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« Goodness, Truth, & Beauty--a Trinitarian Relationship? | Main | The Kingdom of God -- The Now and Not Yet »

May 24, 2007

Niche communities -- an oxymoron?

Community: From the Latin communitatus. Com=together; munis=exchanges that link; tatus=small, intimate or local.

Here's a new one. A recent Cool News offers a report on a new kind of retirement community called Rocinante, a clothing-optional commune for aging hippies, one of the many "niche" communities springing up across the country for folks looking to live, work and play with others just like them.

I cringe when I read that the "niche" trend continues to grow, and that the word "community" is now used to describe not just residents of a particular local geographical area but an intentionally defined and designed enclave of people of similar age, marital status, and/or special interests or affiliations (or, in the Rocinante case, clothing preferences).

Even more unsettling is that this cultural trend is so pervasive in the church -- singles groups, children's church, young married couples. Sunday schools and retreats, "seniors" outings, even the plethora of corporate worship services tailored to specific musical tastes, technological expertise, and even clothing styles and beverage intake (do you sip your Starbucks or purified water during the service or after? Dress up or down? Whichever -- we have a service for you!).

Our niches are becoming so narrowly defined that I fear we've lost sight of what true community is, and what can be gained from being a participating member of a society of people at different stages of maturity and life situations, learning from and teaching others, through modeling and mentoring, how to respond and cope and deal with challenges that arise along the way.

Instead, we've created pseudo-communities of comfort -- places where we interact primarily with people our own age (and most likely ethnicity) who look, think, act, and live just like us, our peers educationally, professionally, and perhaps spiritually -- where, it seems, we become stunted in our ability to grow, mature and help others to do the same.

And interestingly, the more we safely ensconce ourselves in our ever narrowing niches, the louder the cry for "authentic" community reverberates.

I'll be forever grateful for having grown up in a small town where everybody of all social, economic, and ethnic groups went to school together, played sports together, and participated in other extracurricular activities together. My church was so small that I had relationships with Miss Pebble, the octogenarian organist; and Mrs. McKinney, my friend Lou Ann's mom; and little Matt Mosley and the other kids I babysat. My mother and grandmother knew my friends as well as I did, and I knew my friends' parents and grandparents.

I learned from Miss Pebble's steely gaze and sharp "shush!" how to behave in church, and from staring at the permanently dried trickle of henna down the nape of her neck for an hour every Sunday how not to dye my hair. From Mrs. McKinney, how to make fried pies and make strangers feel welcome. From little Matt Mosley and his nursery pals, how to potty-train toddlers and see the world through a child's imagination.

I had older people demonstrate healthy and not-so-healthy marriages, parenting skills, business and church leadership models, and godly and not-so-godly lifestyles, and as a result gained wisdom and knowledge about who and what I aspired to be. And I knew younger kids were looking up to me, and developed a sense of responsibility to be a model, mentor, and most importantly, friend, to them.

Rich, poor, black, white, "book-learned" or street smart, we all had something to teach one another, learn from one another, and give to one another and as a result had the opportunity to grow into more well-rounded, integrated, mature people who could navigate more easily through social and professional circles and situations of all kinds with greater ease.

Is this type of environment all lollips and daffodils? No. In true community there is disagreement, misunderstanding, impatience and argument. It can get uncomfortable. But by dealing with issues and differences, learning to respect and understand people who are different, rather than slicing out the part of the community that isn't working for us and creating newer, smaller, niches in order to achieve harmony and peace and comfort and understanding, we can grow, get healthier, and help others at a different place in life do the same. It isn't utopia, but it is "authentic" and it is real "community."

So, maybe that's why for me the phrase "niche community" is an oxymoron. Rather than create a geographical or cultural "just like me" comfort zone, I want to "bloom where I'm planted" -- living and learning and growing and giving with and for those placed in my path at work, church and in the neighborhood. That, for me, is what community is all about.

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