Rebuilding communities from the ashes, part 2

Rob Slane  ·  Mar 30, 2017

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Last month I wrote about how man was created to live in community, but it is breaking down in Western society, threatened on the one hand by authoritarianism and on the other by radical individualism. This month I will focus on the latter danger. 

Theologian Henry Van Til famously said that culture is religion externalized, so what should we expect if year after year we are internalizing an ideology based on “me, myself, and my rights?” We should expect to see a culture where relationships splinter, families are destroyed, and communities decay. We really don’t need to wait until someone does a study to tell us that there is more loneliness, more angst, and fewer good, healthy relationships today than there were 50 years ago. It’s just obvious. But the question I posed at the end of my first article was, “What can we, as individual Christians and as the Church corporately, do to stop the rot and begin rebuilding communities from the ashes?”

If culture is religion externalized, then the first principle for us in terms of rebuilding communities must be to begin with our relationship with God. However, there is even a problem here. There is a tendency among modern Christians to view their relationship with God as principally a personal one, with worship being seen as primarily about “me and my God.” In other words, individualism is just as much a problem in the modern church as it is in the culture in general, and if we are to see the rebuilding of communities, we first need to divest ourselves of the ideology of individualism and put the emphasis of our worship where Scripture does:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:16)
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 
(Hebrews 10:22)
Our Father in heaven … (g)ive us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 
(Matthew 6:9-13)

Please don’t misunderstand me. As Christians, we most definitely do have a personal relationship with God and we are all individuals before Him. But when we go to church on a Sunday, we go as a people and not just a collection of individuals. It is more about us and our God than it is about me and my God. 

But if we understand the destructive nature that individualism has played in worship, we must also recognize the part that it has played in the destruction of the family. Why has the family been devastated during your lifetime and mine? Many reasons can be given, but at the root of it lies a sort of cultural selfishness. I say cultural selfishness because, although selfishness has always existed in the heart of man, in recent decades our culture has made it into a positive virtue.

So whereas marriage should be the place where we learn to be unselfish, our culture gives us the message that this is just naïve and, frankly, stupid. The media asks why you would stay with your spouse when you are fed up with her. Situation comedies ask why you would stay together with someone you don’t even love. Hollywood asks why you would bother becoming attached in the first place when you can just pick whomever you want, whenever you want, without all the hassles that accompany marriage.

So instead of learning to combat our selfishness, we now learn to indulge it, because we can. Of course, the news is that this cult of individualism practiced on a small scale in marriage and families is bound to have a ripple effect on the culture as a whole. And just as you can’t expect to build a solid and lasting house out of bricks that are rotten, the chances of building anything like a healthy and thriving community out of fragmented families is approximately zilch. 

If we want to rebuild communities again, we need to eradicate the cult of individualism from our marriages and our families. We must live like God tells us to live, with husband cleaving to his wife, with wife cleaving to her husband, and with both seeking to be fruitful and to multiply. We need to demonstrate to others that we do not accept the demise of marriage and of families engendered by the sick individualism we see all around us. On the contrary, now more than ever we are going to strive against it, and show that we can make good, happy, lifelong marriages, where we bring up happy, healthy, and joyful children.

Beyond the worship of God and the building of strong families, the other great key to rebuilding communities begins by building a healthy, outward-looking church community. Every culture is built around something, and, until the early to mid-20th century, towns and villages in Europe and North America were built around churches. That is, wherever there were people living in close proximity, the church would usually be found in the midst of and at the heart of that community. The symbolism was unmistakable: This community is built around God, His worship, and His Church.

Secularists no doubt hate that idea, but it isn’t that the idea of building a community around something has gone away—it is one of those inescapable concepts. Community has to be built around something. Secularism might try to build community around materialism, political ideology, postmodernism, relativism, or even total rebellion against God: atheism or nihilism. It is destined to fail.

If we are to start rebuilding communities, we are going to have to put the Church back into the heart of them. Not physically, necessarily, but certainly symbolically. How do we do this? By starting from the inside and working out. By building a church community that is totally counter-cultural, but whose beauty cannot be denied. Where both young and old worship together in harmony. Where children are respectful to their parents. Where parents really love their children. Where marriages last. Where people give. Where disagreements are handled respectfully. Where help is given to those who need it. Where hospitality abounds. Where there is genuine love. 

But it’s crucial that we don’t stop there. We then take that model out into the community by inviting people to come and join with us. This will look different in each church. In the church in which I am a member, for instance, we have recently started introducing people in the local area to things like church lunches, game nights, Scottish dancing, and conversation classes for those for whom English is not their first language. The aim is to be a thriving church community in the midst of the area of the city we are called to serve, where people can come along and join with us in the hope that they will also eventually join themselves to Christ and to His church. 

People are beginning to notice and respond. Perhaps they come initially to a game night. Or maybe a church lunch. But when they come to these events and see a community of people who genuinely love one another and who really do care for one another, the attraction for them in our Individualistic, atomized, and often very lonely culture is powerful. 

In conclusion, I want to urge you to put a lot of thought into how you, your family, and your church might start this much needed process of rebuilding community. Some of you reading this will be much further down the line in terms of thinking and practice than my church and my family are. Or perhaps you have not really considered the task in the terms I’ve set out in these two pieces.

Whichever may be the case, the task of rebuilding is an urgent one. Yet it is something that should thrill and inspire us. We serve a God Who delights in robust corporate worship, in strong families, and in thriving church communities. If we strive to invite people to see for themselves what this community looks like, will He not answer our prayers and delight to bless our efforts?

Rob Slane lives with his wife and six home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @theblogmire or send email to him at rob_slane@hotmail.com