Even the most ardent loner needs human connection and interaction. Unfortunately, our modern world makes this more difficult to achieve. Technology allows us to interact with people digitally without ever really getting to know them. And we also have to contend with the romanticized ideal of American individualism, which plays right into our modern reliance on technology. As Tim Challies notes: “Could it be that our desire for control is short-circuiting the process of change and transformation God wants us to experience through the mess of real-world, flesh-and-blood, face-to-face relationships?”
Community life—it’s a lost art. But I believe that with prayer and intentionality, we can reclaim some ground. And it all starts at home.
Community at Home
You’re probably thinking, Why do we need to foster community at home? That’s the one place where we have no choice but to interact with the people around us!
But think about it for a minute. How much time do we really spend in genuine communitywith our families? On more than one occasion, I’ve seen dad, mom, and kids sitting at a table together in a restaurant—and every one of them is looking down at a smart phone or tablet. Maybe they’re texting each other across the table? I don’t know. But it’s clear that they aren’t truly engaged with one another. They’re distracted. And there is plenty of alarming research to back this up. Studies show that the average American spends four-and-a-half hours a day watching television—but the average parent spends only 38 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with his or her children. Dr. Greg Smalley has cited a similar study revealing that the average couple spends only four minutes per day engaged in meaningful conversation. That’s no way to foster intimacy.
What if we made the effort to actually talk to the people who live around us? Do we know their names or their stories? Do we even want to?
Without question, many of us are overstimulated and over-entertained, and our relationships with those closest to us suffer as a result. To help address these types of challenges, the team at Focus on the Family developed what we call the “Make Every Day Count” campaign. It encourages families to regularly engage in five key behaviors that foster deeper connection. These include:
• Praying together. Family prayer time draws us closer to God and to each other.
• Laughter. Modern science confirms the numerous physical and relational benefits of laughter.
• Time. Investing time in positive activities brings families together and helps them avoid the trap of simply living together as “strangers under the same roof.”
• Conversation. Engaging in meaningful discussions—about things that go beyond household routines, the family’s schedule, and other administrative issues—helps strengthen the family bond.
• Dinner. Research confirms that family members who eat together at least four times a week exhibit improved communication, healthier eating habits, higher grades, and fewer problems with at-risk behaviors.
Engaging in these simple disciplines can significantly enhance our sense of community at home. But what about the world outside it?
Community at Church
In his book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes, “You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.” Simply attending church isn’t enough. Just as it’s possible to live in a house with your family and not experience healthy community, it’s possible to sit in the pew on Sunday without becoming genuinely enmeshed with your fellow believers. Yes, it’s important to listen to the sermon, to worship in song, and to hear the Word of God preached. But if we’re not making an effort to connect and engage with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re missing out on a key element of the church as described in the New Testament.
There are likely opportunities everywhere to love and serve those around you. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Some churches are better at fostering community than others, of course. But if you look around, there are likely opportunities in your own congregation to invest in the lives of others and, perhaps even more importantly if you struggle with the need to be self-sufficient, to allow others to invest in your life. There are men’s and women’s groups, Bible studies, youth activities, children’s Sunday school, music ministries, potlucks, mentoring programs, and other opportunities that can help you get to know other people in your church.
Many churches also excel at being “missions minded”—looking beyond their own membership to serve the surrounding community and, ultimately, the world. And that brings us to another important source: the community itself.
Community in Community
I like Paul’s admonition to the church at Galatia: “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10). After we’ve built community with our own families and with our fellow believers, we need to take it outside the walls of the home and the church.
Do you want your kids or grandkids to take an interest in the world around them? Do you want them to learn good manners, respect for others, civic responsibility, and the joys of service? Most of all, do you want them to have a heart for reaching out to those who don’t know Jesus Christ? Then help them invest in the world around them, starting with your own community.
Chalk it up to that overdeveloped sense of American individualism (or to just plain busyness), but most of us have forgotten what it means to be a good neighbor. We might wave to the family next door as we pull the car into the garage, and that’s it. But what if, rather than scurrying inside, we actually stepped back out of the garage, crossed the yard, and made the effort to actually talk to the people who live around us? Do we know their names? Do we know their stories or even want to?
One of our favorite traditions in the Daly household is our annual Christmas bake-off. My wife Jean makes an enormous batch of her delicious homemade bread. As soon as it comes out of the oven, my boys, Trent and Troy, and I deliver it to neighboring houses while it’s still piping hot. It’s a relatively simple exercise (except during those times when there’s a raging Colorado blizzard taking place), but it has allowed us the opportunity to get to know our neighbors and begin relationships that might not otherwise have formed if we hadn’t taken that first step outside our front door.
If you look around, there are likely opportunities everywhere to love and serve those around you. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just once, offer to mow your neighbor’s lawn or shovel the snow off his sidewalk. Ask the lonely widow down the street to dinner with your family. Invite the neighborhood kids over for Popsicles on a hot summer afternoon. Volunteer at a shelter. Help immigrants learn English at your local library. Organize a clothing or food drive. The possibilities are endless.
When we build genuine relationships with those around us, it gives us the opportunity to speak into their lives. And it’s a great foundation for evangelism. I know there are many modes and methods of sharing the gospel, and I have no doubt that God uses all of them. Some people have placed their faith in Christ after being confronted by a street preacher wearing a sandwich board that says REPENT in bold letters. Others have been saved after receiving a tract from a total stranger in a park or on a bus.
But in my experience, evangelism happens most naturally between friends. When we build solid, authentic relationships with those around us, sharing our faith is likely to come across genuinely and will sound less like a sales pitch. The blessing and privilege of making Christ known to the nations is enhanced greatly when we, as His followers, become invested with those in our communities.
One of my favorite examples of this approach is the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who were both young professors at Oxford University in the 1920s and 1930s, long before The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings came into being. They became fast friends as a result of their shared love for myths and legends. Tolkien was a believer, but Lewis was not. Over time, however, the Spirit of God began to pierce Lewis’s heart, and Tolkien’s influence was integral to the process. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, and he credited a long nighttime walk with Tolkien and their mutual friend Hugo Dyson as key to that decision: “My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”That’s the power of community.
Despite what our culture says about the virtues of “blazing our own trail” or “going it alone,” the fact remains: We need one another. It’s the way God designed us. And if we are intentional about fostering truly authentic community in our homes, churches, and neighborhoods, we will experience His blessings.