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When Community Gets Hard

By now you’ve probably seen the meme about Jesus’ greatest miracle—that he had 12 best friends in his 30s– apparently first told by John Mulaney on SNL. The memes that make their rounds do so because their relatableness and candor make them both funny AND true. As a person in their 30s with friends in their 30s, we have all laughed at this meme and attested to this great miracle. But why is it so difficult to have close friends as you age? I have a few theories on this: 

  • Technology in all its gifts has decreased our social skills with one another face to face.  

  • As we age we get more settled into our beliefs and values and more confident in our ability to recognize when others do/don’t align with them. This can translate into tolerance or simple certainty in what relationships we want to invest in or not. 

  • Industrialization has decreased our patience in most things, including relating to one another.

  • Our American culture values independence and success over community.

I’m sure there are many more theories, proven and unproven, that would apply. 

Yet, maybe they lose their weight against the well-known fact that we all need friends, aka community.  We were designed for community. God himself is in community re: the trinity. Therefore humanity made in his image is made for community. God didn’t leave Adam alone but said, it’s not good for us to be alone. But how I wish he might have said something like “It’s not good that man should be alone - so community will be easy peasy, lemon squeezy.” 

It’s the sense of belonging found in community that everyone wants and needs.

My Dad says what made the show Cheers, and bars in general, so appealing was found in the theme song: “You wanna go where everyone knows your name.” It’s the sense of belonging found in community that everyone wants and needs. In some ways, community is as easy as the Jackson Five song lyrics or a Cheers episode. In places we frequent, like work, a local bar, gym, school, parents group, etc. But generally, it’s easy ‘til it’s not. And that’s usually when folks' true colors show up and all the colors don’t blend. 

I think it’s the same in church–Community is easy til it’s not. But because it’s church, it’s even harder to move through the difficulty. We tend to set expectations on others only God can meet. We sometimes see the beams in others' eyes before we can see our own. The hurt we feel can cut so much deeper because they’re “supposed” to act like Jesus. Ironically, we should expect disappointments, disagreements, and the hard stuff that comes with community, recognizing that a path through is often a portion of the narrow path Jesus calls us to. 

For me, the hardest parts about community have been working through my own shame, conflict with others, and changes in life seasons. 

One of the band-aids I pulled off was how in some seasons of my life I claimed loneliness, yet I was the one who’d isolated myself.

Last year, I completed the Celebrate Recovery (CR) step study. If you haven’t heard about CR, it's a place for people to work through life’s hurts, habits, and hang-ups in community using a 12-step approach grounded in scripture. It’s not for the faint of heart when you start tearing off band-aids and addressing the root cause of some of your life’s issues. One of the band-aids I pulled off was how in some seasons of my life I claimed loneliness, yet I was the one who’d isolated myself. I lacked emotional vulnerability in relationships and didn’t reach out to friends and family when I needed support. I held onto loneliness instead of cultivating relationships in front of me. Some of this was due to pride, fear, and shame. We see shame rearing its head beginning in the garden. After sinning, Adam and Eve’s first instinct was to cover themselves up to hide from each other and God. I’ve felt pressure to be perfect and allowed that drive to hide myself from others, much like Adam and Eve. I like the way Brene Brown puts it: “When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver!”

If it’s not self-isolation from lingering shame, it’s sometimes conflict. As someone who doesn’t like conflict but deals with it when I have to, I’ve noticed my own aversion to conflict. I’ve come to recognize it’s based in a fear that the other person, or community members may leave because of the conflict. And if they do leave, I/we (the group) will not be as good without them. I still grapple with this but I’ve come to accept and expect conflict in community and as much as I don’t like it, it’s actually a good thing. It means groupthink isn’t happening because there’s diversity of thoughts. Conflict can be an opportunity for growth. The communities that I’ve been a part of that have acknowledged conflict and worked through it have all been stronger. When the dust settles there’s usually a stronger sense of camaraderie or as I like to say, we’re more likely to “ride or die”. But it takes time, patience, and commitment. 

It has taken commitment and diligence to remain in community through shame, conflict, and life’s changes. I’ve belonged to communities that have experienced spiritual abuse, scandal, and legalism. I’ve physically moved and some of my views have moved along the way. It can be scary as you grow and change and can’t find what you need in a place that once did. It can be scary to follow God’s leading to uproot yourself and have to find new community. But despite the difficulties I’ve faced and the hurt I’ve experienced in community, I’ve also received healing. God continues to call me and us into community as a reflection of him. So I encourage you not to give up, and to put in a little elbow grease if it is eluding you. May we be the community for others that we hope to receive. 

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

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