What does it mean to be a part of a community? I think this is a question that people in church work wrestle with on a daily basis. As we seek to reach out to a new generation, we realize that ‘community’ is increasingly important in a world where people feel more and more isolated from one another. Creating community has become a healthy obsession for churches that are looking to grow in their work and their witness. We all know that we want to create a loving community. But how do we know if people are truly invested in the communities that we are creating in our congregations? Can we tell by looking at the membership rolls? The church bank account? How about the calendar page in the newsletter? Is there an effective way to measure community?
I’ll admit, I am not sure I know the answer to that question. But today I did have a profound experience of ‘community’ while listening to something on the way to work this morning. The CD in the Daddy Wagon happened to contain actual radio footage from December 24, 1977 when the Denver Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for their first playoff win in team history. Most folks know that I am huge Denver Broncos fan who bleeds orange and blue. Nonetheless, even I was surprised at how emotional I got listening to the commentators describe one of the greatest games in Broncos history. I literally had tears in my eyes as they counted down the final seconds to victory. All this for a game that happened 36 years ago!
Why did I get so emotional? I knew the outcome. This game is part of Broncos lore and a pivotal moment in franchise history. I didn’t have any memories of the game. I wasn’t even 6 months old at the time! In fact, I couldn’t even picture most of the players, though I know them by name. Yet, there was something in the hearing the call that moved me, that lifted my spirits. The only way that I can explain it is by saying that I am a Broncos fan and that is an important part of who I am
My emotional response to that game that took place so long ago tells me that I am invested in my community, that is, being part of ‘Broncos Country’. As a member of this community I have an affinity for anyone who dressed in orange on Sunday. My heroes are John Elway, Tom Jackson, Karl Mecklenberg, Ed McCaffrey, and Champ Bailey. I thrill to stories of The Drive and The Helicopter Play (the ultimate tear jerker!). Then there is the other side of the coin. Often members of one community identify themselves in opposition to members of another community. In this case, it is lowdown, no good, dirty, rotten Oakland Raiders. We Broncos fans hate all things Raiders and consider anyone who has ever worn the Silver and Black to be terrible, terrible people. (The only way I can imagine disowning my daughter is if she married a Raiders fan…no ‘House Divided’ stuff here!) See? There is emotion here. This is community.
Now I will admit, there are a lot of times I grasp desperately at straws trying to fit in to other fan bases. I did not grow up with a strong preference for the Iowa Hawkeyes or the Iowa State Cyclones. (My parents went to the University of Northern Iowa) Attending the University of Nebraska for one semester was enough to make me a Cornhuskers fan, but I can tell that I am definitely NOT part of that community either by location or by family affinity. I didn’t really care about baseball until I moved to Florida. After I attended a few games in Tampa, I started becoming somewhat of a Rays fan. But moving across the country has dampened my fervor. And the last time I had a rooting interest for a basketball team was when Drake went on their magical run to the post-season which lasted all of one season until everyone graduated and the team fell apart. All in all, the Broncos are my team for better or worse.
So, all this goes to show that try as I might, I can’t artificially insert myself into a given community. There is some dimension of that community that is unexplainable, something you have to experience. In many ways, it is how I feel about the Presbyterian Church. I am not a life-long Presbyterian nor do I have any particular connection to the PCUSA as an organization. I feel loyalty to my colleagues and I agree to abide by the rules. However, if the PCUSA ceased to exist tomorrow I’d move on. Still, I have a great affinity with small communities inside the denomination. For example, I feel a strong connection with my seminary classmates with whom I still keep in touch. I feel warm emotions for the congregations of which I have been a part of over years. And after attending a CREDO conference this year, I have a connection to those who have gone through that process with me. All of these are small communities under a larger umbrella. As I said, I am not so much a Presbyterian as a pastor who happens to be Presbyterian. But right now I would be no where else.
After all is said and done, I just don’t know If I can define what makes a community. You just know. No membership certificate, pledge envelope or email list defines it. You just know. There is emotion, there is feeling, there is connection. We can’t create it. We can’t explain it. It is just there. We can just do the best we can to be the loving, welcoming people that God wants us to be. And with some help from the Spirit, who knows what might happen?