Geography and Discipleship

If there’s one thing that the doctrine of the incarnation makes abundantly clear, it’s that location matters.

This past Sunday, I was at a meeting with some homegroup leaders in our church where each of us spoke about notions we had for the coming year. When it came time for me to talk about our little group of West End folk, I talked about wanting to center our group in the practices of vulnerability, prayer, and communion. Why I chose these (or rather had them chosen for us) is another story for another time.

Also on the agenda was talk of whether or not to “promote” these groups within our broader church body, so I closed my monologue by saying that we didn’t really want to advertise our group because we only wanted people involved who live within walking distance. I said that “community is pretty much impossible without geographical proximity.”

Well, there was some shifting in the chairs, some nervous glances, as I know that this made us the odd ones out. (I’m getting increasingly used to that.) This is an idea that we don’t often think about in our hyper-mobile culture. Normally I would want to talk about these issues in depth, but I’m going to take a concise approach for a change, with the following reasons why I believe that geographical proximity is crucial for discipleship:

  • This one should be a no-brainer: it is impossible to have neighbors to love when you’re always on the go to destinations outside your neighborhood.
  • It allows for organic connections outside of weekly meetings. A weekly meeting trying to serve for all of the functions of community is inherently dysfunctional.
  • It allows us to care for our neighbors as a group rather than feeling the burden of “going it alone.” I would not be surprised if that perceived burden is what so often keeps us from following our conscience and helping our neighbors.
  • It cuts our dependency on oil products for community building. This is a good thing, because oil usage is problematic for reasons of sustainability, environmental care, and sheer economic realities.
  • It keeps us more available to one another.
  • It promotes stability in resistance to our hyper-mobile, community-destroying culture.

I could probably come up with more, but that’s a good collection.

7 responses to “Geography and Discipleship”

  1. So, with your statements in mind, I guess with myself and my family living in Plum Coulee and going to church and work in Winkler, we will not achieve community? Or is it that with working and going to church in Winkler, we will not achieve community with my neighbors?

    In an urban environment, your ideas work well and I completely agree with the reasoning behind your statements. I live about 12 kms from my church and work. I’d like to hear how a person like myself could apply your theories. (I know the obvious recommendation, which would be to start going to a church closer to where I live, which I won’t consider as an option because of my heavy involvement in my church.)

  2. William: You are of course right to note that my urban experience is driving my line of thinking, and there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one application to rural life. If I were smart, I wouldn’t comment on your situation. But, being smart is overrated and not as interesting, so… (sorry, looks like it’s long)

    The more dis-integrated our lives are, the more difficult it is to truly connect and be in relationship with others. Your situation is typical of that where community becomes yet another task on the to-do list, since it involves planning, transportation, coordination of schedules… (this is still too true for me as well) The trouble is, modern life has conditioned us to consider this type of fragmentation as normal, and we too readily assume that “church life” is yet one more slice of the fragmentation pie. I would suggest that a commitment to the gospel calls into question the norms of modern life.

    I think that this fragmentation produces a sort of barrier which allows community to go only so far and no further. Community beyond that barrier requires a commitment to a shared life where community isn’t an option you can say “yea” or “nay” to. It is woven into the fabric of life (and tends to be the crucible of character formation).

    As you say, the recommendation is obvious and would still be my first one. Here’s a brainstorm list of ideas: look to build real connections with those you live close to. Invite people to share your house with you. Look into options for moving into Winkler. Plant a church in Coulee. Start a homegroup in Coulee that’s for Coulee people only. Get involved in Coulee in ways that seek to make Coulee a true community rather than just Winkler’s suburb.

  3. I think community looks different for every person and shouldn’t be something that everyone needs to do the same. My community living consists of my family first, then my church, then people I work with. Having a family of five and getting together with extended family quite regularly, as well as meeting with people from church at least once a week is plenty enough ‘community living’. If I spent any more time socializing, there would be no time left to take care of my home and family!

    I can see the point of view you are speaking from, as Lynn and I have lived in a similar situation for a time.

    You say “Your situation is typical of that where community becomes yet another task on the to-do list, since it involves planning, transportation, coordination of schedules”…

    I think just about everyone’s situation is like that. If you live within walking distance of people you know, it will probably be about a 5-10 minute walk. For us, it’s a 10 minute drive to our nearest family. It doesn’t take us any more planning just because we live farther away, but because we have three kids. I think this ‘issue’ has always existed and is not really an issue at all. I don’t think I suffer as a Christian because I don’t have constant access to people outside my immediate family.

  4. Ok you just aren’t getting it are you.
    Think a little broader.
    Community can and does exist in places where it is not just a scheduled item in your day planner.
    Imagine living in the same apartment, condo, house, or yard as other people. (Most people have only experienced this living situation in a college dorm environment, so if that helps you understand it, fine. But did you ever wonder why some of the closest friends come out of a couple short years in dorm living? Ever considered that the communal lifestyle had anything to do with it, and that maybe we shouldn’t just “grow out of it” when we become adults?).
    This type of intentional community can and does exist rurally and in the city as well, so don’t give me any more crap about “well that’s fine for you, but doesn’t work in my situation…”
    Perhaps you have a dining hall where you share suppers three times a week… a laundry room where a mundane task can become a time of connecting with neighbors… a shared yard where the kids can play with many friends without having to leave home…

    And it’s not that revolutionary.
    The co-housing movement that started in Denmark in the 1970’s has spread all over the world and even into Canada since then.

