Note: This article has been excerpted from Signature Sins: Taming our wayward hearts, by Michael Mangis.
Although the Fall has left us disconnected, God created human beings to be communal. The New Testament refers to the church as a body. Besides his lengthy passage on the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul wrote this concise statement about the body: "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom 12:4-5).
Years ago I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together. It has deeply influenced my thoughts about what the church can and can't be. Bonhoeffer pointed out that true Christian community is nothing like our fantasies and illusions of a wonderful, welcoming family. Sometimes it is like that, but more often the church is like a crucible. We have to live in proximity to people we don't like. Even if we do like them in the beginning, we will soon discover their annoying qualities.
The crucible of a community heats us up and holds us in so we can't get away. In the process it refines us, bringing our impurities to the surface where they can be skimmed away. Even the desert fathers and mothers, many of whom lived as hermits in caves, settled near each other and created the first model for the communal life of monasteries. They recognized that community is necessary for spiritual purification.
On our own we easily ignore our own sharp edges. When we live close to other people, we constantly bump up against each other, and our unfinished edges are impossible to hide. "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" (Prov 27:17, TNIV). If we are serious about confronting our own signature sins, we should seek to be part of a community where this kind of sharpening can take place.
As a child living in a small town, I was very conscious that I was not anonymous. Once I went to the grocery store for my mother. I realized in the checkout line that I had forgotten to bring a check to pay for the groceries. I asked the checker if I could leave the groceries for a few minutes while I went home to get some money. She studied my face for a moment and then said, "You're Ned's boy, aren't you?" I confirmed that I was Ned's boy. She sent me home with the groceries and said I could bring the money back later.
I enjoy many aspects of suburban life. I have a multitude of choices for entertainment, dining and cultural activities. I even have hundreds of churches within driving distance. It would be very easy, however, to live in the suburbs and never put down roots.
Many of my patients have no friendships, even at work. They have no church community, or else they have church-hopped too many times to maintain any ties. Some go to churches with thousands of others and don't recognize another person at the worship service. They live in sprawling housing developments where every house looks like its neighbor and the average length of stay is about three years.
My wife and I have chosen to stay at the same church for the entire time we have lived in our present home. We know the neighbors on our block, Our friendships here span almost two decades. You can create community in the suburbs—if you want to and you know how. In a small town you have no choice. You would have to work hard to not be part of the community. Even if you isolate yourself and seldom venture outdoors, people still know who you are, and they know whom to call if they don't seen any activity at your home for awhile.