As I got off the subway in Manhattan, I passed a guy who was walking up the stairs while reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s based on the premise that mankind’s primary pursuit is not pleasure, but meaning. Fair enough. In New York City, you can multiply both pursuits by the millions. When we view the city, New York or our own, through the eyes of the Father heart of God we consider such questions as – What moves people? What cultural influences affect them? And how can we foster the growth of vibrant, loving, Gospel-centered community?
I read an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times recently where he described four major forces coursing through society today. Unprecedented global migration is leading to demographic diversity. Economic globalization is creating more opportunities, but also greater inequality. The Internet provides people with a dizzying and dazzling array of choices regarding what to pay attention to and how to spend their money. A culture of autonomy, at least in the West, worships individual choice and self-determination. All of these forces lead to a weakening of the social fabric. In our cities, many live in isolation among a sea of people.
Offering insight into how we can strengthen our social fabric again, Brooks cited Marcia Pally’s new book, “Commonwealth and Covenant,” where she suggests that our need is “separability amid situatedness.” Another way to phrase this is distinction within relationship. Brooks wrote, “We want to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living. But we also want to be situated — embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.” However, while our society champions individualism, we sometimes undervalue relationships.
Pally recommends a return to the historic Jewish and Christian theologies of relationship, like the covenant. Marriage is an example of covenant. A covenant exists between people who understand their need for and responsibility toward one another. More than a mere contract, covenant involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love. We see this modeled through the words of Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law, after their husbands died, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) While Pally has a different focus, I caught a glimpse of what this can mean for the Church in society.
Each of us is a unique and valuable creation of God, yet we are made for, flourish, and find our meaning within relationship. Together we serve a purpose much greater than ourselves. Within covenant, love and virtue meet in service to God and one another.
How might this relate to building community in our cities? When people sense that relationships are not utilitarian or expendable, they feel embraced and let their hair down. We can welcome people into safe spaces and relationships that will not end when they have tough questions about faith or show up rough around the edges. We can engage people through the life-giving community of the church long before they ever believe. Some of that community happens around the table during a meal, while pursuing a common interest or cause, while doing life together, or growing together in our understanding of meaning, identity, and relationship from a biblical perspective.
Ultimately, we can tell others about the foundation for our loving relationships and our own experience of God’s reconciling love. It’s the new covenant – the new relationship – we have with God through Jesus Christ based on what He has done for us through His death and resurrection. Jesus Christ crucified and risen breaks the cycle of relational dysfunction, exploitation, violence, evil, and personal sinfulness and guilt. The power and beauty of how the Gospel transforms individuals and weaves us into the fabric of loving community can resonate in our modern world. It can take root and grow in our cities.
Finally, here are a few of the ways we are encouraged to relate to one another in Christian community.
Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)
Show hospitality to one another. (1 Peter 4:9)
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10)
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another. (1 Peter 4:10)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Encourage one another and build one another up. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. (James 5:16)
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)
Live in harmony with one another. (Romans 12:16)
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
In so doing, society can become a strong, woven fabric again.