Sometimes it feels fleeting, like chasing a rabbit bounding through the bushes. Sometimes it feels rich and refreshing like rain pouring down from heaven. It is a little phenomenon called "community." It often seems very elusive in our culture despite the culture boasting of being more "connected" now than ever before. But what is true community? Well, here's my two cents on the subject:
I would define true community as an integrated web of deep, personal relationships. And ultimately it is something very precious and necessary to the human soul because it involves one of the most basic of all human needs: the need to belong.
The human need to belong has become a modern-day marketing feeding frenzy. All sorts of books have recently been written about it. Now that the "secret" is out, it seems that everyone is telling you how you can "belong" so that you'll feel good about belonging to something bigger than you are; or, conversely, how you can get more people to be aware of YOU so that you can feel good about yourself because people are "following" you.
What prompts me to write this reflection has to do with technological impacts on community. With online networking and faster methods of communication becoming old-hat, we aren't playing the same game we were a quarter-century ago. I don't need to make a list of the most popular techie methods of communicating nowadays because most of you already know them. There's almost an unspoken social pressure to "get with the program" and be actively participating in all of them. But what is the fruit of these new technological "advances" in the area of cultivating deep, personal relationships?
Cultivating deep personal relationships may be becoming a lost art in this technological era. Think of the friendships you deeply cherish and the healthy experiences of community you have enjoyed. What did it take to build that sort of relational depth? It first and foremost takes substantial amounts of time together face-to-face, sharing life together.
I've been using the term "true community" here, and it's worth contrasting that idea to other forms of "community." Now we have online communities galore- virtual gathering places where people can share their common interests while they remain safe behind their computer and smartphone screens. That type of gathering place might be called "community" in our modern lingo, but it is not the true community to which I'm referring. Those types of gathering places are missing face-to-face time. No matter how much you chat, post, tweet, blog, email, text or discuss online, nothing can replace good-old face-to-face conversation to reveal true relationship. (Or lack thereof.) In fact, if you rely on these kinds of virtual gathering places to get your need for true community, you may fall prey to the tendency to assume a level of intimacy with people with whom you really don't have it.
(**I'm not suggesting that socializing online or using technology to communicate is useless or meaningless. I'm not going to get rid of my Facebook account. I'm just suggesting that to rely on these things to build intimate relationship and community may be an exercise in futility.**)
Here's my point and the summary of this post: we can't replace true community with virtual community. It doesn't work. I do believe, however, that virtual community can and does supplement true community. But you can't just have virtual community and expect it to actually meet your need to belong- it can only virtually meet that need- and only for awhile. We were meant to thrive in face-to-face personal contact with other human beings- an environment that challenges us to love and be loved despite all our flaws without the invulnerability of a screen between us and the world.