For thirty years or more I have talked about the need for community. I have also stated the obvious, i.e., community cannot happen in large church settings, at least not in most ordinary circumstances where we actually live day-in and day-out. I have, therefore, urged churches to seek community life in smaller settings, to pray for it, to cultivate it, to intentionally pursue it. I am convinced now that my emphasis was wrong. Let me explain.
Richard Rohr, the Catholic Franciscan spiritual writer, often provokes me. I disagree with him about a great deal, especially politically. But I read him precisely because he has a lot to say to me that I need to think about and then put into my life in appropriate ways. I am reading his book, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go (Crossroad, revised edition 2003) this week in my morning devotional reading. Understand that Rohr has spent his life building community among lay people, first in Ohio and now in New Mexico. Writing about his own lay movement Rohr says: "We place no special emphasis on community in the formal sense or as an end in itself. It’s a by-product of people heading in the same direction" (page 50). Man, that statement nailed it for me.
Church after church tries to make small group life happen, from the top down, and church after church has a program for formally creating and organizing community life. But rarely does it happen this way. I have noticed this much over the course of my lifetime of church-related ministry. Thus Richard Rohr voices what I have experienced. Real community is a "by-product" of a people who are "heading in the same direction." This means the problem in most settings is that people are not heading in the same direction. Our churches are collections of people heading in many directions and this makes the kind of community people hunger for impossible in most local churches.
What do I suggest practically? You will find community by not looking for it. Make it your purpose to know where you are heading and why. God will give you people (community) to go with you if you do not seek them (it). I will never again organize small groups for community. I may organize people for a special ministry or a study or to meet a particular need but never to create a community. It simply doesn’t happen in this way. Rohr is plainly right. As I have met those few small groups that know anything about community at all they have never started out to be a community. It simply happened.