“It’s so hard to find good community.”
If you’re a millennial who’s searched for a new church or who knows other millennials searching for one, then the chances are you’ve heard this before. And probably more than once.
Community, relationship, connection, belonging. Ask any millennial searching for a church what they’re looking for, and see how long it takes before such words pop up.
As fun as it is to bash millennials, let me first say that this is a good thing. It’s good to desire community. It’s good to value relationships. It’s healthy to seek connection, and it’s natural to pursue belonging.
That millennials are seeking ‘good community’ in a new church home is something to praise God for.
But why such good community is proving so hard to find is something that should trouble us.
As an aspiring pastor and as someone who’s relocated several times over the past twelve years, I’ve often reflected on why “it’s so hard to find good community.”
Of course, the most common answer is that many churches are overly insular, cliquish, and uninviting. Hence, the most common answer is that it’s the churches’ faults.
I totally get this, and would agree that most churches (mine included) can and must do better.
Now, it’s not my intention to victim-blame those who haven’t found good community yet. Nor am I excusing many churches’ lack of warmth. But there’s another side to this that I’ve been reflecting on more and more as a middle class, educated, Asian American millennial.
I think back to my Freshmen year of college in sunny Orange County, over 300 miles away from home. I remember visiting a handful of churches and narrowing it down to two based on my estimation of the preaching.
What most people probably don’t know is that I didn’t end up attending the church that I thought had the best preaching. I chose option number two because (in my own words at the time) “it had better community.”
Looking back, I now realize that what I really meant was that option two had college students whereas option one didn’t.
Today, I wouldn’t say that I made the wrong decision or even the less wise decision. But I would definitely say that my concept of good community was quite simplistic, and even flawed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson when I relocated to Philadelphia for seminary.
The church I chose in Philadelphia was unlike any church I had ever attended. It was an urban church in Northeast Philly. There was no parking lot, but plenty of corner shops, check cashing stores, and bail bond agencies around.
Perhaps I had matured a little because I don’t recall ever saying that the church didn’t have good community. But I do remember feeling that I personally did not have good community there.
Most recently coming from the affluent Orange County, I’d grown accustomed to a certain idea of good community.
To me, good community required the impromptu conversations had during a spontaneous boba run. It required small group meetings over pho or soon dubu on a chilly winter evening, one on one discipleship with California burritos in hand, and church retreats concluded by AYCE sushi or Korean bbq.
Good community meant people fellowshipping during ski and snowboarding trips or hanging out at Disneyland with our affordable season passes from Costco.
Now in one sense, one might say we were simply doing contextualized community according to the Orange County context. We were merely utilizing the common activities of the Orange County culture to build relationships within the church.
But in another sense, one might very well say that our contextualized community was actually constituted by certain norms of consumption. One might even say that our conception of good community was comprised of consumerism.
I hadn’t come to realize this until moving to Scotland with my wife to begin my research. It took us almost six months before settling into a church. And though the people at our Scottish church are some of the greatest people I’ve ever met, we (especially my wife) never felt at home. It was hard for us to say that we had found good community.
While Brits like to hang out at loud pubs, grab a pint, and enjoy their pub grub on sticky wooden tables, my wife’s visceral response to such an environment would be to fight her own gag reflex. It’s not that our British community was cold, exclusive, or unloving (though some Brits can be quite awkward in small talk). But really, our consumption habits were worlds apart.
At this time of year, Brits like to eat Christmas fruitcake, whereas Americans make jokes about getting stuck with fruitcake as a Christmas gift, and the Chinese American conception of a fruit cake is altogether different.
I mean, come on. Let’s be real:
Christmas Fruitcake < Chinese Fruit Cake
Now fast forward to just last week when I returned home to the Bay Area for Christmas. My wife and I went to community group in a predominantly Asian American church. That night we broke noodles and dumplings around Little Sheep hot pot soup bases, bok choy, enoki mushrooms, tofu, and fish balls among other delectables. And it was then that we felt at home. It was then that we felt like we were in the presence of good community.
But what if Mr. Macleod from my church in Scotland had relocated to the Bay and sought community in our Bay Area church? He couldn’t even finish the spam musubi we brought to our Scottish church’s potluck. How would he handle the fish balls with fish eggs?
I certainly believe that there is a place for doing community in a contextual way, and consuming things that nourish us culturally. I also don’t think we can ever do community in a completely neutral or acultural way.
But my point in all this is simply to ask: How mindful are we of our consumption habits, and the ways that they include and exclude others?
How mindful are we of the ways that our cultural contexts, particularly our contexts’ consumption habits, have shaped our communities? Could some of these ways be more problematic than we realize?
How mindful are we of the standards by which we judge our own community and others based on their consumption habits?
To catch dinner and a movie for the sake of fellowship might seem to be the most natural thing in the world, but have you ever stopped to consider the church contexts in which it might be the most unnatural thing in the world to do? When I was in Philly, to go to lunch or a movie with people from church meant me paying for their lunch and their movie ticket. It wasn’t a common thing to do, but a special occasion. And what about the local churches in India or Africa?
My hope is that the next time you grab In-N-Out after church together, you don’t merely think: “This is just what we all do as a church.”
Rather, I hope your attention will be drawn to how contextual and perhaps even how privileged your community and fellowship practices are. I hope you will consider whether God is calling you to reform what you have come to uncritically accept as regular Christian fellowship and good community.
Perhaps after doing so, it may not be so hard to find good community after all.