As many benefits as community may bring, it would be a mistake to assume that being part of a community is all roses. In addition to the inevitable miscommunications, frustrations, and hurts, communities have their own set of dynamics, unwritten rules that govern the behaviors of the community. Often such dynamics are healthy and appropriate. When we interact with one another, it is important to have some boundaries…community isn’t anarchy.
At the same time, community dynamics do have their impact and influence on the way we think, what we do, and the values we adopt. Our communities are bad (usually) or good, but they aren’t neutral either. Communities help us and hinder us as we seek to understand God more faithfully. They help us by challenging our individual perspectives, encouraging us, and providing social interactions. They hinder us by creating artificial boundaries, selecting specific attributes or activities that are of value, or limiting the sort of information that we evaluate.
Think of community as a sport like soccer. Soccer has certain rules that must be followed. For instance, unless you are the goalie, you can’t use your hands. Those who don’t want to play goalie would, because of the rules of the game, be steered toward certain activities. They would be less likely to put on muscle mass like a football lineman or a sumo wrestler. They would want specific lower body dexterity and aerobic conditioning that would be different from a basketball player. In other words, those who want to play the game of soccer well, have to prepare in specific ways to allow them to play well when they hit the field.
Communities are not that different. The rules (spoken or unspoken) of the community shape us and, to one degree or another, press us to develop certain skills and competencies. The focus of the community can, to one degree or another, limit our field of vision so that we don’t see as full a picture as we might. Again, these are not necessarily “bad” things, but it does require us to consider an important question: how much of being shaped by our community is too much?
Communities do exert an influence, but not an influence that is impossible to counteract. As individuals, we have the capacity and, at times, the responsibility to resist the desires of the community and forge our own path. We have the capacity to question the community, to challenge the rules it sets forward, and to move outside the ‘field of play.’
In my experience, people tend to valorize or demonize “community.” In reality, community is not a crutch or an excuse. It is not the one thing we cannot live without, nor is it the one thing that stands in the way of our success. Community is an influencer in our lives. It is one that can help us to see God more faithfully or hinder us from seeing him more faithfully. It is our responsibility in and for our community to be self-reflective, to affirm those ways in which our communities help us to see more faithfully, and to resist and call out those ways in which our communities hinder us from seeing God more faithfully. We have agency and responsibility. We are not simply shaped by community…we participate in shaping community.
The dynamic between individuals and communities is complex. It is often difficult to step outside a given community’s systems or to understand how far a particular communal boundary can be stretched before making the community unintelligible. In the end, we must learn to move with bold caution recognizing that change of any sort has both positive and negative implications. We are cautious not to move so quickly or to far in a certain direction because we to preserve the good, godly aspects of the community, yet we are bold because we recognize that God is not constrained by our communal norms and it is our desire to follow him and to participate with him as he restores and redeems.