We live in one of the most connected ages in history. We can stay connected with friends around the globe and have unlimited potential to make new friends. News travels around the globe in moments, and we’re routinely treated to a front-row view of history as live-streaming technology becomes more commonplace. At no other point in human history have we been so quickly and easily connected with other people.
So why are we so isolated?
Even as we’re connected in a vast multitude of relationships, our deep, meaningful, satisfying relationships are lacking or even absent. While the jury is still out on many aspects, early studies are showing that social media use among adolescents is especially likely to correlate with depression and feelings of isolation. (There’s a case to be made that the depression and isolation drive the social media use, but I suspect the relationship is reciprocal.) Anecdotally, as I work with those in their late teens and young adulthood, I find that many struggle to form significant friendships and to feel connected to their communities. We know how to connect, but we’ve exchanged intimacy for activity, and we’ve discovered without meaning to that those two things are nowhere close to being the same.
So how can the Church help? How can we engage people who are looking for deep, meaningful connections and teach them what it looks like to be fully human? We know it’s not good for man to be alone. How do we teach people not to be?
I can’t claim to have all the answers, but perhaps what I can offer are some places to begin the conversation.
Connections Happen on Neutral Ground
A longtime evangelism tactic in the Church has been the door-to-door home visit. I can’t say it doesn’t work anymore, and I’m thankful for those who come to faith through those encounters, but I don’t think it’s the most effective strategy anymore. Home is no longer the place where we entertain, but it has become our place of refuge and sanctuary. There’s room to rediscover the joy of visiting one another at home, of course, but when we’re dealing with our communities or with those who are unfamiliar with the faith, we would do well to respect the rules they begin with. (As a personal aside here, I have to say that I’m actually uncomfortable when random strangers show up at my door to talk about some of the most important beliefs and deeply held convictions of life . . . and I’m a pastor who thrives on these discussions!)
So let’s move the discussion to neutral ground. In a clichéd millennial world, that’s the local coffeehouse, but clichés are boring, so let’s look for opportunities to engage the conversation in restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and all the many places where our lives together happen. This isn’t to say we force a spiritual conversation at the hockey game, but rather that we deliberately live out our lives with our eyes open to opportunities for spiritual conversations regardless of where we are. One intentional choice we’ve made in our local small-group Bible study is to hold the study outside the normal “churchy” locations. Get out in the community and open the door to connections with the people who are there.
Deep Connections Happen in True Community
If you’re reading this, chances are your church has a Facebook presence, and it absolutely should! A website and an active Facebook page are more or less the Yellow Pages listings of today. You need them so people know you exist, and you’re sometimes going to get visitors simply by being visible. But to really teach our people to build connections with one another, we need to teach them what it means to live in community together. It’s only when we live out our lives together in shared spaces and shared stories that we begin to build authentic community with one another. This used to happen around meals, and while I personally don’t like potlucks (picky eaters unite!), they create some incredible opportunities for the community to gather and share a meal and, more importantly, share their stories. Looking beyond the traditional, consider finding those places where your congregation can step into the story of its surrounding community. Where are those needs that are currently unmet? Is there a need for English classes? School tutoring? Afterschool care? There are as many options as possible needs, and by stepping into those needs, we can welcome people into our congregations who might not otherwise be connected to our communities.
Regardless of what you choose, do your best to place it on neutral ground and create the space within the ministry for people to share their stories together. Alongside that, though, remember that a healthy community needs to be composed of approximate equals. We’ll always have stronger and weaker points as individuals, but we need to be careful to not structure our efforts to help around systems that rely on one group “rescuing” another. Lupton’s work on toxic charity is particularly helpful in rethinking how we might restructure our efforts to be more equitable and, ultimately, more helpful.
Faith Is Lived in Community
This isn’t just about building relationships and repairing what’s broken in our communities. We definitely do that and want to continue to do so, but we also have a bigger, more eternal goal. We want people, regardless of their ages, tribes, or communities, to know that there’s a God who loves them and has redeemed them by His grace. That’s not to say we do the “bait and switch” by offering community in one hand and swapping in faith at the last moment, but rather that community and faith go hand in hand. God’s gifts are given in the context of the Christian community, and we gather to celebrate those gifts together. If we only build community and never get down to connecting around the most important and personal questions of life, I’m not sure we’ve actually built community at all.
Connections Take Time
Finally, there’s no instant solution to these issues. Some of these issues have taken decades to create, and they’re going to take some time to rework. But by beginning to create the places and occasions for these conversations to happen, and intentionally seeking to reconnect our communities, the Church can help remind a dehumanizing world what it is to live a fully human life in community with one another.
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