Thriving Community: What Does It Look Like?

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“Community” can mean a plethora of things. For many of us, it is the word we use to describe the people we “do life with”— whatever that means. We tote words like “tribe” to communicate a common value we share with others; we complain about not having “community,” and beg God to give us one that is beautiful and thriving. But how many of us know what it means to build one.

I’d like to suggest that community needs to take on a much broader meaning than what we’ve sequestered it to. Go back in history and it’s something people didn’t survive without. It looked far different than a group of friends sitting in someone’s living room and bearing their deepest secrets to one another under the pretense of “vulnerability.”

Back in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, “community” was something you belonged to, not a club you asked to join. There wasn’t an initiation or application process to jump through; your acceptance was based on your desire to be a part of something beyond yourself. You didn’t ask to join a community, you moved into one— and if you were the first homesteader to arrive, you were the one to build it once others came. “Community” wasn’t something you did, it was something you were. Sadly, it has been turned into a verb instead of a noun.

Today, “community” has an entirely different meaning. It’s not about the people you live in close proximity to, or even who you rub shoulders with on a consistent basis. It labels the carefully-selected few who are supposed to hold you up when your life falls apart. But what if that’s just part of the equation?

As a Jesus-follower, I know that my closest friendships need to be with people who share my values, who want to see me grow personally, and who can pray and encourage me back to a right place if I start making poor decisions. My besties are those who are solid in their faith, and who have integrity and character that has been tested and proven. But, is that small circle my only source of “community?” No way!

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up from my multiple cross-country moves (which meant having to build a new community from scratch each time):
1. Be aware of who’s already in your life. People are creatures of habit. We shop at the same places, eat at the same restaurants, frequent the same coffee shops, go to the gym at the same time every day and so forth. Answer the question, “who is already in my life?” Several years ago, I made it a point to shop at the same grocery store on the same day of the week. The result was getting to know the staff of that store by name. One of them was our cashier, who came to know us as well. At Christmas, we made her cookies and cards, which we delivered, and when she decided to retire, we sent her off with gifts and letters. One of the other people was a department manager who also loved Jesus. Of course, this didn’t come up in our first exchange, but instead, it became apparent after many conversations between the produce and bulk sections. Eventually, we invited him and his wife to dinner at our home. We shared bits of our faith and the journey God had us on. He asked us to pray for his co-workers who were sick, and for them as they started the process of adoption. Those relationships wouldn’t have materialized if we’d been head down and focused on ourselves in our weekly shopping.

This will look different for every person, but here are some ideas: get to know the barista who has memorized your name and customized beverage. Learn about the people who help you at the gym— not your friends, but those who check you in, clean the locker rooms and serve up smoothies. It can be as simple as striking up a conversation with the librarian, the crossing guard, the mail lady, or the server where you meet friends for happy hour on Friday nights. If you work in a service position, it can be getting to know your regular clients: their names, stories, kids, etc. Whatever store you frequent, be intentional about having the same person assist you every time you’re there (yes, you might have to ask them their schedule), or you could befriend the security guard in the building you work, the person who greets you every Sunday as you walk into church, or the single mom living across the street.

2. It doesn’t have to be homogenous. Your community doesn’t have to mean the people who are in the same life stage, economic bracket, geographical location, or type of faith. We all know that there are relationships that are seasonal— they serve a purpose, but they won’t be life-long. Learning to let go of those that aren’t “forever” is hard, but not doing so means less room for the people that are supposed to be with us now. When my husband and I resigned from being student pastors several years ago, it ushered in a beautiful season of growth in our lives because we suddenly had room for new relationships. We also know that people are in our lives for a variety of reasons. We are supposed to lead and mentor some, run side-by-side with others, and be tutored by another group. “Community” can become an exasperating idea if we are only allowing those who fit in a specific box, into our lives.

Currently, my closest friends either live in other states, or they are in a different stage of life. I’ve also included the college students I mentor as part of my people because they have been a part of my everyday life; they run errands with me, and hang out with my kids and in my home. Another part of my community are those that I have met online (or only briefly in person), yet their constant involvement in my life has warranted them a place in “my tribe.” They may not have all the backstory of how my husband and I met, or know the specifics of what my weekly routine looks like, but they are eager to pray, offer encouragement and support, and help me rally when I am weary. We swap stories about life and parenting, homeschool and travel and their humor and advice is what helps my life feel full.

3. Answer the 9-1-1 question. If your house was burning down in the middle of the night, who would you call first? This is typically a good indication of who “your people” are. My husband and I to come to a sobering conclusion a couple of years ago when we asked this question only to realize that no one from our church “small group” made the list. Sure, if something catastrophic happened, we would reach out and ask them to pray for us, but after months and months of regularly meeting together, the conversation had rarely dipped below the surface level, and we recognized that things weren’t ever going to move from the stagnant place that they were. Obviously, my best friend in another state wouldn’t be my first call if someone needed to race over in the middle of the night to sit with my kids in the event of an emergency, but you better believe she’d be one of the first texts as soon as I could get word out to pray. And the people who regularly ask, “what can I do for you?” are those who should be moving up your community ladder; they are to be treasured.
Instead of fighting for vulnerability with people who want surface friendship, we may need to reach outside of our comfort zone for the type of community we are yearning for. It means we may have to make the first step, take a risk, or get vulnerable. Similarly, we may need to try something new if we want to see a different result than what we’ve been experiencing. When we let our small group die, it caused a shift in our lives. I started mentoring a group of students, we put dinners on the calendar with our neighbors, and celebrated holidays with the people who live on our street instead of those we sat with (or worked with) at church. It was a beautiful season, and then— we pulled out the moving boxes and had to start the process of growing new community all over again.

Each time we relocate I feel more prepared to jump into the whole process of getting connected. And even though each move has brought its own set of nuances, the goal has been the same: to bring people into our lives who we can learn from, run with, and pass something on to. Each time God has done it— even if the faces have often surprised us. The idea of a “thriving community” has become broader, and our understanding of how to grow one has become more simplified at the same time; it has become less of a verb, and more of a noun.