (and everyone we come in contact with) have been invited to a table like this – to God’s family. Not because we were good or smart. But because Jesus is our friend. And He gives us the privilege of inviting others to the table as well.
I’m passionate about working with CAP because this invitation to the table is the reason we exist. The opportunity to provide friendship is the basis of how CAP operates. By providing face-to-face and long-term support in partnership with local churches, we see friendship, faith and belonging grow in community.
And as we continue to come alongside the lonely and vulnerable in our neighbourhoods, I believe CAP can be a vital part of that much-needed “revolution of forgiveness and friendship”.