Community is easy to talk about, harder to pin down, and harder still to build. In a modern world filled with consumer options and competing life experience we simultaneously long for and resist opening our lives to others. Community has been an intangible but constantly present feature of human life across cultures and time periods, but it requires longevity, localism, sacrifice, kindness, and generosity—habits of heart we are beginning to feel the lack of.
In 1995, long before the internet made its way into our pockets, and every part of our lives became shareable, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone suggested a decline in a culture of membership. Instead of participating and volunteering in structured leagues, people were turning up to bowling lanes when it suited them, eschewing the responsibilities, limits, and potential inconveniences of belonging to a group.
The internet and social media has at one level opened new ways of connecting, sharing and being together—bedtime stories over skype, chat and call at our fingertips—but at another level, every relational bond from sex and marriage to politics and neighbourhood is stretched, and made thinner by a terminal shallowness, and lack of real intimacy. What allows some people to be more generous and more connected is starving others of human connection. Loneliness, one of our authors notes, is “one of the most significant challenges facing Western society in the 21st century.”
This volume of Flint & Steel aims to look at what community is, and what is in the soil where it grows. What does community offer to us as people? What does it add to a flourishing society, and what are the conditions of place, time, and purpose that community requires in order to grow and survive?
Whether it is creating a built environment that encourages us to make new connections, encountering our neighbour by reaching out to another culture, or seeing the face of the neighbours we are tempted to erase or forget, like prisoners, the very young, or the very old, we are all partly responsible for creating the community which will help us thrive. Whether it is through sport, a creative project, or community action, civil society in all its variety offers a thousand points of connection, a thousand ways of drawing the self into a wider and kinder whole.
A culture of membership is not, therefore, a matter of nostalgia, wishing to repeal technology or reject the benefits it brings. It is about remembering to hold onto the things which enable real human connectedness to flourish in our time, as it has in others—to bring the same civic values of neighbourliness and membership to a new context.
Whatever your context, we hope that the contents of this volume encourage you to lean into the awkward and delightful moments of human connection, helping you add to the projects of community-building in the places you find yourself.
– Jeremy Vargo, Editor