I was fascinated by the elements of the Manti Te’o drama. In January 2013 this young football player was hoaxed as his online girlfriend faked her death. An acquaintance of Te’o confessed to orchestrating a hoax that lured Te’o into an online relationship with a nonexistent woman. How did a young man build a strong emotional attachment with someone that was not physically in his life? How did he develop a perceived relationship with someone who was not actively present? Something about this story symbolizes a cultural shift in how we’ve begun to quantify relationships. The psychological issues around this story had me buzzing as it relates to the formation of community.
We face complications around the symbolism of community. What is it? What does our popular imagination say it is? What ideals do we harbor? What expectations do we import? Personally, my laser focus on community is directly tied to my take-away from the narrative of the New Testament church. If the temple is no longer the space that contains God, what is?
The landscape of the New Testament letters exposes that community is the container for carrying the message of Jesus. Biblically informed community and American popular ideas of community are not the same. Time and time again I see the Kingdom framework for community collide headlong into this concept I call “Substitute Community.”
Substitute community is a deluded version of a common-life. Substitute communities do offer us an emotional return, a sense of belonging and a feeling of affirmation but my observation is that they are primarily delivered on “my own terms”. The Manti Te’o experience is indicative of the story we find ourselves in. He was able to assemble some of the contents of a relationship without having an actual tethered relationship. To him the relationship was real, which is the point. To Manti Te’o the relationship was meeting his emotional needs. The challenge of building mutually serving, faithful, mission-sent, spiritual households is starting to become clearer; we must arrest back this idea of community from the grip of felt-needs based connections. Our learned behaviors from consumerism are spilling over into our symbolic definitions of community.
On the ground many believe they already have community because they have: Facebook friends that comfort them on a crummy day, blogs they follow that cluster them with like-minded people, books that instruct them without being in relationship, runners clubs, book clubs or any type of club they attend. None of these are inherently bad but having furniture does not mean we have a house. Community has become a commodity and we approach it the way we assemble our own custom meal from a buffet of options. The center for belonging and becoming has eroded and is being parceled out. It is possible to put together the semblance of community “a little of this and a little of that” and end up with a self-selected substitute community.
What occurs gradually is that we find our ideological tribe online but we don’t have to live with them or persevere with them as we together submit to Jesus. Relationships operating this way inevitably turns people into pieces that can be swapped out and replaced. This is a hyper individualistic approach that is sadly not the exception but has become the norm. In this substitute community paradigm, my self-image is being shored up with very little, if anything required of me. We must ask a rhetorical question; can we really experience connection without the pain of compromise?
Kingdom-community binds me to a particular people, in a particular place, with particular rhythms, with a particular responsibility. As a Missional practioner I’m convinced recovering community should be a major point of rebellion for us. We are not on a mission to convert the cultural (Evangelical or Popular) slide from ex-carnate brands of community. We must embody new practices rather than hate on the cultural milieu.
Our work of community should be rooted in the recovery of actual eye-contact, locality, regular availability, mutual vulnerability, shared mission and rootedness beyond our offenses. It is worth contending for. Kingdom-community is the space we create for humans to become more fully human. The life of God is intended to be tangible in the life of a Kingdom community; it is the new temple, the new home of God. Be prepared as you invite and challenge others to live into community alongside you, there is an awkward and frustrating transitional process from “Substitute Community” to “Kingdom Community”.