The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
If this world was made by a triune God, a being of community, then relationships of love are what life is really all about. —Timothy Keller
Since the early days of 2020, COVID-19 has wreaked social and economic havoc across the globe, responsible for the deaths of more than 5 million people as of this writing. It has pummeled world economies, with at least 90 percent of nations experiencing a significant contraction in per capita GDP, the highest simultaneous contraction since the Great Depression. The crisis has resulted in jammed supply chains, unstable labor markets, shifting migration patterns, and growing humanitarian crises. Even as some nations begin to turn the corner on containing the virus and restoring a sense of normal, others have barely begun. It seems clear that the fallout from this pandemic will be deep, wide and longstanding. Which makes one of the quiet casualties—the hastened deterioration of community—particularly troublesome.
Historically, Americans have a way of coming together in moments of crisis. Whether organizing food drives, raising barns, planting victory gardens, or rationing scarce resources, the importance of civic duty is generally understood and appreciated. But when civic duty requires that community stay apart, the results present an added depth of hardship.
COVID has kept us apart. We have hunkered down for months in our private, socially distanced bubbles. We can save the policy debate about the pros and cons of lockdowns and vaccines for another time. The simple fact is this: we’ve been isolated, living our lives from behind a computer screen, waving through glass windows. Collectively, we have canceled graduations, anniversary celebrations, weddings and funerals. Milestones and opportunities have been missed. COVID has leveled an undeniable blow to community at a time when community is both noticeably fragile and particularly essential.
Social scientists and policy wonks have warned of the demise of community since the middle of the last century. Robert Putnam’s seminal work Bowling Alone[i], first published in 2001, is a cautionary tale of the decline in America’s associational life, characterized by waning participation in social organizations like bowling leagues, Rotary and Freemasons. As membership in these and other such groups has dwindled, so has America’s so-called social capital, the benefit we bank as a result of the relationships we forge with each other.
Social capital is like any other investment: if you don’t exercise good stewardship, you end up with an under-performing asset. When it’s time to make a withdrawal, which generally corresponds with moments of crisis (like a global pandemic), you’re likely to come up short.
Indeed, millions of Americans lack the key social bonds in their personal and professional lives that might aid in pandemic recovery. According to a 2021 study by Impact Genome/AP-NORC, social capital has declined for some 41 million (16%) Americans who find they have fewer people they can trust for personal support since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, the trend seems to be on a downward trajectory as more than a third of Americans (86 million) reported they did not participate or engage in any civic activities in the past year because of the pandemic.
As civic engagement declines—compelled by attrition or forced by circumstances—communities suffer. Lyman Stone, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies says epidemics have a particularly menacing effect on communities. In a recent report on community life in America he writes:
…epidemics erode social trust and nudge people toward isolation and detachment. This might be especially true in mandated lockdowns. Extensive study of the 1918 influenza pandemic in America has found that people who experienced the pandemic and their descendants had significantly reduced social trust as a result. Much research has shown that disasters lead people to be more cautious and risk averse in many areas of life.…Thus, while strong associational ties may help people and communities get through a crisis, disasters themselves, and especially epidemics, often leave communities with weaker social ties than before.
As we begin the slow crawl out of our COVID cocoons, it seems apparent we have been left with communities marked by the isolation and detachment Lyman describes. In fact, long before COVID entered the daily lexicon, social scientists and mental health experts were sounding alarms about our nation’s loneliness epidemic.
A recent study conducted by health insurer Cigna found that three in five Americans (61%) report feeling lonely. Respondents cited “a lack of social support and infrequent meaningful social interactions” among the key determinants of loneliness. Though feelings of isolation and loneliness cut across generational lines, young people are more likely to experience these feelings than their older counterparts. Nearly 80% of Gen Zers (those born between 1997 and 2012) and 71% of Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) reported feeling lonely, compared to just half of Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).
But here’s the really alarming news: the survey was conducted before COVID. Before lockdowns and quarantines. Before online school and digital worship services. Before loneliness had a chance to settle into our collective bones.
The truth is, we long to be together. COVID has revealed what the scriptures have taught us all along: we were made for community.
The Biblical Case for Community: The story of humankind as revealed in the Bible is a story not of loneliness, but of community. As bestselling Christian author and former pastor John Ortberg writes, “Community is what you were created for. It is God’s desire for your life. It is the one indispensable condition for human flourishing.”[ii]
Like the Bible, that indispensable truth begins with the book of Genesis. It’s a familiar story. God creates all things: the heavens and the earth, daytime and nighttime, the sea and all its creatures, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, the celestial bodies, and of course the human bodies. At every step, God saw that his handiwork was good. That is, until he came to the creation of man.
