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seattle social culture and community groups

September 13, 2011
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A month after I moved to Seattle, I read an article on the social culture of the city, entitled “Our Social Disease.” In it, Seattle University sociology department chair Jodi O’Brien said that “Seattleites are often seen as having this veneer of pleasantness but being hard to come to know”— a helpful insight to one who just moved to an unfamiliar place.

I’ve had only seven years to test O’Brien’s hypothesis, so I am no expert. But Seattle does seem to have a unique culture that makes forming relationship difficult. Theories abound on how we got here: our city’s founder’s social reserve, the pioneer individualistic spirit, and, of course, the incessant cloudy skies. Whatever the cause, Seattleites, in general, can be hard to get to know.

My own story both proves and disproves “the phenomenon of the plastic smile,” as O’Brien puts it. I remember one neighbor who said on countless occasions, “We should get together sometime for a beer.” Because I thought he was serious, I tried to make it happen. My efforts never amounted to anything. Eventually, I gave up.

I’ve not only been the recipient the Seattle ice, I’ve also been a distributor. I have given the veneer of kindness but made it clear by what I didn’t say or do that taking the friendship further is out of the question.

At the same time, I’ve met some of the most loving and committed people I know these last few years. My neighborhood is filled with kind people who have not been difficult to get to know. We are welcomed into each other homes and always stop to chat for a few minutes when we see each other outside. When we had our second child a couple of weeks ago, gifts, invitations to help, and food flooded our home.

Why am writing about Seattle’s social culture? Whether you are from here or somewhere else, we are all human beings, which means we all long for relationship. We all thrive when known and loved and deteriorate when isolated. And, whether you are from here or somewhere else, being known and loved is not always an accurate description of our life.

Grace Seattle wants to be a church that makes our city a better place. We want to seek our city’s welfare. We want to bless Seattle. One key way we can do this is by providing a place where relationships happen. Of course, we desire this with every part of our church, but one place we intentionally pursue relationships is Community Groups. Community Groups are a great way to serve the city by making it easy for outsides to be known and loved.

I wrote in an earlier post that we’ve made some structural changes to Community Groups—namely we are stressing longevity over multiplication. There are many reasons why I think this is a good move, but one major one is that a group of people who have been living the Christian life together in the context of Community Group will certainly build intimate, strong relationships. Though our tendency may be to protect our relationships from others, in Community Group we seek to offer it as a gift to outsiders.

For example, I met Sunday with the leaders of a group that has been existence for years, well before I moved to Seattle. The participants know each other and love each other because they have given themselves to each other. They have walked together through some very difficult and trying circumstances and yet, they see their relationships not just as a gift for themselves but for others, especially the outsider.

So, want to serve the city? Build community, even intimate and strong community, and seek to give those relationships to others.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela Wheeless permalink
    September 14, 2011 10:51 am

    I read that article, too. Being from the Midwest, it was and continues to be very challenging to know when people are sincere in their desire to know you. It’s much easier at times to come home and shut ourselves off from our neighbors and environment, but its so much more beneficial in the long run to open ourselves up to know and loves others as we truly wish to be known and loved.

  2. September 15, 2011 2:04 pm

    Angela, I think you are right when you say “to open ourselves up” is of vital importance. This opening, I think, comes in two ways. Being willing to have relationship and, two, taking it upon yourself to initiate relationship.

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