Big city church (5): Friendship and belonging

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As I’ve noted earlier in this series, the city is a place of not just deep community, but also profound alienation.

The sheer volume of people, as introverts have always known, doesn’t make for authentic relationship on it’s own. In fact, often it is a barrier to being truly human. As one philosopher has observed, we have an excess of loneliness but a dearth of solitude. Community – the experience of networks of overlapping and common friendships – is something truly sought after in any city.

Because of this, every church needs some spaces which have joyful permission to grow as big as they can (see my previous posts), and other spaces which have permission to stay as small as they like.

There are a number of factors at play here.

Firstly, most city-dwellers are uprooted from their ‘origin networks’. Cities are places where young adults come to work, study and play, away from their extended biological and surrogate families, away from the context-giving neighbourhoods of their upbringings and stable, if occasionally stifling, relationships of their childhood.

Secondly, many new city dwellers are in the middle of one of the most profound transitions of their lives. Throughout school and early uni, friendships came easy. You made friends, more or less, by simply turning up. That’s partly because in our youth we are relatively undemanding about friendships, to the point that any old warm body that is present, available and fun will do. (I exaggerate – but not by much.) As we grow a little older, though, two things change. On the one hand, we become more demanding with respect to the quality of our relationships. Suddenly, a friend needs to be someone with whom you can do real life. Depth matters for the first time (real depth, not the show-and-faux depth of self-absorbed undergraduate conversations.)  On the other hand, for the first time in our lives, making friends becomes hard. And it will be hard for the rest of our lives, too. Friendships are no longer simply discovered – they must be forged, which takes constancy and intentional stepping-up of commitment. There’s a great (free) talk on friendship here.

The work of friendship-building is particularly felt among singles.

When Jesus said that ‘to everyone who has, more will be given’, he might as well have been speaking of that thing called ‘community’. Families – with their pre-existing mini-communities – naturally multiply connections through school, social and other programmes. This isn’t to say that families don’t experience alienation – I know many mums and dads who feel profoundly isolated in their situation. However, the structures are in place.

Singles, however, have to work much more deliberately at creating the contexts in which friendships can be discovered and forged.

Now, a couple of quick comments here. Firstly, there is a problem with me using the word ‘singles’. Singleness does not define a person. None of the Christian singles I know are truly single – they are part of beautiful communities to which they belong and, even more, have been adopted together with me into a family by regeneration that is much more significant than any family by procreation. But ‘single’ is a better word than ‘unmarried’, which offers a definition by way of a negative – and there is nothing negative about singleness. The church has usually struggled to communicate this, even though the bible does so with very little difficulty (cf 1 Cor 7).

Among the singles at Barneys are some of the most profoundly exciting people I know – architects, nurses, teachers, landscapers – and many of them are the most spiritually mature Christians I know. They haven’t made an idol of marriage and pursued it as their central task in life; they haven’t lowered their standards to marry any old interested party; they know that a bad marriage, or a marriage to a foolish person, is worse than no marriage at all.  They are not to be pitied. They are not bitter Miss Havishams. There is a great article on this here.

But they do face some particular challenges, and among them is the issue of community. They and their contemporaries are highly mobile, often globally. Their housing arrangements are often very fluid, with different collections of housemates each year. Families – which could provide an additional anchor – do a poor job of including them, often (mistakenly) assuming that singles have no time in their lives for kids, or – worse yet – assuming that families have no time in their lives for singles (there’s so little time for our kids to play with other kids, etc etc).

But one person households, currently 22% of all households, are growing faster than any other type of household in Australia. By 2031, there are likely to be an additional 300,000 single person households in Sydney, representing 30% of all households. The number of older women living alone is growing faster than for men. In 2006, there were 1.9 million people living alone in Australia; by 2031, there are projected to be between 3.0 and 3.6 million, an increase of between 63% and 91%, with the trend strongest among women.

And so, I repeat, every church needs some spaces which have joyful permission to grow as big as they can, and other spaces which have permission to stay as small as they like.  We need to allow the church to grow. To have big spaces uninhibited by misplaced expectations of intimacy.

But we also need small spaces, intimate spaces, social spaces. Not spaces that are somehow stapled on to Sunday church to provide a veneer of community, but valid communities in their own right. Spaces where friendships are discovered; smaller spaces where they are forged; and still yet smaller spaces where they are lived and breathed. The bigger the church is, the smaller it must be, too.

But there is a danger to this pursuit of intimacy and community. More on that next week.

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