I used to think that “community” was about the town you lived in. Your community was made up of all of the people, businesses, services, schools, and civic elements that built a city or town. Being “community-minded” meant that you participated in service organizations and supported charities. And, while those things are certainly still true, that definition of community is limited at best.
We live in a time where people can find community in many different ways and places. In addition to the community we each find in our places of residence, communities are formed around shared interests, shared beliefs, similar stages in life, professional groups, religious organizations, and much more. For example, for years, I’ve found friendship, advice, and a strong sense of belonging in a Facebook group attached to a podcast I’ve regularly subscribed to for the past several years. That community has walked through some of the earliest years of parenting with me with wisdom and kindness, even in the warzone of Facebook.
In both the digital world and the physical world, however, it’s vital to recognize the difference between authentic community and counterfeit community. Authentic communities begin with a commonality, in most cases, such as a shared interest or shared season of life, but these communities go beyond those facts and ultimately form based on true connection, love, and mutual respect.
Years ago I was a staff member at a Christian summer camp. There were forty of us or so on staff each summer, and many of us worked for multiple summer together and also grew up attending as campers together. It’s been fifteen years since I was on staff, but I was able to reunite with several of those staff members a few months ago and felt the same sense of belonging and connection I felt as a 20 year old on staff. The commonality had shifted, but the connection persisted.
Counterfeit community also begins with a common belief or interest, but that’s where it stops. Groups such as these are created around people sharing the right belief, right opinion, or right interest. For a time, those groups are exciting and one can feel an intense sense of belonging as they find like-minded people. However, beliefs, opinions, and interests inherently shift and change over time.
The danger in these tribes is that a sense of belonging is intensely threatened if you question, doubt, change, or your interest fades. There’s no room for growth in these groups, and they leave no room for the individual, only the group. In some groups such as these, people often warn against those who disagree, breeding fear about the “other.” And, should someone begin to change their mind from the ethos of the group, they may be tempted to suppress or hide because their sense of belonging is threatened as they change. Groups such as these, I hesitate to even call them communities, can feel unsafe and rigid over time as they lose their commonality and try to preserve it in artificial ways.
A sense of belonging is a strong human need, and is inherently connected to our sense of identity. Yet, the two are distinct. When we’re disconnected from the places where we belong or once belonged, though in most cases painful, we continue to exist. Confusing who we are with where we belong also can be incredibly limiting to what we can uniquely offer to any community we authentically belong to. The greatest beauty of community is when each individual is fully and authentically themselves, sharing their true selves with each other in ways that prosper connection.