In this week’s column, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the three rings of relationships we have in life. The inner ring includes our family and friends. It turns out we are fairly good at maintaining those closest relationships. We are also reasonably good at managing our outer ring of acquaintances – affinity groups, Facebook and people with whom we have something in common but not frequent personal contact. However, our middle-ring relationships seem to be withering away. These are the civic relationships or “social capital” that we build by being on boards, volunteer organizations, politics, church committees and places where we are sometimes forced to challenge each other. Brooks writes, “Middle-ring relationships…help people become skilled at deliberation. The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire department may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.”
With the drift toward the poles of strong personal ties on one end and extended acquaintances on the other, we are losing the ability to engage in healthy public deliberation and we “find it easier to ignore inconvenient viewpoints and facts. Partisanship becomes a preconscious lens through which people see the world…We’re good at bonding with people like ourselves but worse at bridging with people unlike ourselves.” We can, in effect, huddle with those we love or those we barely know but not those in between.
David’s column reminded me of a piece by Philip Yancey I read 20 years ago, “Why I Don’t Attend A Megachurch.” He wrote that most of us when given the choice tend to spend time with people like ourselves, and the irony of a large church is that it gives us many more ways to find people who are most like us, instead of pushing us toward more diverse relationships. In a large church we can huddle in anonymity or only with those most like us.
In fact, it is the smaller church that most encourages true but uncomfortable diversity because a smaller church or community is the place we are unable to avoid the people with whom we probably have the least in common. In a smaller community we are, as Brooks says, “forced to deal with inconvenient viewpoints and facts.” Os Guinness would say it is a place where we learn to live with our deepest differences. Henri Nouwen defines community as “the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
I live in a mid-size city that has grown since we moved here 32 years ago – but not exploded. Even though we no longer know everyone, we still feel like we should or at least we should know someone who has some friend in common with us. Our city is what Brooks might consider a “hotbed of middle-ring relationships,” and like many growing places in the South we are learning, sometimes painfully, to accommodate and manage our differences. We are fairly evenly white, black and Hispanic. We have many brands of Protestant Christians, a growing Muslim community, large numbers of Catholics and a healthy Jewish community. I don’t know how, but we have managed our middle-ring relationships well. Yes, our town has disagreements and spats, but with only one or two brief exceptions we have all worked it out. After all, we see each other at the grocery store, school and Wal-Mart.
In the last several years, people in my community have been talking of forming a Christian Community Fund to serve a defined market of evangelical Christians. While I love the work of many Christian Community Foundations around the country, I would deeply miss the gift of a foundation board meeting that represents an entire community – and not only one segment. I’ve been resistant because I thought it would create a tear in the fabric of our city and by excluding people “not like us,” it would eliminate one more place where we have the opportunity to disagree, debate, wrangle and then get stuff done together. For now, we don’t have the option of huddling with those just like us. We need more (not fewer) opportunities to find ways to encourage our middle-ring relationships.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world…. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.” He’s right. Living in a small community with those we cannot avoid is exactly where I want to be.