What Is Community?

Community. It’s a buzz-word. It’s a television sit-com. It’s a longing in our hearts. But what is it? What does community mean? There have been books, long books, written on the subject. There have been many sermons preached. There have been many university seminars given. I have to be honest with you, I have talked about community and thought about community and yet I do not think that I could define community. Community. Community. Community…

Then I read Wendell Berry’s essay, “Writer and Region” in What Are People For. His definition of community is astounding: “a common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.(85)” Consider with me for a brief moment what the ramifications of this definition are for us. First, a common experience. People who seek to have or be a part of community must have a common experience. This means that they must actually do something. I think that often people think community will just develop or happen around them, it does not. What is a common experience? It is a common doing. It means that a person willingly does something with others. They engage. They enter in. They participate.

Second, a common effort. The term effort implies that there is a mission or a purpose for one to be in relationship with another. Community develops along the lines of mission. There must be a purpose or a mission before one can have community because there must be a common effort. This again requires a person and individual to choose to set aside herself to enter into a mission with others. Effort will then be exerted when the mission is grasped and understood and embodied by the group.

Third, a common ground. This can mean all sorts of things but I think Berry means it in the sense of proximity. Community happens in a place. There is a proximity to it. Boots on the ground together as a group on a mission in the same place. I think about a place like Ocean City, NJ where I spent a summer on mission. I can picture the people and the things done but they are all tied to a place: the boardwalk, the Ambassadors Inn, Philly, or Broadway. A place, a common ground.

Finally, there must be a willingness. This community will not happen unless a person willingly submits himself to the group. He must enter in of his own accord. Apart from this willingness he cannot know community because he cannot be with the others on the common ground; his heart is elsewhere.

Community: common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.