Popular memory recalls a time when practically everyone in a community attended church on Sunday morning. The question people asked was which denomination a person belonged to rather than if they belonged. Sunday school classes were hubs of friendships, vacation bible school was a highlight of the summer, and Friday fish fries brought the whole neighborhood to the Catholic church. Churches often developed a special fund-raiser that emerged from the church kitchen – homemade noodles, steak dinners, fried chicken, baked pies, spaghetti dinners – and the whole neighborhood looked forward to them. Women worked in the neighborhood, children went to youth groups, and men did community relief work, all through church based organizations.
And then things changed. The television made it unnecessary to seek entertainment outside of the home. Young people rebelled against rules and societal and cultural restrictions on behavior. Family structures shifted as divorce rates grew and as two wage-earner families became common. Programmed activities for children became more popular, squeezing into times that had been previously dedicated to church activities. More recently, the personal computer and the hand-held screen has replaced “friends” and “communities” in a totally unprecedented way.
In less than two generations, the church yielded the focus of neighborhood life. It remains an important focal point for some, but many people have neither the time nor inclination to foster relationships at the local church. Buildings often sit empty, used one or twice weekly for a dwindling membership.
At the Missional Wisdom Foundation, we observed this phenomenon all over the country, and we began to ask ourselves: if people no longer form community though their church, how do they form community? We began asking questions of and observing groups that we encountered or were engaged in. Over time, answers to our questions began to emerge. We are not social scientists, but the stories we were hearing and our own experiences began to fall together with observable consistency.
During our research, we noticed that many people form community within their workplace. People form friendships with their coworkers and clients that extend outside of the workplace itself. It is not uncommon to find groups of coworkers who socialize together after work or who join each other in fitness or enrichment activities. Many workplaces encourage this interaction through gym membership subsidies or by sponsoring general interest seminars or book clubs after work hours or during lunch breaks.
We also noticed the significance of food and table in community formation. Many of the workplace communities we became aware of revolved around shared meals at lunch or dinner and around after work “happy hours.” The pace of daily life and the increasing number of two wage-earner families have resulted in a significant increase in dining out, a phenomenon that has led many to join with others while eating. Scanning a restaurant during a weekday evening will often reveal groups of individuals, couples and families, sharing a meal together.
The restaurant phenomenon has also coincided with a growing interest in the production of fresh, healthy food. Gardening is growing in popularity in a variety of settings. Those concerned with social justice have observed the lack of healthy food options in low income settings, and community gardens have become a popular response. As neighbors work together to produce food and address the needs of the community, friendships are formed. Also, groups that garden together often realize that many of the food preparation skills taken for granted by older generations have not yet been taught to younger generations, so communities arise around food preparation. Growing, preparing, and sharing food draw people together.
People are also drawn together by their children’s school and extracurricular activities. This generation of parents is heavily involved in the daily activities of their children, and the structured organization of children’s activities is at an unprecedented high. Club and school sports require an incredible commitment of time and energy by the children and the parents, and children are enrolled in sports from a very young age. The parents of children involved in these types of activities find themselves forming community as they encounter each other at games and practices and as they work together to coordinate travel and fundraising. Additionally, the advent of two wage-earner families has made after school enrichment activities very important, providing supervision and instruction while the parents finish the workday. Parents often come together into communities in the coordination and implementation of afterschool activities.
Finally, we noticed that people form community through shared recreational and creative activities. Perhaps as a reaction to the increasingly organized structures around children’s sports, we find groups of adults organizing around shared sporting interests like hiking, soccer, and tennis. Many people seem to be looking for groups to share these activities with. One additional benefit to communities formed around shared creative activities like sewing, quilting, woodworking, pottery, and knitting is that these crafts often have specialized equipment that can be shared or require the investment of a significant amount of time that can be more enjoyable with companions.
The traditional role of the church and of church buildings has been to hold church services and to host church gatherings. At Haw Creek Commons, we are working to preserve those traditional roles while redesigning the building and property to invite people to form friendships and communities around work, food, schools and affinity groups. We believe that helping people form friendships and connections is a very important role that the church plays today. Our goal is not to drag people into church services or bible studies, although everyone is certainly welcome to attend those. We are interested in helping people to connect with us in a way that brings them a personal benefit, and helps them to get to know their neighbors. We believe that strong friendships – “loving one another” – can lead to deeper spiritual awareness. That’s what we are up to!