But it’s become increasingly difficult to experience community in the modern world, especially in the United States. The small, intimate societies of our ancestors all have long since been replaced by towns and cities with populations that number well into the millions. And lifelong bonds of commitment—forged between people who rely on one another, moment to moment, for their survival—have been usurped by fleeting ties that often signal nothing more than a desire to pursue leisure activities together (when it’s convenient). So, where can we Americans still find authentic community, and the profound sense of belonging it confers?
The most likely place, according to sociologists, is the local church or synagogue.40 That’s not to say that every house of worship is a gateway to such intimate, meaningful connections. But at least some are, and they tend to share a common set of features:
- Size: According to an interesting line of research, people are most likely to flourish in a church that’s about the size of a typical hunter-gatherer band. Once the congregation gets much bigger, exceeding two hundred or so members, people often start to feel more anonymous and unimportant. However, some larger churches (even so-called megachurches) have effectively addressed this problem by involving members in smaller groups—often known as home groups—where they can still find intimate community.
- Purpose: Nothing binds people together more effectively than a shared purpose and a set of common goals. Churches that provide their members with a clear sense of mission—whether it be caring for the poor and disenfranchised, reaching out to the “unchurched,” or trying to change society for the better—tend to foster a greater sense of community than those that don’t.
- Investment: Not surprisingly, people who invest heavily of themselves in a church—their time, energy, and resources—are those most likely to find a genuine experience of community there. It’s only by spending time with a group of other people on a regular basis—sharing our lives together as we work toward common goals—that any of us can hope to form the deep, intimate connections that make community possible. Church is not for everyone, of course. Fortunately, other options are available for those who find involvement in a religious community an unattractive prospect. But the same factors that foster community in churches still apply to nonreligious groups: small group size, a strong sense of shared purpose, and a high level of investment among group members.
— The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi PhD