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The True Meaning of Community

Community is rare. The word "community" has been distorted over time. Towns are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, communities. Other organisations or churches are unlikely to be much of a community either.

If we are going to use the word meaningfully we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure and who have developed some significant commitment to "rejoice together, mourn together," and to "delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own." But what does such a rare group look like? How does it function? What is the true definition of community?

Inclusiveness, Commitment and Consensus

Community is and must be inclusive. The great enemy of community is exclusivity. Groups that exclude others because they are poor or doubters or divorced or sinners or of some other race or nationality are not communities: they are cliques - actually defensive bastions against community. (Inclusiveness, though, is not an absolute. Long-term communities must invariably struggle over the degree to which they are going to be inclusive. Even short-term communities must sometimes make that difficult decision.)

True communities, if they want to remain such, are always reaching to extend themselves. The burden of proof falls on exclusivity. Communities do not ask "How can we justify taking this person in?" Instead, the question is "Is it at all justifiable to keep this person out? In relation to other groupings of similar size or purpose, communities are always relatively inclusive.

The inclusiveness of any community extends along all its parameters. There is an "allness" to community. It is not merely a matter of including different sexes, races and creeds. It is also inclusive of the full range of human emotions. Tears are as welcome as laughter, fear as well as faith. And different styles: hawks and doves, straights and gays, the talkative and the silent. All human differences are included. All "soft" individuality is nurtured.

Commitment - the willingness to coexist - is crucial. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, the members of the group must in some way commit themselves to one another if they are to become or stay a community. Community, like marriage, requires that we stay with it when the going gets a little rough. It requires a certain degree of commitment.

Community has correctly been defined as, "a group that has learned to transcend its individual differences". But this learning takes time, which can only be bought through commitment. "Transcend" does not mean to obliterate or demolish. It literally means to climb over. Perhaps the most necessary key to this transcendence is the appreciation of differences. In community, instead of being ignored, denied, hidden or changed, human differences are celebrated as gifts. And, in each case, the transcendence has a good deal to do with love.

We are so unfamiliar with genuine community that we have never developed an adequate vocabulary for the politics of this transcendence. When we ponder on how individual differences can be accommodated, perhaps the first mechanism that we turn to is that of the strong individual leader. But community, encouraging individuality as it does, can never be totalitarian. So we jump to a somewhat less primitive way of resolving individual differences which we call democracy. We take a vote and the majority determines which differences prevail. Majority rules yet that process excludes the aspirations of the minority. How do we transcend differences in such a way as to include a minority? It seems like a conundrum. How and where do you go beyond democracy? The answer lies in community. A community, in transcending individual differences, routinely goes beyond even democracy. In the vocabulary of this transcendence we thus far have only one word: consensus.


A second characteristic of community is that it is realistic.

Because a community includes members with many different points of view and the freedom to express them, it comes to appreciate the whole of a situation far better than an individual, couple or ordinary group can. Incorporating the dark and the light, the sacred and the profane, the sorrow and the joy, the glory and the mud, its conclusions are well rounded. It is unlikely that anything will be left out. With so many frames of reference, it approaches reality more and more closely. Consequently, realistic decisions are more often guaranteed in community than in any other human environment.

Humility is an important aspect of the realism of community. While rugged individualism predisposes us to arrogance, the "soft" individualism of community leads to humility. As we begin to appreciate each others’ gifts, we begin to appreciate our own limitations. As we see others share their brokenness, we can accept our own inadequacy and imperfection. Being fully aware of human variety, we then recognise the interdependence of humanity. As a group of people do these things - as they become a community - they become more humble, not only as individuals but as a group, and hence more realistic. From which kind of group would you expect a wise, realistic decision: an arrogant one or a humble one?


Among the reasons that a community is humble and hence realistic is that it is contemplative. It examines itself. It is self-aware.

The essential goal of contemplation is increased awareness of the world outside oneself and the relationship between the two. The community building process requires examination from the beginning. As members become thoughtful about themselves, they also learn to become more thoughtful about the group.

