Arts & Culture

Rebuilding Community After College

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Making friends in college is to some degree artificial because the college environment itself is artificial and temporal: thousands of young men and women, who are more or less the same age, live in close proximity to one another as they engage in the common pursuit of getting a degree.

But life after college is another story altogether. Familiar fellowships dissolve, and without a common identity or purpose, people are quick to atomize and withdraw into their own solitary universes. If you’re not prepared for it, the change can leave you feeling like a recently departed ghost who can’t quite move on from haunting memories of dear college friends.

You can try to stay in touch via text messaging, Skype, or Facetime, but they are no substitute for the in-person togetherness we instinctively desire. This desire reflects the image of the triune God who created us, in that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have been in relation with one another from eternity. In short, we yearn for relationship and flourish in it because God made us that way. Hugh Whelchel writes that relationships are part of our biblical call to community,

Scripture calls us to connectedness from the very beginning. We as individuals are called to play a part in the biblical narrative, but for the most part we do our work in the context of community.

and that relationships are integral to God’s work of restoration,

…[relationships] were established by God in the beginning so that we might corporately flourish and bring flourishing to his creation.

Deep, substantial relationships as God envisioned do not arise naturally or easily, but there are ways we can help cultivate them after college. This will be today’s focus, once again with inspiration from Erica Young Reitz’s, After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationships, and Faith.

Showing Up is Not Enough

If you’re new in town and want to make friends quickly, your first impulse may be to get involved with a local church. This approach is sound, but take note: simply attending worship services and other church functions (including small groups) does not guarantee deep relationships. Granted, many churches also organize events that are specifically designed to encourage socializing, but this is still insufficient for forging substantial relationships.

Why do I say this? Developing rich relationships takes time, hence the use of the words building, cultivating, forging. No beautiful garden, no soaring cathedral, no worthy blade was ever produced by laboring only once or twice a week. In the same way, to think we can attain true intimacy with others solely on the basis of sporadic church gatherings is woefully mistaken.

Recounting her own experience making friends after college, Reitz comments, “Finding those friends didn’t happen instantly, easily or organically.” Woody Allen may have been right when he said 80 percent of success is showing up, but that still leaves a good 20 percent.

So, how might we begin to rebuild rich relationships? One of the best ways is the simple practice of sharing a meal together in someone’s home.

The Lord’s (Other) Table

The specter of attempting to do what it takes to host a “nice meal” might make this suggestion a non-starter in your eyes: you’re not a great cook, the place where you live is less than presentable, and so on.

However, these concerns reflect the assumption that hosting a meal is an occasion for impressing others, when in reality the goal is to create what Alexander Bouffard calls a “circle of trust.” In this circle,

Grace facilitates deep conversation and sharing that would be prevented by the perception of needing to get everything “right.”

You can make the first move in encouraging this circle of trust by not worrying about whether the food you prepare would befit a five-star restaurant. Even a simple dish prepared for the sake of guests says, “I love you and offer this imperfect gift to you.”

Similarly, a living space where the furniture is neither high quality nor plentiful should be no obstacle—if there’s space to sit, there’s space for grace.

Like Erica Young Reitz, I can testify to the power of shared meals. When I was a junior in college, I had three close friends who were classmates and two of those friends had girlfriends (who later became their wives). The six of us got in the habit of sharing a light meal together in the guys’ little apartment on Sunday evenings. The food was never extravagant—some vegetables and rice, or bread with oil and cheese—but we would gather without fail to (literally, sometimes) break bread together.

We had all known each other prior to this, but the time we spent together around the dinner table helped transform us from friends or acquaintances to close friends. Even though we have all graduated and landed in different parts of the country, the bonds we made then are still strong today.

What Happens at the Table Shouldn’t Stay at the Table

As good as it is to share meals in someone’s home, this practice alone is not sufficient for developing rich relationships. Rather, communing in this intimate way, over a meal, makes it easier and more natural to be together at other times and places, which in turn contributes to the growth of relationships. As Reitz says of her own experience,

“It wasn’t until we started hanging out afterward and in between that friendships formed.”

Whether you’re right out of college or many years out, it can be easy to neglect the imperative of Christian community. The good news is that we can act to change it at any time, with the scene of the new believers in Acts 2:46-47 as our vision:

“They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.”

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  • Art Gonzalez

    Great read James. My family and I, who in past years have not been close, have made monthly dinner plans. Doing this has helped us grow and move beyond old hurts. This article just made me realize that this is why we have grown closer. I’m going to try and use this with the youth ministry team that I am apart of. We all work well together but there is no depth of relationship. I think this will help us to grow not only our ministry but also our community and friendships in the church.

    Thank you

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