I love the word “community.” It explains itself—break it down, and you come away with “common unity.” Simply put, a community is one that is united around a shared interest, focus, value, or goal.
We all need, and want, community. Every person’s definition of community truly is unique, but in the end it tallies up to a sense of belonging, support, and purpose.
For me, community has looked very different over the years, but I have had the opportunity in the last year to learn some of the means of building it, from scratch.
1. Define Community
It is such an easy thing to assume that a pre-gathered group embracing a shared value automatically translates into community. But this is not a guarantee. Team sports, church groups, book clubs, and extracurricular classes all have the basic building blocks for community—a common goal/value/focus/interest—but do not always actually become community.
The expectations we don’t recognize we are carrying are usually the heaviest.
If you find yourself frustrated over the idea of community, it is possible that you are assuming it exists where it does not. This may be because you have not yet defined what community means to you.
Is it a small group, or a large group? Does it dive deep or snorkel through the shallows? Is it about a topic, or around a table? In other words, do ideas form the basis of your community, or do relationships drive the vehicle?
No answer is wrong, but it’s important that you know what community means to you and for you, because this will determine how you go about building it into your life.
Knowing what you are expecting is a gift to others, and to yourself. When you recognize your own expectations, you are free to release people from them. It’s when expectations remain hidden, and lurking in the dark, that they hold power to wield pain.
So, take a minute, or ten, and recognize what sort of community you’re hoping for, holding out for. Think it through, write it down, speak it aloud. Consider this a starting place, not an ending point…often, our own definitions shift and grow as we experience the very thing we’ve wanted.
Then, ask yourself: are the groups or people from whom I am expecting this definition of community equipped to provide it? If yes, then how can you facilitate more of it? If not, where else can you look for it?
2. Make Space for Community
In the warp-speed world of modern western civilization, community cannot thrive without intentionality. Community needs both space on your calendar and space in your heart.
Consider your schedule—what nights are free? What lunchtimes? How do you feel about getting up early to walk with or grab coffee with a friend, before heading to work or class? What activities are you and/or your family already involved in that could also include others? There are so many ways to get creative with this, but it will depend, again, on your definition of community.
For instance, maybe community for you means deep, one-on-one conversations, and you know just the person you’d like to talk with. Find a morning, an afternoon, or an evening to meet at a local cafe or coffee shop. Be willing to make the first move, and be willing to go outside of your normal routine to make it happen. By doing this, you are making space in your heart, by risking a ‘no’ response, as well as making space in your schedule.
If community for you means a house full of friends and relatives, with plenty of music and laughter, consider setting up a monthly restaurant date or open house, one all your favorite people can attend as they’re able. Everyone won’t be able to come all the time, but some will, some of the time.
Always remember that making space is never a waste, even if it does not reward you with the desired outcome. The changes being made within you are not losses.
3. Invite Community In
Opening our homes to others can feel intimidating. But as this form of hospitality becomes a little more rare, invitations become a little more meaningful, and special. Not everyone who takes us up on an invitation will become a consistent part of our life…but then again, they might.
The first thing to remember in opening up your home is this: more than likely, people who accept your invitation to gather in your home Do. Not. Care. about the smallness, the newness, the shininess, or the perfect-ness of your dwelling. They care about you (or they should), or they wouldn’t have come. Give yourself a pass on the appearance of your home. There is no need to pressure yourself to produce, polish, or impress. There is a difference between performance and community. We buy one. We build the other. The first thrives on a very small piece of reality being shown to an audience. The second is created by inviting one another into our very messy, very transient, very real hearts and homes.
4. Actively Seek For Community
If you don’t know just the person you’d like to hang out with, start paying attention to where you are, and where you go. The internet may just be your best friend in this instance—there are so many avenues to connect with local people who share your interests and values. Meetup and Facebook groups are excellent starting points.
Hate the internet? Go places, instead. Find local farmer’s markets, independent bookstores, mom-and-pop restaurants. Check out the community boards at the library and the YMCA and the coffee shops. Then, visit or contact businesses/groups that look interesting. Treat it as adventure, and remember that there is no loss, regardless of the outcome.
5. Be Flexible With Community
Maybe the worst thing we can do when seeking to build community is to have a narrow, rigid, or inflexible view of how it should all go down. Coming to the table with an agenda is usually better suited for the boardroom than the living room.
Inflexible community quickly becomes nothing less than a stale, stagnant, and sterile classroom.
Community can truly flourish when we are willing to shift, challenge, and change our expectations regarding how it works. Maybe you thought deep, one-on-one conversations in a cute, local coffee shop were the only way to really find fulfilling community. But maybe the friend you’ve chosen to spend time with can only swing meeting up in a busy, fast-food restaurant, with a middle-grade kiddo in tow.
That is wonderful!
Let’s take it for what it is—another human being taking some of their valuable time to spend with us—and be thankful. The conversation is still happening. The atmosphere and vibes may not be what we imagined, but those are peripheral issues. Community is about what happens with the people, not the place.
This gets tricky, because place often does have a profound affect on people – how we behave, how deep we’re willing to go, how safe we feel, and how much time we have to spend on the relationship. But if there is a general understanding for what both parties/groups desire, then the place can serve the people, regardless of how outside-the-ideal it is.
6. Be Grateful for Community
We can kill community by taking it for granted. People who don’t feel appreciated, or valued, don’t usually want to stick around. Pay attention to those special people in your life that matter to you. Acknowledge their birthday. Know their kids’ names and ages. If they’re sick, bring them soup. If they’re remodeling, offer to help paint. Be the community you want to experience.
And, watch out for those wily expectations…when we give graciously, we often assume the favors and friendship will be returned. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they won’t be. It can truly be hard to not take this personally…but make an effort. After all, we are the one who loses when we play this game. Tit-for-tat is not the basis for a grace-grounded community.
7. Allow Community to Grow, Shift, and Change
There are tensions here, aren’t there? We need a definition as a fixed point on the compass, but also the grace to change course and release expectations that grow stale or unrealistic.
Community is not a black-and-white, easily built entity. It requires a finger on the pulse of our own needs, willingness to give up expectations, and enough thoughtfulness to recognize when we need to keep looking.
Even though defining community is important, allow your definition to be a starting point—you may realize that what you believed you needed or wanted was actually less than something better, something you couldn’t picture at the beginning.
Change is inevitable. Friends move away. Health problems prevent regular meetings. The book club ends, or school starts. These are all opportunities—opportunities to get creative to preserve what was enjoyed, or to begin building another branch of community that is new and different.
Community is a living, growing, thriving thing. Living, growing, thriving things change, and this is good.