It seems to be a paradoxical fact that there are so many more people around in big cities, and yet people are lonelier. The crowds tend to isolate us rather than force us together. Smaller communities generally have a greater sense of, well, community.
Yet some people are trying new ways to break this down.
Being friends in New York
I read a recent article about a young couple who moved to New York, and thought they’d make a positive attempt at making new friends. They letter-box dropped everyone in their apartment block inviting them to drop in one night for drinks. No-one turned up.
They knew, from a number of studies which are referenced in the article, that lack of good friendships is harmful to health and wellbeing. But they also recognised that busy people in a big city, especially if they have children, are starved for the time needed to develop and maintain the level of friendship we’d all like to have.
Keeping friends in New York
So when they had made some friends, they decided together to do something deliberate to become closer. They formed a group of four couples they named the “kibbutz”, a Hebrew the word meaning “gathering”.
The kibbutz meets for a picnic lunch every fortnight, at the same place and time. If someone can’t make it, the rest meet anyway. The kids come and play while the adults talk – in one group so the genders don’t separate. Each fortnight they choose a topic to discuss, so the conversation has a focus and doesn’t stay on generalities, and they can talk about deeper things that mightn’t come up otherwise.
The writer reports that these meetings have had a big and positive impact on his happiness.
You don’t know what you’ve got ’til ….
We christians can surely learn from this. Two lessons seem important to me.
Mini vs mega
There’s a tendency in affluent western countries, and maybe elsewhere, for christians to flock to successful churches, perhaps because of the facilities or the youth program. Larger churches can often suck smaller churches dry.
Yet large churches can easily be impersonal, leaving members somehow isolated in the midst of activity. Christians need meaningful friendships just as our New York couples do. Home Bible studies can meet this need, but sometimes they can be very controlled and doctrinal, so human relationships and encouragement take second place.
I think we need to provide and allow more time for christians to have meaningful friendships, inside the church and outside too.
First they belong, then they believe?
Positive psychologists have identified several factors that are crucial for our wellbeing and life satisfaction. Meaningful friendships is one factor, as the kibbutz discovered. Two others are meaningful work, especially voluntary work, and a cause to live for.
Following Jesus provides these wellbeing factors – our focus may be elsewhere, but these good things are available to those who seek the kingdom of God first. We have the greatest cause possible, plenty of meaningful voluntary tasks, and brothers and sister as fellow travellers.
Following Jesus, serving people, changing the world, can be attractive to non-believers if we are living lovingly. Jesus set us an example. When conversing with ordinary people, he didn’t seem to focus on their sin, meaning he didn’t come across as judgmental. Instead, he offered them acceptance, hope, a challenge, healing or an opportunity to join him in living and working for the kingdom of God.
If we invite postmodern people to join us in a positive, loving community, I think we may find we are meeting people where they are at and offering them what they need. Sin-based evangelism is only one of many approaches, and often not helpful today. Awareness of sin, repentance, faith, commitment can all follow as the Holy Spirit has a part in each person’s life.