You can’t force community

There was a really interesting discussion on twitter about the school gate and building friendship. It was prompted by this really interesting article by Nay Dawson and floated more widely by Dave Bish this way:

It seemed, with a few exceptions, most school gate dads were suggesting that the school gate just isn’t that fruitful a place for building friendships for them. My only contribution to the discussion was to say this:

I’m sure there are all sorts of factors that play into this. Some people are just brilliantly able to make friends in an almost empty room. They are the kind of gregarious, confident people who pick up friends incredibly easily. It is not something with which I am blessed. I find that my friendships tend to develop in other ways, and that doesn’t strike me as a problem, just as different to some other people. It bears saying, Jesus doesn’t outline in prescriptive detail the manner in which we must make friends. We would do well to recognise that, and the many other things he doesn’t tightly prescribe too.

I appreciate your personality score isn’t a get-out-of-ministry-free card (and, for the avoidance of doubt, it isn’t!) but we do have to reckon with the fact that different personalities will be suited to different forms of evangelism and one anothering. We are all called to do these things, but the Bible isn’t quite so prescriptive as to insist we all do it in the same way. That is why the Lord put us in churches. For everyone who is won to the Lord through these sorts of friendships, there will be others who find that sort of forwardness off-putting and pushes them away. We need to be really careful we don’t ignore that different people will be drawn to Christ through different means and forcing all our people into the same mould might inhibit that happening.

Even in the online discussion, somebody bucked the received wisdom of insisting that visitors must be ‘welcomed’ in a particular way. They noted, when they became a Christian, they thought it was weird, and a little irritating, that someone was effectively escorted constantly by somebody who was inordinately happy and disconcertingly enthusiastic about everything all the time. No doubt, lots of people don’t want to be left on their own and would welcome this. But let’s not pretend everyone is the same. What might seem obvious to us isn’t necessarily obvious to everyone else.

Anyway, none of that is really what I wanted to talk about. That is really what prompted what I do want to talk about. Namely, one of the harder things about moving into a deprived community. Specifically, that people tend to have their family and community here already and just don’t need you or your friendship.

In more middle class, affluent areas – particularly those metropolitan ones – people move in and out for work all the time. Middle class people are frequently moving into new jobs and moving to new areas where they know nobody. Such people might well be looking for friendships at the school gate, or anywhere else for that matter. They don’t know anybody and are often open to developing new friendships.

In a working class community, particularly in an area where families have all remained whole communities have worked in the same industries and companies for generations, this is much harder to break into as an outsider. People have their family nearby, most their mates from school are still knocking around, their pals from work – whose families have often all worked in the same places – all know each other too. The community already exists and they simply don’t need you to enhance it. It’s not that people don’t like you, or hold you in contempt, they just don’t need you and your friendship. It’s not personal, it is just a reality.

This isn’t specific to your class either. My wife, who is from the archetypal middle class family and background, found this. My being from a more working class background – sharing most the values and attitudes of the people in our community – found this to be true too. Admittedly, the transition was harder for my wife who not only found herself an outsider in this general way, but also that the people didn’t seem to think like her, share her values or operate in any of the ways she would consider ‘normal’. When she does break into friendships, they aren’t the sort of easy-going friendships that arise from shared background and culture. I don’t have any of that problem – people think and operate largely like I do here. But both of us find the same thing regardless, we’re not from here and as outsiders people don’t need us, our friendship or for us to bring community to them. It’s not that anyone is hostile to outsiders of anything like that – it’s not Royston Vasey – it’s just that they don’t need us or, especially, want us.

None of that is to say it is impossible to break into the local community. We have done that in various ways. Some of it through things we have done at church, whereby we meet people as we serve specific needs (in other words, where people do need us for something). But other times it is as we’ve been involved in sports or local activities. Some of it is through work. Some of it is just through having been here long enough to be subsumed into the community. It has taken a good 6 or 7 years to begin to feel like that was happening. Ironically, trying to force it – like at the school gate – just doesn’t seem to work. But being a regular fixture for long enough and, almost by osmosis, you begin to belong almost without trying. It seems to be one of those paradoxical things that the harder you try to create community, the more likely you are to destroy it but when you stop trying so hard you find community may come.

That is all to say, these things just take time. Trying too hard to do community, or be community, or create community or however it is we’re supposed to speak about it, in my view, rarely works. But simply being in the community tends to mean you become part of the community given enough time. Which is why I’m much more sanguine about this whole sort of thing than I used to be. I put myself in the places where people go, I meet the people that the Lord gives me to meet and we seek to be faithful. In the end, he will sort the community aspect out.