Church Without Community
A reader writes (and I post with his permission):
I’ve been reading your blog for two years, and I wanted to share something with you that I don’t think I’ve heard you touch on before.
I am an Evangelical Christian attending a church associated with the SBC. I am also a student at a conservative Evangelical seminary and have been a part of the Evangelical sub-culture my entire life, attending a Christian school since 5th grade and an Evangelical liberal arts college for my undergrad. I have been a part of many different churches over the years, and experienced many different forms of Christian community. I also served as a missionary for a year in Africa. This is my world, and I have never felt “disillusioned” with it until recently. What has prompted this? The fact that I’m not really BenOp-ing with any Christians in my life right now – but I am BenOp-ing (in a way) with my non-Christian coworkers.
I am a 29-year-old male. As I’ve been pursuing my degree, I’ve been working at a local coffee shop to pay the bills. In the 3.5 years since I’ve been working there, I have formed very strong friendships with my coworkers. My manager is also a Christian, and she and I and her husband go to the same church. There are two, maybe three other Christians who work there, out of a staff of over 20 people. But the rest are very much not Christians. Some (a large amount) were raised Catholic, but only one of them would still claim to have a form of faith. Most are your typical secular Millenials/Zoomers. They almost all fully embrace woke ideology and left-wing politics. They have minimal knowledge of the Bible. They are all in on feminism (most are female) and regularly espouse anti-male sentiments. Many are really into astrology/tarot and some other vaguely witchy things. Most live with their SOs. Most use drugs. Some go to abortion marches or other leftist protests. None go to church. None have for a very long time. Some believe in God, or some higher power, but most have a negative view of Christianity as an oppressive, patriarchal, bigoted religion.
And yet. These people feel more like family to me than most people at my own church. We have formed a thriving little community of solidarity and support at our store. We are in and out of each other’s homes. We help each other move. We watch each other’s pets when we go out of town. We hang out outside of work, have movies nights, go to the gym together, go to bars, have seasonal parties. We have a very active group text. We go to each other’s concerts (many are musicians). We avoid most of the gossipy, clique-ish crap and serial drama that plagues many workplaces. (I am also able to be completely open about my faith. I have shared my beliefs, even controversial ones, with many of my coworkers, and though we’ve had some civil arguments, it has never gotten ugly. Most respond with curiosity, and some have expressed interest in coming to church. So it’s a “mission field,” too.) Bottom line, I very often look forward to going into work more than I look forward to going to church or small group.
My church is great in so many ways. The preaching is wonderful, very Biblical and pastoral. And there are a handful of people there with whom I do sometimes spend time outside of church. The worship is rich and beautiful. But I am not “doing life” with these people. Part of this is geographical and socio-economic. Most of the people in my church live in the richer suburbs about 30-mins away from me. I live in a more urban neighborhood. Most are wealthy, attractive, Instagrammable couples with kids. I am single and, like I said, I work at a coffee shop…
But I think the biggest reason I don’t feel very connected to my fellow church members is because we just don’t see each other that often. I am at church every Sunday. I serve in the children’s ministry. I attend my small group most weeks. But this amount of regular exposure to the same people, which has been going on for over two years, hasn’t provided the same form of deep community that I have with my non-Christian coworkers. I spend time with my coworkers several hours each week. And because of the nature of the work, there is plenty of downtime to talk and laugh and form genuine friendships. It helps, too, that we are almost all in our 20s and 30s, and none of us have kids.
I am not alone in being bothered by this disparity between the “thickness” of community with my pagan coworkers and the sporadic, cursory nature of much of my church community. Like I said, my manager is also a Christian and goes to the same church as me. She and her husband, some of my best friends, are also my neighbors, and they feel the lack of connection with our church as well. We’ve begun discussing ways to remedy this situation. We don’t want to be those young people who just sit around and complain that none of the older people in the church ever “pursue” them. We want to take tangible steps to build stronger community. We’ve even discussed trying to form some sort of church plant in our neighborhood, because there are several other households of fellow church members (all singles, except for one married couple with kids) within five minutes of us.
But even if we did that, there’s a part of me that feels like there’s nothing short of actual communal living that would really feel “right.” (Visions of the Bruderhof dance through my head.) I am probably spoiled, because I have experienced several forms of deep, semi-communal Christian community in the past. The hall I lived on at my Christian college was extremely tight-knit, and basically had a “liturgical year” of events and traditions around which our hall life was structured. We worshiped together, ate every meal together, worked together, played together, and invested in one another daily for the entirety of the school year. I lived on that hall for all four years. When I lived in Africa I was a part of a missionary team that did most things together. Our homes had open doors and we lived near to one another. I was family to the team’s four Christian couples and their kids for a whole year. It was such a sweet time.
Will I ever have anything like that again this side of heaven? What I have with my coworkers is close, except it’s not a Christian community. For all the joy work friends bring me, I also feel weary and spiritually malnourished at times, and fear some of my Christian convictions and behaviors may be eroding. I wonder if this is a unique dilemma. It certainly goes against the narrative that our culture is always and only hostile to traditional orthodox Christians (though I do think that narrative is true on a national scale). Modern Americans are lonely and starved for community. They’re going to take it where they can get it. And if the church isn’t providing that community, something else will.
Is there anyone else out there who feels dissatisfied with church community and more connected to some non-Christian one? If so, what is to be done? Am I being formed and discipled by my work community into something other than Christ-likeness? How sustainable is this? What of those with weaker convictions than I? Will they be able to keep the faith if their non-Christian friends are more dear to them than their church family? If we aren’t actually living life together, then how can we ever fulfill the vision of the church in Acts 2 and 4? These questions and others keep me up at night. I thought I’d share in case you had any insights.
What a fantastic letter. Let’s talk about it, readers.