“Describe a good neighbour?” a trainer asked her students. The response came quickly: “One you don’t know is there!”
Australians no longer know their neighbours. The reality is that many don’t want to know those they share a fence, a wall or a street with. And so with a only a few exceptions, the days of borrowing half a cup of sugar from a friend next door are well and truly gone; and to be honest, I am to young to remember them, though my grandmother insists that such a time once existed. In their book “Why people don’t go to Church” Bellamy et al., confirm what many of us already experience, that people “find community in the workplace, through clubs and interest groups and through the ‘ready-made’ communities of festivals and other one-off events”. Further, their research has uncovered that “nearly half of all people under 40 have no close friends living in the local area”(Bellamy et al. 2002). It is without question then that, for many, the notion of a ‘neighbourhood community’ meaning anything more than the geographic co-location of dwellings does not fit with experience.
The concept of churches as centres that facilitate and promote the gathering of local believers is also, well, fading rapidly. Bigger Churches for example, often draw their members from a across a city rather than their immediate neighbours. I have an old acquaintance, who for several years drove one and a half hours each way twice a week to go to a Sunday service and a midweek bible study at a large Church he raved about. That may seem extreme, but it is not unusual for church-goers to drive past multiple churches of the same denomination (noting that denominational loyalty is also on the decrease) to join the their preferred congregation. This preference might be based on style of worship, or the presence of a charismatic preacher, or the existing demographics of the congregation. This is especially true for those who only sometimes go to Church, but survey results have shown that even older people are happy to drive past the congregation that meets around the corner in favour of the one two suburbs away(Bellamy et al. 2002).
So if neighbours don’t know each other, and church attenders often don’t live nearby, does the local community have any significance for today’s congregations?
Firstly, Jesus ‘did’ community. He brought people together from all walks of life. He and his followers journeyed together, lived together and were shown how to serve each other. Centuries later, our congregations too can be places of vibrant community, where people do more than just meet once a week, but who share life together because they live together.
Secondly, by serving our communities we show we care about the people inside them. Sure, fewer and fewer of us know our neighbours or are involved in anything within our neighbourhood, claiming instead to find community elsewhere, but there is a lot of evidence that links health and wellbeing with having social connections in our local areas. Studies in the UK, for example, show a direct correlation between higher rates of suicide in an area and the weakness of that locality’s social connections (BMJ 1999; Zyada 2005). Other studies have highlighted that people feel less safe when they don’t know their neighbours or others nearby. Feeling unsafe in our own neighborhood has the effect of promoting fear and increasing stress levels in the home (McKnight and Block 2012). Communities with low levels of social connection also present lonely settings for many of the more vulnerable people in a neighbourhood, those for example who can’t drive or travel due to a disability, age or life circumstances. The unavailability of community gatherings in their immediate vicinity feeds isolation and disconnection, with meeting groups further afield simply being out of reach.
If we know that strong social connections are important for wellbeing and for including vulnerable people in community; by seeking to meaningfully connect with their neighbours, congregations can be key agents in building communities where residents feel safe, valued and accepted.
But for congregations to be effective community builders, they must first willing to invite and share a conversation with their neighbours. Churches are often out of touch with the lives of those that live nearby and will do well to humbly recognize this reality. They might need to brainstorm with other community leaders how they could do this. It starts however with opening the doors of our Church buildings and our hearts. Congregations must also be willing to open their own lives to the residents living in the area. The most important relationships are not between the “The Church” and the neighbourhood, but between Church members and neighbourhood residents. We must want to know the locals, and want it enough to go outside our comfort zone and start a conversation with members of Local Government, school teachers, business owners, school students, health and social workers about what we can do together to build a strong community.
Bellamy, John, et al. (2002), Why People Don’t go to Church (Adelaide: Open Book Publishers).
BMJ (1999), ‘Social fragmentaiton is associated with high suicide risk’, BMJ, 319 (d).
McKnight, John and Block, Peter (2012), The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Fransisco: BK Publishing).
Zyada, Azra (2005), ‘Visualizing sense of community and social fragmentation’, Int. J. Epidemiology, 34 (6), 1255-56.