How to Build Community (guest post with Melissa Joy Boerger)


If you’ve ever lived away from established friends and family you’ll know the importance of intentionally making friends and building community. When we lived in Finland we worked hard at connecting with others in order to create family and community around us. Within a few years we were surrounded by an amazing group of people who took care of one another and shared their lives together. Our door was never locked, people would come and go through our house daily, meals would be shared, neighbourhood children cared for, hearts held, victories celebrated, and the seasons of life observed. It changed our expectations of what life, church and friendship could be.

When we left Finland and returned to Toronto it never occurred to us that we might be lonely. Toronto was our home after-all, so we took it for granted that we would find our old relationships ready to go. For a variety of reasons that was not the case and by the end of our first year back we were tired, lonely, isolated and hurting. Our attempts to establish regular, committed presence with a few friends were met with sympathy but no willingness to commit. I grieved the closeness we had left behind and I resolved to not put myself out there in the same way I once had, so fearful was my heart of being turned down once again.

Fast-forward a few years and we had settled in a new city and a new church. We had hung out a few times with an old friend of mine and were getting to know his wife and kids. One Sunday morning she came over and asked me if we might possibly, maybe, if we didn’t think it was weird, be willing to consider talking about having dinner every week together, just if, you know, we didn’t think that was too much. I gave her a huge hug and told her she had no idea how much that meant to me. We’ve been having dinner every Friday night since then and we often end up sleeping over.

These kinds of relationships are special and unique, but they don’t have to be rare. Warm, committed friendships that blossom into a wider expression of present community can be nurtured and grown. Melissa shared her part of the story recently on her own blog and recommended 6 steps to making adult friends and building community. I’m sharing them here because they’re so practical and excellent, and I’ve added a few thoughts of my own at the end.

Practical Guide to Building Community (aka: Making Adult Friends)

We were having dinner with friends who just moved to the city next to us. We were really still getting to know each other as couple friends. Imagine being on a fourth date with someone—you really like them but you're still trying to make a good impression. There we were in their house, at their table, eating dinner, everything was going great. We had so much in common! Phew! So much in common that they used the same glass water bottles we did at the table. You should know this wasn’t an individual water bottle situation, this was the water for everyone to pour from situation. In my relaxed state, without even thinking, I did something entirely out of habit: I grabbed the bottle, popped off the lid, and started to drink out of it. Mid-drink, I suddenly became aware of what I was doing. I was so shocked at my own behaviour that I suddenly spat the water out EVERYWHERE and turned beet red while choking back laughter and water. When everyone realized what had just happened, the table erupted into laughter and the host said to me, “The fact that you felt so comfortable with us that you just did that without thinking makes us feel so special as your friends.” They are, to this day, our weekly hang out friends, and every once in a while we still giggle about the “water bottle incident.”

Here’s hoping these practical guidelines help you cultivate meaningful community around yourself.

  1. Find people at a similar stage in life. You should have friends of all ages, types, and sizes because that’s just healthy and it gives you different perspectives on life. However, when it comes to finding close friends, find ones who understand what you’re going through—you’re single and love cheese, they’re single and love cheese 😜 Or they have kids, you have kids, you all have to crash at someone’s house, dinner is a bit of a gong show, and trying to put the kids to bed is a bit of a circus, but it’s something all of you are going through together. You get it, they get. Suddenly, a Friday night hang out is a little more crazy, but also a lot more fun. And trust me, you’ll still find enough differences to keep things interesting. Ever notice how everyone parents their children the exact same way? Oh, wait…

  2. FOOOOOOD! Glorious food. Eating with people to build community is as old as time. IT WORKS. Food gives you something to do, something to enjoy together. Every Friday we eat with our friends, we ask them to bring something so it always feels shared. For example: We are making burgers tonight, someone bring a salad and someone bring a desert! We all make an effort, we all feel a part. And there’s something about a home-cooked meal that takes connection to the next level. Inviting someone into your home, apartment, or condo invites them into a more intimate part of you. And if you can’t cook, all the more reason to learn and ask your friends to join in! So pop open a bottle of wine or sparkling juice if you prefer!

