By David Barr
In a previous post I suggested that fostering relationally satisfying Christian communities should be of primary importance for those of us in the Anglican tradition. As people come into our parishes looking for historical roots, or liturgical beauty, or more regular exposure to the Eucharist, one of the things they will also need (and they will probably leave if they don’t find it) is a living Christian community. Even while liturgy has become a powerful point of interest for wayward North American Christians, I do not believe it will be enough. Not only will people need rich communities to sustain them (and us), but liturgy alone will not create these communities. We will need to integrate into our liturgical life efforts to create rich communal structures that many find so nourishing. We will need both if we are to maintain any formative capacities in the face of large scale, and seemingly impregnable, communal disarray. It is clearer than ever that only God can bring his people together in Christ, and we have this one great privilege of joining with him in his work.
Every challenge is, indeed, an opportunity if God is our teacher, and so this moment is a profound opportunity to minister to the souls of our neighbors. In this second part of my article, I will reflect briefly on the constructive side of creating Christian communities that nourish and satisfy our longings. I make these suggestions as no expert, but as one hungry to learn and as one who is trying to figure all of it out myself!
- We need to recognize that our efforts are in large measure efforts of triage. Some of our communities will engage in regular liturgical patterns, but most of them will not. Many people struggle to simply attend the majority of Sunday services in a month; and thus, getting people to attend morning and evening prayer is simply not going to happen. Maybe this will occur in pockets of zeal and renewal, but for most people with families, and commutes across town, and the burdens of work and inflation, doing morning and evening prayer as a gathered body is logistically impossible.
And so we need open entryways for those who are longing for community but don’t have any idea how to do it or sustain it in some Christian way. Again, we are in a stage of triage, and so any efforts at community formation are worthwhile even if they aren’t explicitly Christian. Several years ago I was critical of a young adults gathering at our church that had no formational Christian programming involved. Maybe I was right then, but now, simply gathering, enjoying company for the sake of being together is valuable. God can surely use it. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
- Friendships need to be manufactured. Accidental, kindred-spirit friendships are a remarkably rare gift from God. When we receive them, we should give thanks to God and work hard to sustain them, but otherwise we will need to manufacture many of our relationships. Folks who live in smaller towns or who work on university campuses might have the chance to bump into people regularly and gather frequently. But most folks living in larger cities cannot do this. So, manufacture relationships. Create small groups, Bible studies, reading groups, or regular scheduled gatherings. Sure, community groups and Bible studies often feel manufactured and thus like effort, but that’s to be expected. Do it anyway.
There are better and worse ways to manufacture community. Small groups and Bible studies should have seasonal limits. People are not used to establishing long-term relational commitments, and people’s schedules often change. So set an end date for your scheduled gatherings. It could be a several-month commitment, or a year, but set an end date. Having a long-term plan, with established periods of fallow ground, when folks can then make decisions about whether to continue or find a new one, is much more comfortable. So, generally speaking, don’t initiate a group with no end date.
- Expect people to be lonely even if they don’t know it. This means you’ll need to introduce people to what it is like to be in community. Most folks are becoming content with digital fellowship of various sorts, or with dulling their relational needs in different ways. What this means is that people will be hungry for relationship, but potentially uncomfortable with it, and very unaware of what it takes to establish meaningful relationships. We will need to be patient with people as they figure out how to establish healthy relational patterns and occasionally run from the work required to do it. We will also need to gently introduce many people to the appropriate vulnerability required in having a true friendship. Both men and women struggle with this.
- Because all forms of gathering now have spiritual potential, common interests are now helpful access points to meaningful relationships. They are certainly not a substitute for relationships that gather around prayer, Scripture, and sacrament. However, if we have the right level of expectation, then common interest groups can provide exposure for relational opportunity. It is not simply that your adult soccer league might offer a way to make a friend, it’s that your interests and the people you run into because of your interests all exist under God’s providential work.
- There is no replacement for gathering in people’s homes. Getting together for happy hour or brunch after a church service is fantastic, but having someone come into your home for a meal or cocktails, or whatever, is innately intimate and thus powerful.
- Don’t make community something that only single people do. That’s a ridiculous idea, not only because it places such a burden on single people to create it, but because we all long for it. Everyone who has ever been married knows that loneliness happens to single and married alike. However, do make strong friendships with single people because it will be a mutual blessing.
Finally, here are some liturgically oriented suggestions:
Our liturgical life does, indeed, have gathering power. Outside of college football games, concerts, or other sporting events, people generally have no sense of occasion or a pattern for socializing. We do have patterns for living and we have legitimate occasions. We should use them! Throw a big party for a child’s baptism. Do something for All Saints’ Day. Give people a reason to gather. Artisanal cocktails, Equally Appealing Non-Alcoholic Beverages, and obscure recipes from the Times are wonderful, but they’re even better if there’s an actual occasion worth celebrating.
Also, to that end, education about our liturgical patterns and ways of worship do, in my experience, have a gathering power. Many Christians from other similar traditions have a keen interest in the Eucharist and the liturgy that grounds our Sunday worship. However, many others have no idea what our Sunday liturgy is about. This is a teaching moment, and it can galvanize Sunday morning worship as a time of gathering. Teach people what is going on in worship, and they become drawn to it. This doesn’t mean dumbing-down or oversimplifying, it simply means walking alongside.
Finally, our Christian leadership formation must be relationally rich. I realize there are occasions where people need a distance education program in order to receive certain theological credentials, but that should not be the norm. Seminary education within our tradition has never been primarily about content or career placement. It is about spiritual formation. And so we should do all that we can in order to make seminaries places of rich relational flourishing. For seminaries, that means refectories, regular patterns of worship, and gatherings around beverages, where folks talk about family life, books, or any such topic. And it means that parishes in support of theological institutions should create spaces for seminarians to learn and grow. This can happen in parishes that exist near seminaries, and it can also exist when parishes establish a relationship with a particular seminary. Seminaries need our churches to help them do this work.
In sum, the need for meaningful relationships is greater than ever. While our tradition is taking on some momentum due to the richness of our liturgical worship, we should be honest about what the formative capacities of liturgy can and cannot do. Liturgy will not offer some silver bullet. However, the patterned life of worship that we share can be thoughtfully combined with an effort to placate the deep relational hunger that pervades our cultural moment.