Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Community, geography and affinity

I found myself in a variety of social contexts over the last few days that made me think about the nature of community. Scenario one: This past weekend, after church, about a dozen of us went out to eat. We've come to be friends with two other couples in particular who are about our age and are both expecting their first child. So we naturally talked about baby stuff.

Scenario two: On Memorial Day, we had some friends over from our old church for a cookout. These were fellow Gen Xers, also about the same age as us, a mix of singles and marrieds, some of whom we haven't seen for almost two years since we changed churches. None of the others have any kids, and conversation mostly was about current movies and favorite childhood television shows from the 70s and 80s.

Scenario three: Last night, we were at an annual informal wing-ding of publishing industry professionals and friends, many of whom are in town for the Religious Book Trade Exhibit trade show. The attendees included editors, authors, agents, publicists, booksellers, reviewers, journalists, sales reps and other folks in Christian/religious book and magazine publishing. Sort of the Christian literati. Conversation, as you might expect, was about books and publishing and the like.

What strikes me about all these situations is that they are affinity-based communities. Fifty or a hundred years ago, the word "community" was understood in a geographic sense of local neighborhood. The word has shifted to be understood in terms of affinity groups that are not tied to physical geography - people can be part of the arts community or the Asian American community or the evangelical community or the gay/lesbian community or the Star Trek community without being in close geographic proximity to anybody. I am a valued member of the eBay community (or so they tell me), even though I have never physically met anybody I buy from or sell to. One of my authors, Andy Crouch, talks about how this is a significant departure from most of human history. He says that people in most centuries would be astonished to find out that he has more of a sense of community and affinity with people he sees at a conference once a year a thousand miles from his home than he does with the next-door neighbor who's a complete stranger to him.

So my church friends from scenario one all live in different suburbs from me, as do most of my friends from my former church in scenario two - several have a half hour commute to church and a forty-five minute or more commute to work. The publishing industry folks in scenario three are scattered across the country, but several of them I will see more frequently (at various conferences and trade shows through the year) and talk to more often than the neighbors across the street that moved in last year that I still have not said hi to.

I know that theoretically and theologically, community should be diverse and bring me into relationship with people unlike me. But in practice, most of the communities I belong to tend to be of people of similar age, life stage, demographic, vocational and/or personal interests as myself. There are occasions where proximity and geography put me in community with people I would otherwise never talk to, but this tends to be the exception to the rule.

It seems that in suburban contexts, community tends to be affinity-based and self-selecting. We "shop" for our communities and affinity groups just as we shop for consumer goods. So maybe a good spiritual discipline for suburban Christians would be to intentionally seek out relationships and communities beyond our normal affinity groups. Community is easier when there are life experiences or interests in common, but I forget that I already have something in common with every neighbor I have yet to meet - our common humanity.

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