  3. Make memories. Be intentional and put yourself out there. Plan to make memories—better yet, make ones that put you out of your comfort zone. We go camping with our friends, including ALL THE KIDS. We plan beach days, family sleep overs, all day outings, and more. Whether the memories turn out just as you imagined or take their own shape, you have just made a moment that bonds you together. These moments become anchor points (thank you, Jonathan Puddle) in your relationship with them.

  4. Let it be awkward. People are funny and messy and weird. There are times (especially in the beginning) when there will be awkward moments of silence. Don’t rush to fill the void. When we become comfortable in the silence, we become deeper, more relaxed friends. 

  5. Vulnerability. OK, vulnerability does not mean crying all the time or being a “Debbie downer.” It also doesn’t mean airing out all your dirty laundry the first time you hang out. BUT as you build trust, your heart should also open up. Trust and vulnerability are what true relationships are built on. As you open up a little more, trust is built. And as trust is built, the more you can open up. You see what’s happening here? I don’t want shallow, “nice” community. I want deep connection, friends who will lift me up when I am low, pray for me when I need strength, cry with me when I need to mourn, and laugh with me when I need to celebrate. 

  6. Be inconvenienced. Here’s another trust builder. At the heart of true community is self sacrifice. Laying down your own life for others. Your friend is sick? You go out of your way, and make them a meal. Your friend’s babysitter fell through? You’ll take their kids for the night. You see, as you allow yourself to be inconvenienced for others, the bonds of friendship grow. You have each other’s backs. You are actually, practically there for each other. You might not have family near by to help you out when you’re in need, but you can build family. 

May you find friendships that will last a lifetime, and may the friendships you already have grow deeper. May you find that you are not alone in this walk called life.

Melissa’s original post is here:

Whatever else healthy community may be, I’ve observed that it can be boiled down to two things: vulnerability and availability.

True vulnerability, as Melissa says, is not about airing your dirty laundry. It’s not about sharing all your garbage with others, it’s about allowing your walls to come down. We tend to think of vulnerability today in terms of what’s inside coming out, and that’s certainly part of it, but it’s equally about allowing what’s outside to come in. The word takes its meaning from being open to attack from the outside. When our walls of defense are up we are safe from attack but we’re also prevented from receiving the love of others. In a mutually vulnerable relationship there can be sharing of kindness, sadness, joy, and love.

Availability is being there for others when they need you, not necessarily when it’s convenient for you. Melissa specifically encourages us to allow ourselves to be inconvenienced. Availability is what it looks like for mutual vulnerability to be put into practice. To let others need you and to let yourself be in need and to respond to those needs with action. If your group of friends is vulnerable but not available then it’s group therapy, not community. If your friends are available but never vulnerable then your relationships will remain shallow and eventually become dehumanizing.

I first heard community put into these terms by my friend Jacob Murphy, who pastors a community-focused church in North Carolina. He heard it from his friend Andy Raine who leads a monastic community in England. It immediately made sense of what we had learned in practice in Finland. Here are 4 reasons I would urge you to put the work in:

  1. Most workplaces are built on dehumanizing frameworks. The places where we spend the majority of our daily lives do not typically endorse human vulnerability or availability. I’ve argued elsewhere that this can change, but the fact is, community reinforces your identity as a human being, as a son or a daughter, a friend, a mother, a father. Your heart needs this.

  2. Your marriage may come to depend on it. Almost everyone I know has hit rough patches in their marriage, and unfortunately, family are often not capable of counselling you through them. Our own parents can be so dedicated to us that they are blinded to the difficult and painful heart work we need to do in order to heal a hurting marriage. This frequently means that the strength of our marriage has a direct relationship to the strength of the community around us.

  3. Your children will do better with more adults, more role-models, more safe places and more alternatives to you. You will always be the most important relationship your child has, but the power dynamic that exists between a parent and child has a huge influence on their development. Having relationships with adults who do not share the same power dynamic allows for children to develop in areas of their mind and personality that would otherwise be delayed until later in life. Building a rich, multi-generational community will positively impact your child for the rest of their life.

  4. God is a community of love: 3 persons endlessly pouring love into one another. We are all invited to enter God’s community of love, and to also make it manifest here on earth. Forming community here on earth that is defined by love and submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is life transforming for those involved and for those who observe and are drawn into the community.

I’m more thankful than words can describe for the gift that our community is in our lives and I join my prayer with Melissa’s, that you too would find friendships that will last a lifetime.

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