Last year, the number of people living alone in the UK surpassed 8 million for the first time. Our so-called “connected lifestyles” have often failed to help us encounter other people in truly satisfying ways: being a virtual friend or subscribing to a newsfeed is no guarantee of closeness to another human being.
Of course, we need to find meaningful community that is realistic in today’s world. There’s no point in talking nostalgically about memories of pen pals and tea ladies!
Fellowship in the Bible
Before the Fall, Adam walked closely with God. As Eden’s Chief Gardener, he had the best job in the world. But Adam’s life was incomplete. The first thing in the Bible that God declared to be “not good” was Adam’s isolation – he was the only human and he needed others to work with him. It’s easy to get carried away with the idea that Adam needed one other special person to complete him and so God made Eve to be his companion. But God’s instruction was not “Go off and be a couple together”. Rather, it was “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) We were made to serve one another in community.
Rather than our modern family ideal of a married couple plus children, the term “family” in biblical times would have meant a household, including travellers and more distant relatives. Foreigners, orphans and widows would have been naturally welcomed into households to save them from destitution.
We might consider this old-fashioned and judge it to be unrealistic in today’s busy world. But, when we became Christians, all our relationships changed – not only does Jesus make peace for us with the Father (Romans 5:1), but our relationships with our fellow believers have changed. The metaphors in the New Testament are potent: we are one body (1 Corinthians 12); we are branches of the True Vine (John 15); the church consists of our brothers and sisters (Mark 10:28-30). Christianity might start with a personal encounter with Jesus, but following him means being adopted into His people, and it’s a big family!
What should this mean in practice? Well, in the early church they met daily, they shared their possessions, they prayed, broke bread and they were taught together (Acts 2: 42-47). They were “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). There was nothing individualistic about their faith – every element of their faith was lived out in community.
Living in Community
If you mention “living in community” to Christians today, it might conjure up images of communes with minimal privacy and an abundance of vegetarian food! Well, meaningful biblical community doesn’t have to look like this. If you look at the practices of the early church, their experience of community was a joyful one of daily fellowship. But if you mention “fellowship” today, many just understand it as socialising for Christians.
Recent research in the American Sociological Review has shown that 33% of those with between 3 and 5 close friendships at their church reported themselves as being “extremely satisfied” with their lives, compared with 19% for those who attended church but had no close friendships there. Interestingly, this lower satisfaction level (19%) was the same for those who never attended church. So, there is something very important about building meaningful connections with those at church, as well as just attending the services.
As well as reducing loneliness and increasing life satisfaction, engaging in meaningful church community can help with overcoming sinful behaviours. Jay Stringer’s research among those struggling with pornography showed a reduction from 67% in pornography use down to 45% when a person had someone to talk to about this problem. If we have people that we can trust with personal matters, then it will help us to break free from sexual sin.
The TFT Community
TFT is a community of Christians whose common struggles and shared faith bring us together. We build our community particularly through our conferences and support groups. At our National Conference each October, we share accommodation, we worship God together and we gather together to hear the Bible taught. We hear testimonies of God at work in people’s lives and we share communion together. Over mealtimes, we talk and share details of our lives that encourage and build one another up.
Local Church Community
Although TFT members often appreciate the times together at conferences and support groups, TFT is not the local church. We always encourage members to look primarily to their local church for regular fellowship.
Personally, I have found that a great way of really getting to know people in a church is to serve alongside them. The closest friends I’ve made at church haven’t been those I’ve chatted to while sipping a coffee. Rather, they are those I’ve stood alongside in a draughty doorway week after week, welcoming people to church. They are the people who have seen me tired and stressed, trying to maintain the interest of a group of children during a Bible talk. This kind of serving together builds trust, mutual reliance, respect, as well as a compassionate awareness of one another’s weaknesses.
My other tip for building community is to offer hospitality. There is something profoundly biblical and relational about welcoming others into our homes and sharing our lives with others. This isn’t laying on a dinner party to impress others. Rather, true hospitality is simply including others in our everyday lives.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.