This past week I had the profound joy of teaching at Camp-of-the-Woods (COTW), located in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. For those unfamiliar, COTW is a century-old Christian camp that has been providing respite, recreation and ministry to generations of Christians. COTW is also a missionary organization, sending and supporting missionaries across the globe. The thing that is so amazing about COTW is the extraordinary sense of Christian community and fellowship that occurs in the span of a few days, among relative strangers who are gathered together for the first time. There is simply nothing like it! I think it is the closest thing to heaven I have ever experienced.
There is an incredible level of trust and transparency that fosters real and meaningful fellowship that is unfortunately rare today. Wonderful friendships are formed and there is a sense that you are truly loved and this in turn promotes a genuine love toward others. It is a place where Christian love abounds and the family of God is existent.
I spent time with so many wonderful serious-minded Christians—it was a week of great encouragement, given the spiritual apathy and cultural indifference that is pervasive in the American Church today. There was a real sadness in having to return to the "real world," which raised several questions in my mind.
Why is it that this same level of transparency, trust, and fellowship is so hard to find in our everyday lives? Certainly, outside the Church there has been a marked decrease in the sense of community. Harvard professor, Robert Putnam points out in his important book Bowling Alone that:
For the first two-thirds of the 20th century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago—silently and without warning—that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.
A study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona found that in 1985, every American had an average of nearly three close friends. Today, every American only has an average of two close friends they can confide in. Approximately a fourth of the people who were surveyed responded "they had no close friends at all" and the number of people who say they have no one to talk to about important matters has more than doubled. Americans, in general, are increasingly isolated and lonely. This is a sad reality of modern American life.
This is what stands out at a place like COTW and in so doing reveals the loss of something very important to human life: community. Community is more than living in proximity to each other; real community flows from being in relationship to one another. By being in relationship there naturally follows a sense of reciprocity. In other words, relationships produce obligations. For example, if we know each other and I see you and you see me at the local Mall, there is an implicit obligation to say hello. If I were to look at you and simply pass by without a word you would be offended, and rightly so. The offense is only due to our relationship, which demands certain minimal obligations, such as civility.
However, with the runaway suburbanization of cities, the advent of Superstores, the automobile, freeways, and the nomadic quest for economic security, we actually "know" fewer and fewer people. According to Putnam our lives are lived within triangles with one point representing where we sleep or live, another where we work, and another where we shop. In the last 50 years these 'triangles" have grown much larger, so we no longer live near those with whom we work or where we shop. When was the last time you were greeted by name at the local Wal-Mart? You probably weren't because they don't have the slightest clue who you are! We commute with hundreds of total strangers on the freeway, who will forever remain strangers, as we sit together but isolated in cocoons of steel. Unless you live in an older urban community, who can walk to work or the market anymore? Pedestrians can engage in human contact and discussion, whereas "contact" on the freeway is to be avoided and any "discussion" is likely to be unfriendly, shall we say. We are designing cities and neighborhoods today that actually inhibit community.
Much of this change in America is attributable to pernicious consumerism that has produced cookie-cutter "bedroom communities" instead of neighborhoods, big box chain-stores that displace neighborhood merchants and short-sighted city planning that elevates "economic growth" above community and quality of life. Add to this the new and ever-increasing technologies that are replacing human community with virtual community and it is no wonder we are so isolated, alone, and disconnected from one another.
Human beings are made for fellowship with God and with each other. This is an innate God-given desire and a culture that inhibits the expression of this desire will necessarily produce alienated people. It is this alienation from God, which sin has wrought, that we sense in our innermost beings. Our alienation from each other is a daily reminder that we are "lost," living in a world torn apart by our rebellion against God. We search desperately for something that will relieve this alienation: money, status, experience, etc. and yet these never satisfy us for long.
Herein lies a real and tangible opportunity for the Church to bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. We must resist these same forces that urge us to sacrifice genuine community in exchange for individual autonomy, which often begins with "I want to be left alone" but in the end says "I am lonely." Isn't that how we often come to church? "Just leave me alone and let me do this Christian thing my way—don't tell me how to live, don't ask me to serve, don't press me for money, etc, etc." We can even approach the church as if it was there to meet our needs not realizing we are there to meet the needs of others by imitating Christ. We want our autonomy but the reality is we are not autonomous—we belong to the community of believers as represented by the local church.
I confess that I have been guilty of this stupid thinking and my experience at COTW serves to remind me of what I am missing—the richness, blessing and need of authentic fellowship. The intentional recovery of authentic community within the Church where Christians are transparent and caring, giving of their possessions and time to others, cultivating deep relationships with one another—this, as much as anything else, will bear powerful witness to the presence of the risen Christ to an increasingly lonely world.
S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to the reformation and renewal of society through the reformation and renewal of the Church. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources, and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org