The spirit of community, once achieved, is not something obtained forever. It is repeatedly lost. No community can expect to be in perpetual good health. However, what a genuine community does do, because it is a contemplative body, is recognise its ill health as soon as it occurs and quickly take appropriate action to heal itself. Indeed, the longer they exist, the more efficient healthy communities become in this recovery process. Conversely, groups that never learn to be contemplative either do not become a community in the first place or else they rapidly disintegrate.

A Safe Place

Once a group has achieved community, the single most common thing members express is the feeling of safety. It is a rare feeling. Most of us have spent nearly all of our lives feeling not safe. Seldom, have we felt completely free to be ourselves. Seldom, if ever, in any kind of group have we felt wholly accepted and acceptable. Consequently, virtually everyone enters a new group situation with his or her guard up. The guard goes very deep. Even if a conscious attempt is made to be open and vulnerable, there will still be ways in which the unconscious defences remain strong. Moreover, an initial admission of vulnerability is so likely to be met with fear, hostility or simplistic attempts to heal or convert that all but the most courageous will retreat behind their walls.

There is no such thing as instant community under ordinary circumstances. It takes a great deal of work for a group of strangers to achieve the safety of true community. Once they succeed, however, it is as if the floodgates were opened. As soon as it is safe to speak from one’s heart, as soon as most people in the group know they will be listened to and accepted for themselves, years and years of pent up frustration, hurt, guilt and grief come pouring out. Vulnerability in community feeds itself. Once its members become vulnerable and find themselves being valued and appreciated, they become more and more vulnerable. The walls come tumbling down. As they tumble and as the love and acceptance escalate, as the mutual intimacy multiplies, true healing and converting begins. Old wounds are healed, old resentments forgiven and old resistance overcome. Fear is replaced by hope.

(So another characteristic of community is that it is healing and converting, but this is deliberately not listed as a characteristic by itself, lest the subtlety of it be misunderstood. For the fact is that most of our attempts to heal and convert prevent community.)

We have within ourselves a natural yearning and thrust towards health and wholeness and holiness. Most of the time, however, this energy is restrained by fear, neutralised by defences and resistance. But, put us in a truly safe place, where those defences and resistance are no longer necessary, and the thrust towards health is liberated. When we are safe, there is a natural tendency for us to heal and convert ourselves.

Paradoxically, then, a group of humans becomes healing and converting only after its members have learned to stop trying to heal and convert. Community is a safe place precisely because no one is trying to heal or convert you, to fix you or to change you. Instead, the members accept you as you are. You are free to be you. Being thus freed, you are free to discard defences, masks and disguises; free to seek your own psychological and spiritual health; free to become your whole and holy self.

A Place for Personal Disarmament

As long as we only look at each other through the mask of composure, we are looking through hard eyes. But, as the masks drop and we see the suffering, courage, brokenness and deeper dignity beneath, we start to truly respect each other for who we really are.

Openness requires us to be vulnerable - the ability, even the willingness to be wounded emotionally. There is no way that we can live a rich life unless we are willing to suffer repeatedly, experiencing depression and despair, fear and anxiety, grief and sadness, anger and the agony of forgiving, confusion and doubt, criticism and rejection. A life lacking these emotional upheavals will not only be useless to ourselves, it will be useless to others. We cannot heal without being willing to be hurt.

Vulnerability is a two-way street. Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to others. It also requires the capacity to be affected by the wounds of others, to be wounded by their wounds. So what happens when we make ourselves vulnerable to another person? There is pain in our wounds, but even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness. We cannot deny the reality that this sharing requires a risk in our culture - the risk of violating the norm of pretended invulnerability. For most of us, it is a new and seemingly potentially dangerous form of behaviour. The effect on others of this kind of vulnerability is often disarming. They are likely to respond that they find you an authentic person, to admit that they too are tired, scared and lonely. They may want to help you in any way that they can.

