Good Fences Don’t Make Great Neighbors

“In his marvelous little book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis envisioned hell as a realm in which people are forever moving farther away from one another. Hell is the ultimate, cosmic suburban sprawl. This hellish vision is becoming a reality in Western culture, and it’s something that kingdom people in the West should passionately revolt against.”  

–Gregory Boyd, “Created for community,” Christian Century, May 19, 2009, 21.

This week, the rain has been pouring down in Southern California. When this happens, the state nearly closes down. We aren’t used to ‘weather’ here in sunny California. I love the change in weather – I am always excited to pull out my favorite rain gear – but it does make some things inconvenient. Due to the down pour, I was running a little late to a meeting. My windshield wipers were going back and forth, so I thought I was mis-reading the slogan on the truck in front of me. I waited for my windshield wipers to magically make the rain disappear so I could be sure of what it said, and yup there it was on the back of a fence company’s truck: “Good Fences make great neighbors.” Hmm I’ve heard this somewhere… I am not trying to throw my hat into the political debate, but where have fences and walls gotten us?

My church is currently on a series about worship and why, even though we all have crazy busy lives, we take the time to be together for an hour or more to worship. This has been a question for me as I have many friends who have chosen not to be part of a worshipping community. Their reasons for departing vary from “we can’t find a community that fits” to being well known in the Christian community and unable to simply attend church without people watching them or feeling like they are a distraction.

I have struggled with why any of us go to church. What does church do?

As I continued to drive around for meetings that fateful rainy day, I started thinking about how our church community can be in defiance of the slogan, “Good fences make great neighbors.” How does our church attendance change us? As I was pondering this question, a report came on the radio about what makes the greatest impact on how we are able to see and engage the world we live in. One of the studies quoted on Nation Public Radio stated that you become like the 5 people you spend the most time around. This isn’t new news for a lot of us. There have been lots of business and self help books that have suggested that the way to raise your own personal achievement and drive is to surround yourself with 5 people that will challenge and push you forward. But it appears that it isn’t just drive or ambition that is contagious. Other studies have looked at how other peoples’ moods affect your own mood, and similar correlations have been found. It seems that our closest communities have a great influence over us.

But just being around the happy church people can’t be the only reason to go to church – plus a lot of church people don’t seem that happy…

Also interesting, the same day I drove to another meeting and heard a radio host speaking about a city that was having a great deal of crime in one area. That area of the city was surrounded by more upper and middle class areas. In order to combat the problem of the crime-ridden area, they tried something that seemed counterintuitive. Instead of making the upper and middle class areas more fortified, they decided to build up the infrastructure in and around the poorer, more crime-ridden area so that public transportation and other means of navigating that area of the city became more available. It became easier to travel not just out of that area, but it also became easier to travel into that area. They also lowered fences. That’s right, they took fences down. The interesting thing is that rather than making the surrounding areas more crime-ridden, it has made the entire area less crime-ridden. They have taken intentional steps to have people get to know each other.

Could church be a place where we learn to take down our fences?

The final thing I read the day of the great rain storm was a John Wesley quote. John Wesley was one of the founders of the United Methodist Denomination. Although in fairness, he never meant to start a church – he was just trying to create community, but I digress. The quote says this:

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creational intentions.” 

― John Wesley, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer

I like to think that we go to church to be unleashed to fulfill God’s creational intention. I think sometimes I go to church so that I can be reminded that God created me with intentions and it is in community that I begin to be nurtured towards being unleashed. Unleashed, not fenced in and navel-gazing but looking outward and moving towards people in our community.



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