Thinking about the "Y" and Finding the "U" in "Community"

Ed Blum

one of the many murals in los angeles:
Inspired by Matthew Frye Jacobson’s The Historian’s Eye project, Darren Grem’s work on and photographs of Chick-Fil-A, and Thomas Tweed’s new book on the Basilica of the National Shrine, I’ve been mass-transiting around southern California (mostly San Diego, but getting into Los Angeles and the Inland Empire some too) and looking for signs (literal, physical signs) of church and religious life. What has most drawn my attention, aside from the big, gigantic Jesus murals, has been the word “community.”

“Community” seems ubiquitous in church signage, even though I know many of these congregations are gigantic. Reverend David Jeremiah’s Shadow Mountain Community Church is huge and the service is broadcast on cable television. Heck, Shadow Mountain is robust enough to have Tim Tebow visiting for father’s day (to talk about not being a father, I guess?) Journey Community Church is not too far away and it has at least one thousand regular attenders. Both Journey and Shadow Mountain are also deeply committed to the idea of “you.” Shadow Mountain’s current campaign is “God loves you, He always has, He always Will.” Journey’s motto is “You Matter to God. You Matter to Us.”

Someone help me out here and explain the rage for “community” for churches that clearly are many, many communities within one large organization? Sure, this is a marketing strategy on one hand. Sure, this is an appeal to a world where people “bowl alone” (although I’ve never seen that in my nights of bowling with friends) on the other. If I had a third hand, I'd say 'and then on the next hand', sure, this is a cry for connection in a time of seeming social anomie and atomization. But is there more happening with the focus on “community.” Can anyone provide any meaning to these, to quote Charles Long, “significations, signs, and symbols”?


Edward J. Blum said…
we've visited some of these churches and I want to write a little book 'Confessions of a Church Shopaholic"
I wonder how this fits into larger uses of "community" in naming other institutions--private schools, independent food markets, etc.

Just spitballing here: To what extent does "community" stand as a marker of independence or difference--maybe difference from denominationalism in this case. First Methodist Church or Grace Presbyterian strikes the as so formal and stodgy. It's about the institution itself. Community Church, now that's about all of us, and, most importantly, me.
Edward J. Blum said…
Good points! I wonder if "community" has somehow replaced "evangelical" in identity naming too. I don't hear "evangelical" too much here in southern California, not like I did in the 1980s when it was used in the PCUSA to differentiate "conservatives" and "liberals." So 'community' is the new name to replace the old names.
I wonder, too, about the disinvestment from things like "community pools" or "community rec centers" and now into "community churches". Part of the privatization of America ... but use the language of the public good?
John Fea said…
Ed: I hope you have a grant to cover your gas money!
Jesse Jones said…
In an age of hyper-individualism, does "community" ameliorate those things that scare us about the Church? Ecclesiastical structures are rejected as anti-American, submission to a democratic will is rejected as Orwellian, strong individual leadership smacks of a cult, but "community" evokes potluck dinners and ordinary folks helping each other out.
jspiers said…
I suspect nothing more elaborate than well thought out marketing strategies. As the emergent/emergence movement grows - and as more and more of that ever-more-desirable 21-36 year old demographic abandons traditional evangelicalism - mega-churches (like their secular corollary mego-corporations) must re-brand to survive. Thus, we have superstore "fresh-markets" to pull in the hipster population with prices and services they are familiar with combined with the feel-good appearance of organic goodness. Likewise, we have evangelical superstores offering all of the goods and services they always have, along with the feel-good addition of the language of community espoused by the early church, though with none of that "sell all you have, give to the poor, hold all things in common" stuff that is so inconvenient...

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