Monday, February 11, 2008

Communities: Voluntary and Involuntary

For some time, I thought that relationships formed through voluntary communities were better than those formed through involuntary communities. Some of this had to do with comparing the friends I had in high school to the friends I was making in college. In high school, and even before, my friends were usually the only people my age that I was in regular contact with. I was involved in a small home schooling community, and while we had some involvement in a larger group (which afforded a certain amount of voluntary association), most of us in our small group were friends because we saw each other at least weekly and had a few common interests. When I started college, I was in a community with twelve hundred other people, all close to my age and at similar points in life. The people I met and spent the most time with were friends not because they were the hand I had been dealt, but because we had a lot of common interests. 

It is interesting to contrast this with how the staff teams at Worldview work out. They are very much involuntary in the sense that I have never had any control over the team. From time to time, I might be able to recommend a few people, but the final decision rested with the directors. Thus, more often than not, complete strangers with different backgrounds are thrown together and given the common mission of doing camp for two months. 

The other day, Boundless published an article by Tim Challies called "Involuntary Community." In it, Tim talks about the local church and how we spend time looking for the one that we want, and not the one we need: "Customizing our appearance and our gadgets is not enough. We also want to customize the groups of people we spend time with, preferring those who are most like us" and "We demand today to be individuals and to customize everything we have and everything we are. But is this making us happier?"

While I do not regret any of the relationships I formed in the voluntary setting, I think the ones I had and have continued outside of the involuntary settings, have taught me about God's provision. In the context of the church, Tim describes it this way:

He is building a community that is involuntary — one for which He determines the membership. And it is in the context of this community of people who may be vastly different from us, that we are to learn to love one another even more than we love ourselves. We are to love one another on the basis of our common humanity and on the basis of our shared kinship in the family of God rather than on the basis of preference or perceived compatibility. It can be difficult to love those who are unlike us, which is exactly why God calls us to do so.

As I look back over the last few years, considering all the people that I have come into contact with and shared a community with, the involuntary ones presented challenges to me that I could not walk away from. When conflicts arise, they must be addressed in the involuntary setting, if disaster is to be avoided. When we can pick and choose who we will hang out with on the weekend, it's easy to not find yourself around people who annoy you. When you're stuck with the same people every weekend, you seldom have anywhere to go without the people getting on your nerves. In such a situation, there is more opportunity to grow in grace and learn patience. 

It is easy to love those who are most like us, so God calls us to more; He calls us to better. God calls us to love and delight in those who may not be much like us at all. And when we do so, we bear witness to the One who binds us all together in this fascinating, miraculous, diverse, involuntary family called the church.
So perhaps we really can pick our friend's nose after all...


Elizabeth said...

That is so true, and it seems that camp work does a really good job of illustrating this. In my camp experience (especially in leadership), one of the biggest lessons I've learned is working well with those with whom I was placed with involuntarily.

Really, the local church should be a close involuntary community (which is pretty much what Tim said). I'll quit rambling now...

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Yes, you're so right. This really helped explain something in my head. But ouch because it's very applicable, and not in the easiest sense. :)

Jacob said...

AnnaKristine, I'm glad it helped make sense of something for you. Personally, I'm a little disappointed at how unfocused my own thoughts on the matter were/are.

Elizabeth, ramble away. It's not like you're scaring anyone away!

Reicheru said...

Thanks for this post. I should look at Challies' original article. The idea of community is so complex to me. I tend like the ones where I 'feel the love' and spiritual depth, but I really should learn to appreciate the ones that fall short of my hopes.

What's hard is the involuntary communities that one is regularly a part of...voluntary in the sense that it's a choice to be there, but involuntary in terms of the personality choosing/intimidation factor.

On another note, I do love interacting with people who are quite different from me, but I don't usually see those people all the time; they aren't in my regular 'community circles' and probably usually don't share my faith.

Hmmm. But I like how you go back to noticing God's provision in the times spent with involuntary community. Thanks ~

Jacob said...

Communities are complex and as you've touched on, there are a number of situations where the line between voluntary and involuntary is blurred.

I have found that I appreciate the people in the involuntary settings more once I'm away from them and end up wishing they were a part of my voluntary circle.