Everybody loves community, or they say they do at least. We live in a land that is parched of the life-giving water of friendship and stripped bare of many of the settings that used to make this easy for people.
Robert Nisbet in his book The Quest for Community argues that what he calls a strong associational life that would have been found in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the home, the village, and the church has been slowly replaced by a weak associational life. His examples for weaker associations are the union, the workplace, the political party, and the state.
To put it in language we’re familiar with, the settings that used to provide the ability for community to grow have changed and morphed over time, but these newer settings provide a thinner context for bonds between people to grow.
Or think of this way, where do people make their friends? Compared with a century or two ago the settings we have for making friendships that are strong and lasting are not as good at that as they used to be.
He was writing in 1952. Unions and political parties do not have the strength that they used to, and our connections to the state have weakened in the last fifty years. Bonds formed in the workplace are probably still as strong, or at least they were pre-pandemic. The rise of remote-working, which is here to stay at least short-term, also reduces the way the workplace can form these associational bonds.
The western workplace, especially for so-called knowledge-workers in office jobs who make up around a third of the workforce in WEIRD nations, is ephemeral. We do stuff on computers that has weak connections to physical things. I’m not sure that’s bad in and of itself, but it does tell us a story about ourselves—that everything is ephemeral, if you’ll forgive me to quote Marx out of context, that everything that is solid melts into air—which I think makes physical community more difficult. Even the way that the annual appraisal process in so many workplaces suggests that only this year matters truncates our view of reality—we then treat our relationships the same way.
Perhaps if he was writing now, Nisbet might include the Facebook page, the Discord server, and the MMO. Which, because they’re disembodied, are forms of ‘weak associational life.’
I think this sort of thing should concern the church. Not least because it sounds remarkably like C. S. Lewis’ vision of Hell in The Great Divorce where everyone is constantly drifting apart over the millennia.
It’s not good for us as a society, for all we don’t need to go backwards, we will need to strengthen community settings if we want our communities to flourish. The church is, of course, well positioned to do something about this. Community is something we can offer, though we struggle to convince most people they need it.
We will need innovative ideas to foster this kind of community in our neighbourhoods. Here’s my biggest concern though: I’m not sure most churches are doing all that well at being centres of strong associational ties, at producing rich and enduring community. I’m sure that some are, and I’m sure that a much wider group of churches are doing so for some amongst them.
My contention is that if our lives have been characterised by drift such that someone like me, born in the 1980s, has never seen the sort of community Nisbet describes as normal, it’s difficult for us to even notice we’re missing it even if it does affect our lives. My parents won’t have experienced it either, they were born in the 1950s. It’s likely none of my readers have done.
It’s possible we throw up our arms and decide we don’t care, but I’ve yet to talk to a Christian who doesn’t think community is inherently good for us. We’re meant to be a people. The local church is supposed to be the household of faith—something different to our modern concept of family but in the same broad arena—where everyone fits and is loved and is able to develop deep and abiding relationships with others. We can still do that, but if because never seen it modelled, we find it hard and sometimes oddly unnatural.
I write not with solutions but to highlight a problem. I’ve never met a church that doesn’t talk a good talk about community, whatever language they choose to use. I’ve met plenty of churches full of people who find that community difficult to access. Modern life makes it hard for us.
Nisbet argues these changes were caused by a breakdown of the connections between his markers of strong community—kin, locality, and faith—and the wider political and social order. He had three threads he pulls on to argue this: the secularisation of the social order, urbanisation, and individualism.
I think it’s a fascinating book, a long-standing and standard text in this area of study, and have sympathy with each of his concerns about how we’ve got where we’ve got. It’s been subject to some effective criticisms too. I’d note particularly that the biggest drivers for the death of the sort of community life he bemoans the loss of were actually two technological developments: cars and films.
Essentially once we had a way to leave the neighbourhood (cars), and had a reason to (films), we did so. It’s not a genie we could put back in the bottle even if we wanted to.
I think these problems should concern Christians and the Church, even if the solutions are not readily apparent—and I’d want to warn against an atavistic tendency to simply think the past was better, it had different problems, at the same time as pointing out that in solving those problems we’ve caused new ones.
Even if we have no influence on churches or societies we should be thinking for ourselves: how can I create stronger bonds with the people I already have some bonds with? Are there settings we could spend time in together that already exist? Are there settings that I can create? If I don’t live near anyone in my church, could I do something about that?
On that last suggestion, there’s a power to locality, but I don’t think there’s a requirement that we all live in each other’s pockets. We should recognise that locality acts as an accelerator to friendship though. At the same time, we should be aware that living walking distance away doesn’t suddenly make you great friends or make you spend a lot of time together.
We live in fractured communities. The church offers a community that is being made whole. The first step to fixing society is fixing ourselves, and the church is called to reach itself first and then for that to overflow.
What can we do to cultivate community in our own settings?
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