“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
We humans are social beings – it’s one of our most fundamental characteristics. Four hundred years ago, John Donne wrote those famous words, “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main”, and they are just as relevant today.
The Bible too has much to say about corporate relationships, or community. From the beginning, “God said, ‘It is not satisfactory for man to be alone; I will make him a helper complementary to him’” (Genesis 2:18). Indeed, God himself is a community of persons, the Trinity, who created humans in his own image (“Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness”, Genesis 1:26). Jesus gathered a group of people together, his twelve disciples, with others, to be the prototype of his new community. So we are on very solid ground when our focus is not simply on an individual Christian’s relationship with God, but also on the shared, communal dimension of our life together – the church.
Human beings function best in groups – they were never designed to live alone. This propensity to band together and cooperate is instinctive, hard-wired into our DNA. In Together for Good, a follow up resource to Lifting the Lid, we’ve seen how the strength or weakness of our relationships, both individually and corporately, has a huge impact on our physical, mental and general health. But as a society we are not doing well with community relationships. Loneliness is becoming a huge problem.
One study showed that two-thirds of Britons say they have no one to speak to about mental health or relationships. Five million people say that the television is their main form of company. Mother Teresa expressed the matter succinctly: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. There’s a hunger for love.”
In their study of human society, sociologists call the ties that bind people together in communities, social capital. If a neighbourhood has high social capital there is much connection, trust and cohesion. Two types of social capital are described. The first is all about bonding – tightly-knit groups who look, think and act like each other (family, friends, colleagues and ethnic groups function in this way). However, generally speaking, there is less interest and welcome for people who are different. The second type of social capital is termed bridging. Here, people from one group reach out to another group that is very different. This is much more challenging, but it provides the opportunity to break down age-old barriers and bring new and fresh life to groups that hitherto had no interest in each other.
• What causes a community to turn in on itself, to focus only on bonding, with no interest in bridging to other, different groups?
• Conversely, what might help such a community to turn its attention outwards?
• What groups exist in your locality that have little or no contact with your church? How might you as a church begin to make contact with them?
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Recently, the Christians in Practice project looked into the link between Christians’ engagement with their local communities and its impact on their own faith. The results were very revealing:
• 82% said that helping others in their community had helped them grow as a Christian
• 83% reported that it had increased their love for other people
• 77% affirmed that it had increased their love for God
• 72% agreed that it had helped them to understand their faith better
The passage in 1 Corinthians 12 shows how a group of people can develop bonding social capital, through healthy, generous, committed relationships. The Christians in Practice project demonstrates how outward-looking groups can extend bridging social capital, to the benefit of both givers and recipients.
Yet many churches struggle with both internal and external relationships. With busy and sometimes stressful lives and many conflicting commitments, many church members feel unable to engage with others in their church – let alone alone people in their neighbourhoods. The quality of our church community suffers and we are left wondering what to do.
How did one Somerset town bring about a 17% fall in hospital admissions, whilst the whole county at that time saw a 29% rise? Simply put, it was because a local GP decided to take action on the dual challenge of over-medicalisation and increasing loneliness of her patients. How did she do it? By promoting and developing relational connections and community locally. She began to employ “health connectors” within the NHS to help people plan their care, but also recruited “community connectors” – volunteers who helped them find support. The result was that local people, rather than possessing symptoms of disease, discovered capacity to address their own problems.
How might this example help you as a church community engage more effectively with your locality?
• Looking again at our passage (1 Corinthians 12), where would you see your church’s strengths?
• Research shows that community connection and support is one of the church’s strongest cards. So how might your church strengthen its own community life?
• Could you extend this beyond the walls of the church, to people who would never normally darken the door of their local church (ie grow bridging social capital)?
Together for Good is a new, free resource designed to provide churches with Bible Studies and group exercises exploring the themes of happiness, meaning and wellbeing.
Written and produced with wellbeing expert Dr Andy Parnham and Corin Pilling, Deputy Director of Public Engagement, the hope is that it will support churches to grow wellbeing as a basis for good mental health in their community.
The resource can be used by churches all year round, though many have used it during Lent. Each study focuses on a specific theme, inviting you to reflect on your experience, draw from the Bible, and then consider your response – both individually and as a church.