    Here is an explanation from Wikipedia to help you understand:

    “A cohousing community is a kind of intentional community composed of private homes with full kitchens, supplemented by extensive common facilities. A cohousing community is planned, owned and managed by the residents, groups of people who want more interaction with their neighbours. Common facilities vary but usually include a large kitchen and dining room where residents can take turns cooking for the community. Other facilities may include a laundry, pool, child care facilities, offices, internet access, game room, TV room, tool room or a gym. Through spatial design and shared social and management activities, cohousing facilitates intergenerational interaction among neighbours, for the social and practical benefits. There are also economic and environmental benefits to sharing resources, space and items”.

    If you study this movement a bit you will see that there are cohousing communities that are newly built for the purpose, but also organically formed ones where even suburban neighbors take down their back fences and build a common hall out of someone’s garage, for example. My point is, you have to think creatively.

    Here’s another thing:
    This movement has largely existed outside the church. Yes, there are intentional Christian communities, but generally the church has just accepted our modern hyper-individualistic lifestyle and tried to live real community within it’s framework, wondering why it’s just not quite working. Most don’t even think about it at all.

    From my experience in discussing this issue of geography and community, your response to Matt’s post is a very common one.
    It seems people are defensive and uncomfortable about the idea that they may not actually structuring their lives to facilitate true community. If you are committed to living in community, start thinking creatively and challenge yourself.
    I have in no way arrived in a place where I am satisfied, but it’s a process that has to start somewhere.
    Forming and living in an intentional community is swimming upstream in our culture, but if we are actually going to “be the church”, is there really any other option?

  5. I have lived in a dorm situation and I am honestly only still close friends with one of the 11 guys I lived with for a year (which happens to be my brother-in-law). I admit I quite enjoyed that time in my life, and I agree that it can be a time when close relationships are born.

    That type of community living, however, is never prescribed anywhere in scripture and is definitely not a cornerstone of Christian living, rather it’s a natural outcome of close relationships with family and friends that we should all be striving for regardless of our philosophy on community.

    Sorry if I sound defensive, I surely don’t disagree with the both of you in regards to the benefits of living in close proximity to others and sharing resources and experiences. But don’t think that everyone is able to pick up and move their families in order to attempt at community living, or that they even need to. Some people live miles away from their nearest neighbor and still have better relationships with others than most people (I happen to know some of those people personally).

    To say that only those who live in close proximity to one another can achieve true community living is quite ignorant. And to say that your bible study should only include those who live close to you is something you may want to do, but is surely not a prescriptive method of doing bible study.

    Like I said earlier, I have no doubt that I have just as much “community” in my life as you, it just takes on a different look. I don’t get together with my neighbors regularly, simply because they are all 40 years older than me and we have not a whole lot of common interests. However, I do get together with family members and close friends quite often and our relationship with each other helps us get through the tough times and we share in each others good times. The only difference is that I don’t live down the street or on the same yard as them.

    Now, with all that said… for many years our family has been talking about building a co-housing community just as you described. We have plans for an 8-condo building where we would live in one half and rent out the other half. I love the idea of sharing resources and always having someone there to talk to. But, I don’t think God requires His children to live in this situation, rather He can work through any situation if the people are aware of His work in their lives.

    Being the church surely does not require us to all live in the same geographic location. I would like to see some reliable Christian doctrine on that theory!

  6. I want to step in here and be a mediating voice, but I’m going to resist that precisely as a temptation. Issues like this should continue to leave us unsettled, I think.

    One of the ironies, of course, is that community (especially as I’m arguing) is a fundamentally embodied reality, while this discussion is taking place in a disembodied (non)space. It’s hard to talk about community from here because we’re situated so far from it. I think that a similar thing might be said for the ways in which our cities and towns (I refuse to call them communities) have been built in the last 60 years or so. We have no imagination for community, because we’ve never actually experienced it.

    Much of my flailing towards it reflects precisely this. I’m sure I’m missing the forest for the trees. Or I would be, if I wasn’t standing in the middle of a clearcut old-growth forest.

    Moving on to other things, I applaud and commend your desire for a co-housing community. But I question your hesitancy from believing that God might have an opinion on living arrangements. He was quite descriptive of his own abode, from Tabernacle to Temple to the New Jerusalem. The formation of the early church everywhere assumed and practiced a communal life. The inauguration of the office of deacon was, of course, because they needed someone to wait on tables.

    Community wasn’t something that they added as a commodity to an already existing self-sufficient individual life. Rather, it was inescapable, necessary, and something without which you would die. This wasn’t necessarily a Christian point, but a human one. It is only modern dehumanizing technology–particularly the personal automobile–which has allowed us to build a fantasy world in which we make-believe that we can avoid being deeply dependent on those around us.

    We didn’t choose this world for ourselves; we were born into it. That’s why we have a lot of trouble seeing it for what it is: dehumanizing and robbing of basic fundamental aspects of what it means to even be human. I am becoming increasingly convinced that, if loving our neighbours is going to mean anything at all, we’re going to have to imagine and live much differently from this inhuman way of life.

    And… this has already become a post in itself. I’ll stop now.

  7. Matt, I appreciate your response, well said.

    I think this topic deserves a much better forum for discussion. I’ve never been a huge fan of discussing important matters electronically, but have found myself doing just that from time to time for a lack of alternative options. Maybe the best option is to leave things unsaid.

    Thanks for your insight Matt, I don’t take it lightly.

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