The terms 'thick' and 'thin' have been used by sociologists and political scientists to describe cultures for decades. Thick cultures are sociocentric; they tend to be relatively homogenous with a fundamental consensus about basic values and beliefs, based on a coherent worldview. They value order, tradition and duty and there is often a clear sense of who belongs and who does not. Thin cultures, on the other hand, are individualistic; they value choice and freedom. This leads to greater diversity in beliefs, not just between people but also within each person, as they respond to each particular circumstance. You can be who you like, when you like, you can come and go, no one belongs.
Earlier this year, as part of one of our Ideas-Exchanges, Anglican Futures had the privilege of interviewing Professor Carl Trueman. During the interview, and the discussion that followed, we began to explore the importance of strong biblical communities for both evangelism and discipleship, which is when I think I first heard the phrase 'thick' community.
We can, perhaps, see the effect of a 'thinning' of culture in the church. We focus more on our personal relationship with God than the corporate nature of the Christian faith; we accept a greater diversity of biblical interpretation; we travel to find a church that suits our family or worship preferences. Ironically, this can also lead to 'thicker' church cultures being created. Different 'tribes' with their own beliefs and values; inner circles which value purity and loyalty; churches defined by exclusion, rather than inclusion.
It seems that a strong biblical church culture needs to be both 'thick' and 'thin,' whilst avoiding the dangers that come with each. How can our churches show how a diverse group of people can love one another and bear with one another? How can we create an environment where questions are welcome but where we hold to the truths of Scripture? How can we be a family who recognise we hurt one another, but respond with repentance and mercy, rather than cold shoulders and shunning?
As Carl Trueman, said at the time:
'We need to realise that human beings are, in some sense, aesthetic.
We are shaped by things other than by arguments.
The Church needs to bear that in mind in how she presents the gospel.
That is not to argue that we need skits in church, but it is to say that the Church needs to realise that the presentation of the gospel is strengthened by community, it is strengthened by caring for and loving one another.
And also, I think, it needs to remember, what the world has forgotten - the world has detached aesthetics from any kind of moral framework - where the Church can't go with the world is that we need to realise that our aesthetics need to be shaped by that moral framework that we have.
But we can't win just by arguments at this point because we are not losing people because the arguments are bad. We are losing people for a whole lot of other reasons.'
He went on to describe the obvious nonsense of trying to reach out to non-Christians, or calling on people to make a costly stand for Jesus, if we are not prepared to stand by them and follow Christ in community with them:
'It's a big ask to say, "Come to Jesus! Leave all your friends behind.
Oh, and by the way you will only see us for one hour on a Sunday morning and we maybe we'll speak to you or maybe we won't"
Rod Dreher echoes this thinking in his book, 'Live not by Lies'. In it, he makes the case for the need for strong communities if Christians are to survive the 'soft totalitarianism' of a post-Christian world. He speaks of families as 'resistance cells', not opting out of popular culture but choosing intelligently which parts of it they want their children to absorb. He calls on families to act with sacrificial openness to the world around them - acknowledging that the family is not something that exists for its own purpose but for the service of something beyond itself. He speaks of the importance of small groups within the church community, where relationships of trust and support develop; as he says,
'We must see in our brothers and sisters not a burden of obligation but the blessing of our own freedom from loneliness, suspicion and defeat... Leaders of small groups must be willing and able to carry out catechetical, ministerial and organisational roles normally performed by institutional church leaders who may be unable to do so under the law or who are too compromised in other ways to serve their proper function.'
Our time was short and in many ways the Ideas-Exchange left us with more questions than answers - questions that we have returned to both in the Coffee Room and at other Ideas-Exchange events over the past six months.
How do we build this kind of 'thick' and 'thin' community'?
What impact should it have on the way we plan or preach or pray?
How might it impact the way we share the gospel with the children and young people in our church communities?
What are the pitfalls?
How might we model a better way than the expressive individualism or therapeutic deism found in the world and the church?
At the end of "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self", Carl Trueman points to the early church as our model of how to live in a society where Christianity was a marginal sect within a dominant pluralist society. Perhaps these words from Paul, give us a good place to start...
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. (Col 2:1-4)
If you would like to explore these questions further with other faithful Christians, or if you have other questions that arise from this blog, please sign up for one of our "Building Biblical Communities" Ideas-Exchanges, which will be taking place on Zoom over the next couple of weeks. We look forward to seeing you there.
Wed 8th Sept at 10am, Thurs 9th Sept at 2pm or 7.30pm or Wed 15th Sept at 7.30pm