In Genesis 2:18 we read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.'” The assortment of animals was nice, but God quickly recognized something was missing. That something was relationship. So, he created woman, which is fitting and appropriate when we look back just a few verses to Genesis 1:26a. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Did you catch the pronouns? Let us and our image. Of course man is made for community because man is made in God’s image, and God is the ultimate expression of oneness.
Even after Adam and Eve made a mess of things in the garden, the thread of community has remained essential to the human condition. Consider the Old Testament Hebrew community. They wandered the wilderness together. They grumbled, celebrated, and broke bread together. Together, they received the law then rebelled against it, repeatedly. The priests made atonement not for individual sins but for the sins of the community.
The thread of community winds throughout the Bible’s wisdom literature. The psalmist writes: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). In Proverbs, we are reminded: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17). Even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, embraced the prudence of community: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
When community is lost, as it has been for so many during our current pandemic, its absence is acute. Doubtless, many of us have felt trapped in a sort of lockdown exile akin to the separation the Israelites felt when banished to Babylon. How do you hold onto community when you cannot be together in familiar settings, practicing time-honored traditions, or simply sharing a cup of coffee? Yet we know that even in exile, the Israelites were instructed to maintain their sense of community: “Your exile will be long; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce.” (Jeremiah 29:28) The prophet reminds us that there is value in finding ways to preserve community even in the most unsettling of circumstances.
Jesus certainly recognized the need for community. He surrounded himself with a hand-picked collection of disciples—the original small group. This mismatched ensemble prayed together, shared meals, worked and traveled side by side. They learned from the teacher, healed and taught in his name, and when he was gone, they mourned their common loss. In their sadness and bewilderment, they comforted each other. And on Pentecost, they rejoiced together in receiving the Holy Spirit. In the days that followed, the community of believers grew. In his letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul admonished this new community to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The role, indeed the gift, of community is encouragement—in the halcyon moments and in life’s most trying chapters. We ignore its necessity at our peril. John Ortberg summarizes it this way: “If you had to sum up in a single word what God is up to, what his goal is in creating the universe and the persons who inhabit it, that word would be community. This business of community turns out to be something far deeper than just building a successful network of emotional support. It is not simply about loneliness avoidance. It is the reason why the universe exists, and why you and I do as well.”[iii]
Even as we look forward in hope to a new heaven and a new earth, we find a place rich in community: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the lamb!'” (Revelation 7:9-10)
As we look to restore and re-affirm the bonds of community that have loosened during our long COVID nightmare, we need only look between the pages of Genesis and Revelation to find a guide for nurturing the togetherness we all desire.
Restoring Community: We can by no means claim that COVID is behind us. In fact, many will argue that it will never be fully behind us; at best, we will learn to manage this scourge as we manage other public health crises. The better question in the moment is how do we now invigorate the sense of community that has, out of necessity and uncertainty, been sidelined and neglected? How can Christian community serve as a model for society at large, a countermeasure to the loneliness and isolation accumulated during months of hibernation?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famed 20th century theologian who was martyred for his defiance of Hitler and his murderous Nazi ideology, explores the topic of Christian community in his short work Life Together[iv]. In it, he describes the practicalities of collective prayer, worship, scripture reading, fellowship, confession and communion. These actions combined are at the heart of Christian community, the privilege of “visible fellowship.”
Bonhoeffer, who experienced profound moments of isolation while imprisoned by the Nazi regime, offered prescient recognition that in-person community is not always achievable and thus all the more desirable. He writes:
Between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing…The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.[v]
It would not be much of a stretch to add pandemic to Bonhoeffer’s list of conditions that lead to a standing-alone posture. Fortunately, technology has been a surprising blessing during COVID. Often criticized as an agent of isolation, social media and digital technology, in many cases, have provided the practical means for connection between millions of people during the pandemic. Many churches adopted online worship formats or expanded existing ones in the early days of the pandemic, allowing them to serve and remain connected with their congregations. In many cases, digital worship formats have proven to be an unexpected and welcome way to attract new churchgoers. With an online worship option, shut-ins, the elderly, and folks with disabilities or medical concerns have a meaningful way to join in Christian community.
Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California embraced technology long before COVID hit, but once in-person worship was curtailed in the spring of 2020, the church quickly expanded its digital capabilities. Even now, as restrictions have softened, the suburban megachurch continues to offer online church via live stream, YouTube, Facebook, and a dedicated Calvary app. Senior Pastor Shawn Thornton, who has made it a decades-long habit to greet newcomers after service each Sunday, is astounded at the number of new faces he now meets who have been attending online for months and actively participating in church life long before actually walking through the front door. “People have already plugged in before they’ve attended in person,” he notes.
Even so, he cautions against the risk of becoming a La-Z-Boy church community. “There is a danger that Satan is lulling people into a false sense of community,” he says, when describing the hazards of online worship. It’s tempting, for example, to watch service in our pajamas or to recline in our favorite chair with a cup of coffee instead of a Bible in hand. The danger extends to small groups who opt to continue meeting online purely out of convenience once restrictions have been lifted and health concerns abated. Meeting in person takes more effort and preparation.