But what happens when we behave invulnerably? What happens when we gird ourselves with psychological defences and pretend that we have got it all together? What happens when we pretend that we are rugged individualists who seem to be in complete control of our lives? What happens is that other people gird themselves with their psychological defences and pretend that they have got it all together too. Personal relationships become nothing more than that of two empty vessels bumping into each other in the night. There is fear and distrust and the behaviour that results is typically rigid and one-dimensional.

Of course vulnerability involves risk and we have to be careful to whom and to what extent we make ourselves vulnerable. There is the risk of total rejection or of having others take advantage of our vulnerability. The variant of vulnerability that is most difficult is the revealing of some imperfection, problem, obsession, fear, laziness or failure, all of which tend to be put together under the heading of "weakness" in our culture of rugged individualism. It is a ridiculous cultural attitude because the reality is that we are all weak. We all have problems and failures and any attempt to hide them is a lie.

Community, however, is a safe place to experiment with new types of behaviour. When offered the opportunity of such a safe place, most people will naturally begin to experiment more deeply than ever before with love and trust. They drop their customary defences and threatened postures and the barriers of distrust, fear, resentment and prejudice. They experiment with disarming themselves. They experiment with peace, within themselves and within the group. It is only among the overtly imperfect that we can find community. Our imperfections are among the few things that we all have in common. By being vulnerable, then, we risk being wounded as we reveal our weaknesses, our failures and inadequacies. But the greatest gift that we can give each other is our own woundedness. The genuine healer has to be wounded, for only the wounded can truly heal.

A Group that can Fight Gracefully

In genuine community there are no sides. This is not always easy, but by the time they reach community the members have learned how to give up cliques and factions. They have learned how to listen to each other and how not to reject each other. Sometimes, consensus in community is reached with miraculous rapidity and, at other times, only after a lengthy struggle. Just because it is a safe place does not mean community is a place without conflict. It is, however, a place where conflict can be resolved without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace. A community is a group that can fight gracefully. It is a group whose members have become skilled at listening and understanding, where they respect each others’ gifts and accept each others’ limitations, where they celebrate their differences and bind each others’ wounds, where they are committed to struggling together rather than against each other.

Integration and Integrity

Community is integrative. It includes people of different sexes, ages, religions, cultures, viewpoints, life styles and stages of development. It integrates them into a whole which is greater and better than the sum of the parts. Community does not solve the problem of pluralism by obliterating diversity. Instead, it seeks out diversity, welcomes other points of view, embraces opposites and desires to see the other side of every issue. It is holistic. It integrates humans beings into a functioning contemplative body.

Genuine community is always characterised by integrity. Erik Erikson labelled the final stage of individual psychosocial development, "Integrity". Just as it characterises the highest, holistic form of individual functioning, so the integrity of community characterises the highest form of group functioning.

Integrity is never painless. It requires that matters come out into the open and that we fully experience the tension of conflicting needs, demands and interest. Even, that we be emotionally torn apart by them. Since integrity is never painless, so community is never painless. It is required to be open and vulnerable to the tension of conflicting needs and demands of its members and of the community as a whole. It does not seek to avoid conflict, but to reconcile it. The essence of that reconciliation is always the process of emptying. Community always pushes its members to empty themselves sufficiently to make room for the other point of view and the new and different understanding. If you wish to discern either the presence or absence of integrity, you need only ask one question, "What is missing?" or "What has been left out?"

There is another test for community that may not be quite so easy to comprehend. If no pieces of reality are missing from the picture, if all the dimensions are integrated and coloured in, then it is highly likely that you will be looking at a paradox. At the root of things, virtually all truth is paradoxical. If a concept is not in the least paradoxical, you should be suspicious of it and suspect that it has failed to integrate some aspect of the whole. Take for example the ethic of rugged individualism. There is nothing paradoxical about it. It runs with only one side of the truth: that we are called to individuation, wholeness and self-sufficiency. Its fallacy is that it ignores the other side of the same truth: that we are also called to recognise our inadequacy, our brokenness and our interdependence. Being fallacious, it fosters an dangerous self-centredness. The reality is that we do not exist either by or for ourselves. Obviously I cannot consider myself of greater importance than my family, my society or my ecology. As soon as we think with integrity, we realise that we are all stewards and that we cannot with integrity deny responsibility for stewardship of every part of the whole.

