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Choosing Community

by John K. Stoner (September 29, 2017)

On September 22 I wrote “Communities to Change Everything” in which I argued that participation in small communities of education and influence is the best way to effect large-scale social change.

Today I go further with the case for choosing participation in such communities, and in future blogs will enlarge on simple lifestyle and nonviolence as profound transformative commitments which are effectively enacted by small communities.

So why choose to join or affiliate with a small, local community, such as a church congregation? (Recognizing that church at its best is far from church at its worst.)  The decision to do so, upon reflection, appears to be a profound, indeed life-changing choice, so a person would not do it lightly.  

One might begin with the question, Who or what is shaping my life?  I write in and for life in the context of United States of America.  I would say that here our lives are shaped by the voices of TV, social media and the people in our daily lives.  Next we might ask, Am I being shaped as I wish to be by these voices?  Are these the voices I wish to be decisive in influencing how I view the world, what I do, and who I am?  How have I been formed until now in my life?  Is this the way I want to continue to be formed and to travel into the future? 

When we are young our parents are the key actors in shaping our lives, first by their own influence, and then by the educational experiences they expose us to.  As we get older, we make choices about our own education—for many, a big decision is whether to seek education beyond high school by going to college.  About a third of Americans have completed 4 years of college.   But this means that two-thirds of us end our formal education with high school—but do we discontinue learning and changing our views and our selves when we leave high school?  And do those who go to college end the process of personal growth and thought when they leave college?  The point is, the process of being formed, shaped and educated never ends, it is a life-long process.  The only question is, who or what is doing all of that formation, and are we taking personal responsibility for who and what is forming us?

We can choose to affiliate with a community that engages us in a life-long process of formation, learning and living in ways that are on a different trajectory than those of the TV, general social media and our unquestioning daily associates.  

In my previous essay I argued that the world needs such communities to move it toward a sustainable future.  The further point here is that all of us as individuals need such communities to form and transform us into the kind of people our planet needs and we want ourselves to be.  We can exercise our right to choose the influences which shape us, rather than leaving it to chance and dumb luck.  

Another reason to join a local community is the fact that it is local.  Americans are probably the most transient people in the world.  We literally have no place that really matters to us, and as much or more importantly, we do not matter to any place.  

The effect of having no place that really matters to us means that both our human and our ecological relationships are fragile and less than fulfilling.  One ingredient of meaningful friendships in durability.  There is no substitute for long-term friends.  That is why marriage is so universally practiced, or at least attempted, and why failure in marriage is so devastating.  But not all people marry, and those who do need significant  friendships beyond marriage.  An enduring local community provides the context where profound and rewarding friendships can flourish.  

And when we do not matter to any place, the earth is cheated and it decays.  Modern industrial civilization has made it possible for (some) people to move away from the destruction and pollution of their lifestyles. Thus we get polluted streams and rivers, ruined farms, nuclear waste and mountaintop removal.  When we live in a place and have commitment to it, we take responsibility to leave it as a livable habitat for our descendants. So the importance of community is in formation and location.

It is also in transformation.  No one who takes a straight look at our world today can fail to see that it needs transformation.  A lot of things need to change if we are going to have  a sustainable future.  That is called transformation.  

Change is difficult.  It is difficult for individuals.  When we are honest with ourselves, we know that formation and transformation are difficult.  But that does not make it unnecessary.  And so we try to make choices which move us toward a better life—toward change that is necessary.  

And the changes which we make—thousands of us, no millions of us—effect change in the bigger picture.  That is political action that counts.  

Go to next blog in series. 


  1. In today's world of liquid modernity, your commitment to a community doesn't mean that community will hold enduring values. For instance, a decade ago, based on its own stated faith commitments, after being committed Christians for decades, we joined the Mennonite Church. Fast forward to now, and that community itself abandoned its own former commitments for the ones offered by a changing culture, and engaged in a purge of those who still held to their original commitments. So allegiance to a community, per se, offers no permanent allegiance to other than what a majority decides needs to change. Change for change's sake implies there are no permanent values or truth to be found. Our view of community was one in which we act for the good of others, according to God's will, clearly not identical with changing social fads that reject Christian belief, including guidance by the Holy Spirit in understanding scripture. The retaliation that follows violating new community norms is highly destructive, mirroring transformation into cult behavior by its leadership, violating the freedom that was supposed to be in Christ. To join the Mennonite community was the worst decision we ever made, although it was done for the right reasons, even as stated above.

  2. I agree that there is no magic assurance that a community will be good. That's why I said "the church at its best is far from the church at its worst." I have no comment on your personal experience with the Mennonite Church. However, every church claims to seek to be guided by a voice/reality/truth beyond itself, which would be Jesus. However again, history shows that this claim has not produced unity. But I would say, however once more and nevertheless, the enduring impact of the message of Jesus for good warrants a hearing by serious people, and that message has been carried, willy nilly, by communities which claim to follow him. I guess churches are a little like families, some better than others, but we keep on having them.