Somehow, somewhere, we seem to have lost our sense of belonging and connectedness. But this overarching sense of loss of community isn’t the only story. The Spirit of Jesus is at work in our neighbourhoods fermenting a new kind of community in all kinds of unexpected places. Our experiences of isolation are, in part, shaped by the pandemic; however, this crisis isn’t the cause of our disconnectedness. If we are to hear the hope into which the Spirit is inviting us, we have to pause and ask: How did we get here?
A helpful metaphor in framing what has happened to us as a society comes from James Rebanks’ descriptions of industrial farming and its effects on the land and its people (Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey). Since at least the end of World War II, we have been absorbed into the remaking of society around the industrialization of everything. Experts and professionals, increasingly distanced from the local and its wisdom, now shape the life of congregations. We have lost our rootedness in one another. The soils of the local and the wisdom of the everyday have been dessicated by dependence on expertise, professionalization and the methods of industrialized success. It is now all about growth, management, control and outcomes. In the 20th century, denominational and congregational systems were uprooted from community and neighbourhood. Schools formed a professionalized clergy class to match the new bureaucratic elites of this industrialized society. Like the introduction of the chemical fertilizers that eroded, thinned and depleted the “soils” of the local farm, the soils of community were desiccated.
If we are going to be leaders who cultivate the soil of community, deepening the roots of connection, then isolation and disconnection won’t be solved with more programs, tactics or techniques. We will need to let go of the “right plans” that know the “right outcomes” in order to shift our attention to what the Spirit is forming amongst us and our neighbours. Community and rootedness grow out of this attending to the Spirit through a covenantal attentiveness to the other and their stories. This is not a “tactic” for gaining data or innovating new directions. It is a way of being with others that notices, names and gives voice to the life of the Spirit continually at work among us. It means a difficult, radical shift in how we are God’s people together that requires us to let go of techniques and expertise to create space for vulnerability and accountability.
There are no tactical fixes here. In this moment of bewilderment, exhaustion and profound sense of loss, the Spirit has never stopped calling all creation into the embrace of God’s kingdom. Specifically, the good news is that we have not been abandoned to ourselves. We are not alone and lost even though we’ve drunk deeply of professionalization and all its techniques for success. We seek community. It will come as we learn, again, to listen with and discern what the Spirit is gestating among us as congregations and in our neighbourhoods. This is not wishful thinking. It’s betting our lives that God is making things new right where we are.