A Group of all Leaders

A community is a group of all leaders. Because it is a safe place, compulsive leaders feel free in community, often for the first time in their lives, not to lead. Conversely, the shy and reserved feel free to step forward with their latent gifts of leadership. The result is that community is an ideal decision-making body.

The flow of leadership in community is routine. It is a phenomenon that has profound implications for anyone who would seek to improve organisational decision-making - in business, government or elsewhere. But, it is not a quick trick or fix. Community must be built first. Traditional patterns of hierarchy have to be set aside, at least temporarily. Some kind of control must be relinquished for it is a situation where it is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual.

A Spirit

Community is a spirit, but not in the way that the familiar phrase "community spirit" is usually understood. The members of a group who have achieved genuine community do take pleasure, even delight, in themselves as a collective. They know they have won something together, collectively discovered something of great value and that they are "onto something". Beyond that, the similarity ends. There is nothing competitive, for instance, about the spirit of true community. On the contrary, a group possessed by a spirit of competitiveness is by definition not a community. Competitiveness is always exclusive whereas genuine community is inclusive.

The spirit of true community is the spirit of peace. People in the early stages of a community building workshop will frequently ask, "How will we know when we are a community?" It is a needless question. When a group enters community, there is a dramatic change in spirit. The new spirit is almost palpable. There is no mistaking it. No one who has experienced it need ever ask again, "How will we know when we are in community?"

Nor will one ever question that it is a spirit of peace that prevails when a group enters community. An utterly new quietness descends on the group. People seem to speak more quietly; yet, strangely, these voices seem to carry better through the room. There are periods of silence, but it is never an uneasy silence. Indeed, the silence is welcomed. It feels tranquil. Nothing is frantic anymore. The chaos is over. It is as if noise has been replaced by music. The people listen and can hear. It is peaceful.

But the spirit is slippery. It does not submit itself to definition or capture, the way material things do. So it is that a group in community does not always feel peaceful in the usual sense of the word. Its members will from time to time struggle, even struggle hard, with each other. The struggle may become excited and exuberant, with little room for silence. But, it is a productive, not a destructive, struggle. It always moves towards consensus, because it is always a loving struggle. It takes place on a ground of love. The spirit of community is inevitably the spirit of peace and love.

The loving, peaceful atmosphere is so palpable that almost every community member experiences it as a spirit. Hence, even the agnostic and atheist members will generally report a community building workshop as a spiritual experience. How this experience is interpreted, however, is highly variable. Those with a secular consciousness tend to assume that the spirit of community is no more than a creation of the group itself; and beautiful though it may be, they will leave it at that. Most Christians, on the other hand, tend toward a more complicated understanding. For us, the spirit of community is not seen as purely a human spirit or one created solely by the group. It is assumed to be external to and independent of the group. It is therefore thought of as descending upon the group. This does not mean that the spirit’s visitation is accidental or unpredictable. It can fall upon and take root only in fertile, prepared ground. Thus, for those of Christian faith, the work of community building is seen as a preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit. The spirit of community is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

In Christian thought, the Holy Spirit is particularly identified with wisdom. Wisdom is seen as a kind of revelation. To the secular mind, the wisdom is arrived at through thought, study and the assimilation of experience. We somehow earn it. While Christian thinking hardly denigrates the value of thought, study and experience, they believe that something more is involved in the creation of wisdom. Specifically, we believe wisdom to be a gift of God and the Holy Spirit.

The wisdom of true community often seems miraculous. The wisdom can perhaps be explained in purely secular terms as a result of the freedom of expression, the pluralistic talents and the decision making by consensus that occur in community. There are times, however, when there is no other way but to see it as a matter of divine spirit and possibly divine intervention. This is one of the reasons why the feeling of joy is such a frequent concomitant of the spirit of community. The members feel that they have been temporarily and, at least partially, transported out of the mundane world of ordinary preoccupation. For the moment it is somehow as if heaven and earth have met.