What Is Real Community?

“I thought once I joined the church, I would have lots of friends. Why do I still feel so lonely?” A variation on this question has been posed by too many people for one story to be accurate. The young mid-20s woman who is working full time while going to school. She is smart and fun and quick to listen but feels like her friends are all either busy or only interested when they need her expertise. Also, the just-barely-20 guy who is still trying to figure out life but who is so talented and has a wicked sense of humor but hates the social niceties and small talk that seems to be required to make new friends. And the young parents who joined the church hoping to find other young parents surviving the late nights and the money fights and the huge changes but find that everyone else is just as busy and tired or they are “super parents” who make them feel inadequate. 

Despite the challenges, all the people represented by that question still deeply hoped for friends. Real friends. Not the say-hi-in-the-lobby or follow-on-social or at-home-business-networking types of friends but the kind you share inside jokes (or memes) with or call when you need to ugly cry. 

The Benefits

The very real psychological benefits of genuine friendships are well established. Aristotle called humans “social creatures” and modern psychology has found a host of benefits to genuine relationships (Meyers offers a great summary) including safety, sense of security and belonging, better physical health, greater emotional endurance, and lower instances of emotional disorders. 

Of course, this list is not insightful to any degree.  The opening question, “why am I still lonely?” is underpinned by the knowledge that strong friendships are beneficial. Humans have been herd mammals from the start. The very beginning of the biblical story, Genesis 2:18, firmly states, “it is not good for man to be alone.” And God chose to use a family, a tribe, a community to invite people back into His design. The concept of biblical peace (shalom) is tied to order and structure – the community functioning in a way that causes the world and the people to thrive. 

The Ideal

A community of peace and growth is the ideal example of healthy relationships.  The type that fills the need expressed in the opening questions.  And it begins with two key factors: trust and vulnerability.  A healthy community is based on mutual trust as displayed by a desire to be honest and to challenge each other. As the old familiar Proverb states, “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). This verse, in its context and history, is a simple and perfect analogy of how a community is meant to function. Two people bring their flaws and honest needs to each other and, in honest discourse and loving feedback, they both become more effective (read: better) versions of themselves.  

Trust & Feedback

After all, within a healthy community people are encouraged to be the fullest representation of who they are meant to be; their talents developed, their gifts encouraged, and their needs met. But this type of growth only happens when there is trust and feedback.  Trust without feedback is wonderful when you need a shoulder to cry on.  Feedback without trust is judgment – a good thing if it’s an evaluation or contest but not great within relationships. Growth demands both trust and feedback.  

Consider how a top-tier coach works with elite athletes. The athlete trusts the coach’s expertise and their ability to find ways the athlete can improve their gift.  The coach trusts the athlete’s talent and their ability to be self-motivated and capable.  One is not greater than the other nor would one even be useful without the other.  Both are necessary and both lead to a better individual ability and far better team outcomes. 

Create Connection

It is the same for friendships and the community they develop. When the people are growing and maturing they are able to invest in the people around them who, in turn, are also growing and maturing.  The cycle continues as each member of the community is able to use their talents, gifts, and resources to meet the needs of their broader social circle. Ultimately, the young professional, the college student, and the new parents all find a place where they feel the deep connection they were looking for – they are needed and they are wanted. 

Can you see these elements in your relationships? Do you challenge and encourage each other? Can you trust what your significant friends tell you about the world and yourself? Are they willing to disagree with you or call out lies you believe about yourself? 

If you do not have healthy relationships and are looking to build them, there is a simple place to begin and the answer is a paradox to be explored next week. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you then…

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