For centuries, most humans found community in fixed and enduring institutions, organizations, and groups. Strong communities were formed through family, religion, tradition, professional, ethnic and national identity. These communities remained relatively fixed and shaped the identities and destinies of their members.
Not so much anymore. Now the individual endlessly customizes, changes, and rearranges their life to fit their personal preference, deciding for themselves who they are and what they want to do. As a result, Millennials are abandoning traditional sources of community like a sinking ships. Half of all babies born to millennials are out of wedlock . Thirty percent now claim no religious preference. They expect to stay in a job for less than three years. Just under half claim to be patriotic persons.
Community based in God, family or country may be fading but the yearning for community is alive and well. Even as many choose not to identify with a religion, plenty are identifying with a team. Just half a century ago only 30% of Americans considered themselves sports fans. By 2012, the number had risen to above 60%. Sports feeds the hunger for community by uniting thousands of people across gender, class, and racial lines. We watch the games and buy the apparel to be accepted and then talk about our teams using pronouns like “we”, “us”, and “our.” Academics Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard explain the phenomenon in an essay for The Washington Post,
“Modern sports stadiums function much like great cathedrals once did, bringing communities together and focusing their collective energy. This summer, the Archdiocese of New York is expected to outline plans to close or merge some of its 368 parishes; 26 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have ceased operation. By contrast, the city and the state of New Jersey spent hundreds of millions to build new baseball and football stadiums.”
Or consider the phenomenon of My Little Pony, a 22 minute cartoon promoting colorful toys for preteen girls that draws 12 million viewers, has 92,000 followers on Twitter and 815,000 on Facebook. The mantra of the show is that “friendship is magic” and it tells the story of six ponies whose friendship is the superpower that makes the world safe. This picture of community is contagious. It is estimated there are 7 to 12.4 million people in the United States who identify as “bronies” – a name that is a combination of “bro” and “pony” adopted by adult male fans of the show. These fans are typically college educated and between the ages of 15 and 35. They create artwork, post in forums, write fan fiction, wear “cutie marks”, attend conventions (8,000 attended BronyCon in Baltimore in 2013), and do charitable work. The show’s creator, Lauren Faust, explained to New York Magazine that “Friendship is Magic” came from her first real experience of friendship as a teenager:
When I made those friends, they were so precious to me. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the appeal of the show. When you take a look at the Bronies, they’re probably the odder kids in their school. They’re not typical. They must have caught on to that message under the surface of My Little Pony: that friendship means we’re all being ourselves and we’re all accepting of one another.
Humans hunger to be themselves and be accepted by a community. Whether that community is the Big Blue Nation of Kentucky basketball or BronyCon.
Yet our modern idea of community is contradictory. We want all the benefits of real, authentic, enduring community enjoyed by humans for centuries but on the terms of the individual; it cannot be too restrictive, time consuming, or dogmatic. We want community to make us better people while we cry foul every time it intrudes into our personal space. We want it to give us powerful emotional bonds while we remain noncommittal, options open. We want it to be meaningful and significant while we abandon ancient doctrines for slogans and trends. The community our culture wants ultimately doesn’t exist and the attempt to attain it will leave us empty and unsatisfied.
The church can be the answer. Not by conforming to culture’s design by stripping away doctrine, softening commands, and fluffing up worship, but by being the kind of community God gave us in the New Testament. A community that changes people because it has the audacity to intrude into life and tackle sin and suffering (Galatians 6:1-2). A community with strong bonds because it meets regularly for worship, encouragement, and service (Heb. 10:22-25) despite the costs. A community with eternal significance because it is united by enduring and revealed truth from God (Isaiah 40:8) rather than trends or products.
Many won’t accept the church because it’s not on their terms. Yet for those left empty by the culture’s version of community, the church can become salvation – not just from sin and death but from meaningless, anonymous isolation.
Community in the church doesn’t magically happen alongside of programming and a busy calendar. Many have turned to sports and internet for community because churches have failed to be what God has called them to be. Yet if the church has a passion and plan to get people into gospel community the world may see that “friendship is magic” can’t compete with the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It may see that sharing a favorite team is small potatoes compared to sharing membership in the Kingdom of God.
The gospel is the best hope for a culture seeking out community in plastic toys and rubber balls. Are our churches working hard to build gospel-centered community that points the world to Jesus?