“Churches have to start where people are, but then love them enough not to let them stay there,” says Thornton. He adds, that “the disruption we do for someone else is part of the relationship of community. We don’t join community for ourselves. We join as part of our obedience to Christ and for the benefit of other believers.” He contends the joy we derive from this arrangement is the by-product of that obedience.
We would do well in our obedience, then, not to be lured into an Instagram view of community. We are a selfie generation after all, with a proclivity toward artificial perfection. Our goal ought not to be the cultivation of a flawless community the way we might stage a Facebook post. Rather, community is at its most authentic when we acknowledge and embrace our imperfections. Pamela Hall is the Director of Women’s Ministry at West Shore Free Church in central Pennsylvania. She also helps shepherd the church’s small group ministries and cautions about a trend that threatens to undermine healthy communities.
“COVID has exposed a lot of our consumer mentality,” she says. We want our small groups served up like we want our half-caf, double-shot, no-foam, extra-hot lattes. If we take the same prescriptive approach to community—meeting at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays only, for a maximum of 75 minutes, strictly limited to stay-at-home moms with children between the ages of 18 and 36 months, etc.—we miss what God might have available to us. “Sometimes, our idea of community is not always based on a community in Christ as much as our own personal preferences.”
Sometimes that can lead to confusion between what is intimate and what is exclusive, a mistake that leads to inaccessible and unwelcoming small groups. “There are times when groups need to be intimate and closed; God may be doing something special in that group,” says Hall. “But perhaps the better question leaders need to ask is this: ‘God, are you bringing someone new into our group?'”
So a welcoming posture and physical proximity—what Calvary’s Thornton describes as “eyeball to eyeball” togetherness—when practical and possible, is an important aspect of community. So, too, is consistency.
In his popular 2019 book The Common Rule, Christian author Justin Whitmel Earley advocates for proximity and consistency when cultivating the habit of friendship-building conversation. He writes, “We were made for each other, and we can’t become lovers of God and neighbor without intimate relationships where vulnerability is sustained across time. In habitual, face-to-face conversation with each other, we find a gospel practice; we are laid bare to each other and loved anyway.”[vi]
Regarding COVID’s assault on relationships, Early acknowledges that the regular rhythms of community have been interrupted. Instead of minimizing the disruption, we have an authentic reason to simply admit, embrace and lament all that has been lost.
In a recent conversation, Earley shared how at the beginning of the pandemic his community of friends wrestled with the appropriateness of gathering. Eventually, they decided to meet outdoors, around a fire pit, socially distanced. “One friend in particular stood wildly far apart in the beginning,” he recalled. As the evening proceeded, the group edged closer and closer until finally, the reluctant friend said, “I’m so glad we got together. I really needed this.” In fact, Earley has observed that how people weathered the pandemic—whether they became closer or more bitter—depended in large part on the availability and consistency of community.
“We were made for embodied community,” he says. “Now, it’s really important to re-learn commitment and consistency. We need to practice that way of life again, so it doesn’t become an artifact of the past. After all, face-to-face community is risky whether there’s a pandemic or not. We actually should be taking the real emotional and physical risk of being together because that is what creates deep relationships.”
It is precisely there, in the deeper relationships, that we encounter God. In Christian community we are encouraged, but we also are held accountable. We have a voice, but we also learn to hear and respect other voices. When we approach community with authenticity, we know others and are known by others.
Brett McCracken is a Christian author and editor for the Gospel Coalition. In The Wisdom Pyramid he writes that the church is “a community that helps us see our blind spots and areas of needed growth; a diverse community of walking, talking, living examples of Christlikeness we can observe and emulate. Going it alone will get you only so far. Accountability only to your own ‘authority’ will probably lead you to spiritual sickness. We need community if we are to become wise.”[vii]
Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity.”[viii]
Accountability as described by McCracken and Bonhoeffer and delivered in a healing manner consistent with the character of Christ must be predicated on a foundation of trust. Think of it. We are more likely to receive truth or constructive criticism from someone we know and trust than from a stranger, even if the stranger offers an accurate assessment. Of course, trust is at a premium in our culture these days. We are a skeptical lot about so many things: vaccines, elections, agendas. Which makes Proverbs 3:5-6 such a valuable axiom: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
When we operate within Christian community, forged together in the faith over the passage of time, we find not only encouragement and a sense of belonging. We discover that we are better equipped to lean into God’s truth, regardless of our circumstances. And we are not alone.
[i] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001).
[ii] John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 32.
[iii] Ibid, 34.
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954).
[v] Ibid, 18-19.
[vi] Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 109.
[vii] Brett McCracken, The Wisdom Pyramid (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 90.
[viii] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 106.