Why You Can’t Form Community

I always encourage writers to come up with a catchy opening to make a reader want to continue reading, so how is this for a catchy introduction:

Forming a community as an adult sucks. It is the actual worst.

Maybe I say that because I am an introvert. Still, whenever forming friendships or building community comes up among other adults, it seems like we all experience the same thing: We are bad at developing community. Well, at least life-giving communities.

Communities are formed around common interests and goals but are sustained and nurtured by mutual care. We are part of several communities right now, but that doesn’t mean they are “life-giving communities.” Your job, your church, that weird group of people that is always at the grocery store simultaneously as you – those are all communities. But let’s be honest – you aren’t looking to your frequent shopper group when you need help through the challenging moments of life.

The result is that we remain a part of many communities but have nowhere we genuinely feel is home. Youth ministers, let’s be real here – we may be the one group of adults that can feel most isolated.

We work a unique job. We serve at odd hours. The things we care about don’t necessarily make for great, casual conversation with people we’ve just met (“What do you do for work?” “Oh, you know, I help young people encounter the eternal and unchanging God of the universe. Also, we played a game where you got to pie your small group leader in the face last week.”).

But we need community. We are continually trying to build small group communities, help teens get to know each other at Life Nights and Edge Nights – the very premise of relational ministry is about community. So why do we struggle to form it?

Community requires vulnerability, and as much as we may encourage teenagers, core members, and parents to “open up,” we wrestle with it. Whether it is due to past wounds or just plain old fear, being vulnerable is challenging. Without it, though, we aren’t going to form life-giving communities.

We don’t need to get stuck here, though. Any community you are part of can be transformed into one that is life-giving (I mean, maybe not your frequent shopper club – but who knows?) with four simple actions:

  1. Choose the community (wisely). You are part of many communities right now, but you can’t engage them all. Pick one or two that you want to pour into this coming year. They may be ones you feel good about and could be anything from your job to the group of parents that wait together to pick up kids after school. A caveat – don’t go “cold turkey” into this. There are communities where you like the people already and have built up enough rapport to have a conversation in a non-awkward way. Choose those.
  2. Go first. People are afraid to open up, which is why communities remain surface-level. We don’t want to give for other people only to take, so we keep boundaries. Boundaries are good (vulnerability can’t exist without them), but we never really get to “test” people out when they are set too far out. Be vulnerable with people first, but remember…
  3. Don’t turn on the fire hose. Vulnerability happens incrementally, not all at one moment. There may be times where this isn’t always the case, like the moment you emotionally unload on an unsuspecting co-worker after you found out your mom was diagnosed with cancer, but most of the time, we need to take baby steps. Going “too far too soon” can make people create distance. Vulnerability in increments may look like asking for help (e.g., “Hey, I am getting my car fixed on Tuesday. Would you be able to pick me up for work?”), or it may look like sharing how you are (actually) feeling when someone asks (e.g., “Actually, I’m kind of having a tough day. My son has been struggling at school and today when I dropped him off, he kind of broke down. It was tough.”). Incremental means this takes time; don’t be frustrated when your initial request for help with the mechanic doesn’t instantly spawn a vibrant community.
  4. Invest in others. We can’t form a community selfishly. This means we need to invest in other people. Pour in more than you want to get out. Ask them how they are doing. Show up for their car appointment. Cry with them when you find out about their mom’s cancer.

Keep repeating steps two and three while you feel out your community. Doing so invites people to share more, as well, when they can see how people respond to you.

We need community, and the good news is you are already part of a few, now get to work in transforming them from something where you are just a frequent shopper number into a place where you are sustained and supported. Also, make sure you grab a gallon of milk while you are there.

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash