Long ago I studied both sociology and theology, and I remain intrigued by the relationships between culture and faith. We can’t have one without the other. Which influences the other more?
One of the ideas that has intrigued me through this pandemic is the growth in understanding of the important role of acquaintances in our lives, the casual friends we see here and there. Research shows that the more acquaintances in one’s social life, and the more regular interactions with those acquaintances, the happier people are. (Guy Winch, Psychology Today, 2014).
An article in The Atlantic in early 2021 by Amanda Mull indicated how “weak ties” are vital for a good life. On National Public Radio she said that interactions with people who don’t know all our secrets and background help us to learn new things and bring joy. “What I found in talking to experts is that people use their weak ties for a sense of grounding, for a sense of community, for a sense of belonging to the world outside of themselves.”
Some people find this community in sports, book clubs, pubs, coffeeshops, lunchrooms—and we Jesus-followers find it in church. Our local congregation is full of “weak ties,” relationships with people who provide the faith grounding we need, while belonging to a nearby world outside of ourselves.
That same value in church comes from our experience of our regional church, nationwide church, and the global Anabaptist church. We belong to each other in the context of our faith in God, following Jesus together, and the experience of the Holy Spirit. We learn new things in this wide community of faith, even when we hardly know the people.
In my work at Mennonite World Conference (MWC) I have been recently writing to national Anabaptist church leaders to ask them to contribute their fair share in MWC membership fees. I always include some kind of encouraging word:
“Some of us identify with David in Psalm 22 when he says ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ At other times we identify with David in Psalm 23 when he says ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff—they comfort me.’ Both of these statements are true for David, and for most of us. At the times when God feels far away, that is when we most need each other to be that comforting rod and staff for each other. That is one of the purposes of the church as the body of Christ, to strengthen each other and pray for each other in our times of need.”
This is the response I received from Samson Omondi, the general secretary of the Kenya Mennonite Church:
“Thank you very much for sharing the words of encouragement and hope during this difficult and unpredictable time all over the world. Following the Kenya Government decree to close all worship places for a long duration, it is crystal clear that our congregations are in pathetic shape financially, morally and spiritually. Many of our members lost their jobs, businesses came to a standstill, some work for just half salaries or wages. We absolutely trust the Almighty Father to carry us through amidst the challenges brought about by COVID-19.”
The theme of the MWC Assembly in Zimbabwe in 2003 was “Walking with each other in suffering and in joy.” It is the church, our faith community, across the street and around the world, that keeps us going. It is the church, a very big community of not-very-close-friends, that grounds us socially and spiritually and gives us a place to belong.
Arli Klassen works with Mennonite World Conference from her Kitchener home.