I like being part of a community. Usually, I can tell if a group is a community or if they are just a collection of individuals. They may even be working to some common end, but a collection of individuals will not automatically become a community. I am pretty sure I cannot give you an academic definition of community. But I do know there are some key aspects.
Community requires commitment from the various members. Typically, the community members have voluntary membership in the group. No one made them join up or even stay with the community. Clearly there has to be mutual respect. I have already indicated that communities do not have to be uniform or homogeneous. There can be some significant diversity in communities as long as there is mutual respect. Respect is different than agreement. In fact, there may be some people with whom I agree, but do not necessarily respect.
I think authentic community expect the most from each member without presupposing that everyone is perfect. Authentic communities have to find a way to understand and deal with the fact that occasionally some within the community will fail. It might be a failure of omission---someone failed to do what he or she said would be done. It might be a failure of commission---someone tried to be or do something and did not pull it off. These two kinds of failure---failing to do and failing in what you actually do---are both failure. The question is what to do with people who fail?
One obvious option is excommunication---banning the person. If you fail, you are tossed out of the group. Another option is probation of some sort. This is milder than excommunication, but still holds a threat. Probation says, in effect, you are on trial---you are on notice. Shape up or you will be shipped out of the group. Probation brings a certain kind of pressure. If I am on probation, it is my choice whether to stay with the community and try to get back into the graces of the community. But there is pressure.
A third option for people who fail is forgiveness. In this case the community recognizes there was failure, but extends forgiveness. Of course, everyone who has ever thought about forgiveness makes the point that forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting. Forgiveness is a fully conscious choice not to hold something against the person who failed. Obviously, forgiveness usually presupposes some sense of remorse, some apology, some admission from the one who failed. Forgiveness is not the same thing as saying, “oh, it does not matter.” Forgiveness says, “it matters, but we forgive you anyway.”
For me community has been an important laboratory of the spiritual life. Not every community of which I have been a participant has been a spiritual community. That’s ok, because even a non-spiritual community teaches me something about life in a spiritual community. So what kind of laboratory is community?
A spiritual community is a laboratory of love. This is not the sappy kind of love, but the real love of life together. It is the love that demands that I do my part and love others in the process. It is a laboratory of love that asks me to set aside self-interest in the interests of others and, particularly, the community. It is a laboratory of love that expects me to put the group ahead of my own self-interests. Yes, the group is more important than I am! That is counter-cultural in America today.
A spiritual community is a laboratory of hope. It is a place where the hope of the group (often expressed as the goal or mission of the group) feeds the individual hopes of each member. Jesus called this hope the Kingdom. I might call it the Blessed Community. Again, it is bigger than I am. It helps me transcend my own petty hopes and dreams. It makes me a part of something bigger, something more important, and something significant.
I am grateful for my little gang. I am grateful they include me. They are going to take me places I could never go on my on. They may even take me to the place where I can pray, “thy kingdom come,” and it will! Blessed be community!