Rocks and Islands

In my 34 years of life, I’ve come to this realization about our nation as a whole: We are a society of individuals who sometimes end up being around other people.

I, like many other national and regional staff persons, travel frequently by air. It never ceases to amaze me that most of us on airplanes these days are flying alone—heads bent down over our iPhones and ears covered with headphones to block the “noise” surrounding us. I am guilty of being one of those people. It reminds me of that Simon & Garfunkel song “I Am a Rock.” We are rocks and islands.

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I can faintly recall the days of yore when people talked with one another on planes and in boarding areas. Sure, it still happens occasionally; but it’s pretty rare. I also recall impromptu visits from neighbors when I was a child (which meant that I knew their names).

In the media, this sort of self-isolation masquerades as individualism. Each of us is our own unique person, and we each have the right—nay, the duty—to purchase the products of our choice that will make us stand out above the rest (even though millions of others will purchase the same product). Just Google “commercials about individualism”—what pops up is astounding. It is a sad irony that those very products isolate us when all we want is to be noticed for purchasing them.

New research from New York University determined that the desire to feel unique can undermine consensus, cohesion, and mobilization, especially among political liberals. In short, researchers discovered that liberals underestimate their similarity to other liberals; and conservatives overestimate their similarities with other conservatives. In effect, mobilization has been more difficult for political liberals in recent years than for conservatives (think Occupy Movement vs. Tea Party).

What if we stopped thinking of ourselves as unique individuals for a few moments? Yes, we are people created in God’s image and we must never forget that. But what if we began to believe and act as though we depended on one another for our very survival? In many cultures, it is anathema to behave in a way that draws attention to oneself as an individual. The individual exists as an extension of the community, not vice versa.

At its best, church is not a community that is merely made up of unique individuals. It is a group of people dependent on one another for our very survival. Church is a place where what divides us is a pittance compared to what unites us. We celebrate this understanding in worship every week, in our service and advocacy within our neighborhoods (through knowing our neighbors’ names), and in our taking of the bread and the cup as a reminder to ourselves that we are one body.

Church was never meant to be a group of individuals who just end up being around each other every once in a while. We are not a boarding area at an airport. Church implies that we are inherently, inextricably connected to one another. Apart from that community, we cannot truly survive and thrive.

I’ll look up from my iPhone and take off my headphones for that sort of community any day.

SPARKING MINISTRY CONVERSATIONS

Are there ways that your church mimics society’s notions of individualism and/or self-isolation? How can you turn rocks and islands into mountains and continents? What does it really mean for people in a church community to depend on one another for their own survival?

This post is also published through Stillspeaking Weekly, a series designed with pastors, lay leaders and committees in mind, offering thoughtful and practical reflections that invite and inspire dialogue on how your church can strengthen its ministries.

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