The attack of the zombies

Why community and belonging are hard to construct

Andrew Root | Apr 5, 2010

Note: This article is an adaptation of chapter three of The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010). This excerpt was extracted and edited by Jonathan Davis.

Preface: In conversations about the future of youth ministry or the need for the church to attend to young adults, it is almost universally asserted that community is essential. In other words, both what younger people need and what the church must recover is not its moral superiority, its religious purity, or its denominational loyalty, but rather, local congregations must shape themselves into communities. I’m all for this! I actually think that there are significant theological reasons for it. However, I tend to think it is easier said than done. In this excerpt from my new book, The Promise of Despair, I explore the difficulty of creating community in late-modernity. I call most of our experiences of community short-lived and risky. In other words, I think that the reality of death (or what I call “the monster”) has ways of encountering us through our many frayed experiences of community in our society.

I was only four or five years old, and I remember vividly having free rein. I remember being blocks away from home with no adults present, hanging out with other children. I remember walking to the nearby junkyard and hauling back old rusted metal and nail-filled boards to build an airplane. I remember darting out of the house to roam freely, exploring all sorts of dangerous things in our newly built suburban neighborhood that was still surrounded by farmland and old silos. I was five and had free rein. And it wasn’t that my parents were negligent; there were kids everywhere, filling this neighborhood of starter houses. And we all were free to ride our bikes streets away. We were free to go as far as yelling distance.

My son is quickly approaching five, and I simply can’t imagine allowing him to do the same. I can’t imagine my five-year-old being blocks from our house, with no adult nearby to watch him. In conversation with my friend one day my unease was confirmed. He explained how busy life is with two children ten and eight. “Most of my life is driving them from one play date to another; from lessons to practices, our calendar is packed. It’s not like when we were kids, when we could roam, when we were told, ‘Just don’t cross that busy road or go through the park, and be home by 5:00.’ ”

Why in the last few decades have we shifted from kids free to roam our neighborhoods to kids needing to be under constrained supervision, even within the parameters of organized play dates? I think it has everything to do with the fact that we don’t know our neighbors anymore. The last three decades have not become more dangerous, but they have become riskier, not because the world is suddenly flooded with pedophiles, burglars, and child abductors, but because we have lost more and more civic or communal connection to each other. Truth be told, I not only don’t know most of the people in my neighborhood, I only know a few folks on my own street. If my son were blocks away, most people would have no idea who he was and where he belonged. The world is not more dangerous, but it has become riskier because communal belonging has died.


For most of human history our social lives were organized by communities and the traditions and rituals that they upheld and protected. But modernity, for good or ill, has freed us from this fundamental need for community. We turned over the job of ordering our social world from communities to institutions. It is institutions, and not communities, that we depend upon. It is institutions that don’t know my name (most know me as number) or my story (only my balance or record) that I have built my life around. It seems that I can live without my parents or friends but not without my ATM card, driver’s license, and Internet access. I can live without knowing anything about my great-grandparents but I must know my Social Security number and credit rating.

Or to put it more pointedly, who would take care of my family if I died in the next few years? Who would make sure my mortgage was paid and my wife had money to maintain her life? Not my community, not my church, not even my extended family. They may all help, dropping off a casserole and offering a shoulder to cry on, but their job, we assume, would be emotional support. No, if I died it would not be a community that would take care of my kids and wife; it would be an institution, the insurance company I’ve been paying to provide for them if the monster of death takes me sooner rather than later. For most of human history this was the work of the community: widows and orphans were to be cared for by uncles, aunts, and neighbors. Their emotional, but most fundamentally their basic financial and material, needs were the responsibility of those who knew them and were part of their story. This was not easy and I’m sure a burden, but it was dependable and communal.


What do we do, and what is our future, when institutions (i.e., insurance companies, various governmental agencies) continue to show us they cannot always be trusted to care for anything other than their own survival? Most of our institutions are what Ulrich Beck calls “Zombie institutions.” [[“In an interview given to Jonathan Rutherford on 3 February 1999, Ulrich Beck . . . speaks of ‘zombie categories’ and ‘zombie institutions’ which are ‘dead and still alive.’ He names the family, class and neighbourhood as the foremost examples of that new phenomenon.” Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 6.]] They are still moving and breathing, but they have become more haunting than helpful because they are more dead than alive. Standing in late modernity there is more than a little despair knowing that we cannot go back to the tradition-based community, but that the institutions of modernity are ghouls.

As in all good horror movies, what zombie institutions do (and this has great relevance for those who work with teenagers) is infect all of our places of belonging, striking them with the scent of death. Institutions no doubt bring people together (many of us met our spouses in college), but the institution’s primary objective is not to form deep communal connection but to bestow a degree, make money, or keep order (depending on what kind of institution it is). Once it has fulfilled its task or is kept from doing so, the connections we have built through the institution are over, and if they are to continue they must take on a new form.

For instance, at my school (Luther Seminary) there was a group of six young women who met the first week of their first year. They became deep friends, creating a rich community of belonging. They ate together every Sunday night, shared in each other’s pain and tragedy, and celebrated with every joy. They created a deep community that changed each of them. And this community had its genesis in the fact that an institution, our school, had brought them together. They would never have known each other, or shared life together so deeply, if not for Luther Seminary. Luther’s apartment building became their sanctuary of meeting, their place of prayer and conversation. Without the institution there would have been no deep community of belonging (and their community was deep).

But something happened as the first semester of their final year was coming to an end; you could see it on each young woman’s face. Their community was given a terminal countdown. They had deep community, but beyond the will of each of them, it was going to end; one more semester and it was over. For the next four months they mourned. They had grown together so much, loved each other so deeply, but with graduation it would be over. Sure, they would remain friends, still to this day meeting in Las Vegas or other places to reconnect, but now more as a reunion than a community, now more to catch up than to bear existence with each other. The institution had brought them together, giving them the space to form deep community, but that was not the institution’s primary objective. So just as the institution giveth community, it taketh it away. The implications here for youth ministry are obvious, as graduation and the call of other institutions always seems to bring the youth group’s community to an end.


Almost every community we form in late modernity comes with an expiration date. You can have deep belonging, but this belonging comes with an either explicit or implicit ending. We can have deep belonging, but once one of you has a child, everything changes; once you get a promotion you will move; once you have finished your basement you will no longer need your help group. There are many places and many options to form community, but almost all of them come with the warning label, “This belonging is belonging until further notice.” There is death in the marrow of our communities.


Why is this? Why is rock solid community impossible for us? Because solid community is based on obligation, and obligation is a dirty word for those of us living in late modernity. Community cannot be community where individual free will is king. Community demands that I give up my own freedom for the good of the group. Therefore, lasting community asks that I see myself obligated to these people (my belonging is deeper than my job, education, place of residence, or personal identity—I choose the community over it). But we don’t see things this way; rather, we expect our communities not to come before these personal things, but to serve us by enhancing them.

When it is solely my free will to choose a community there is the great benefit that I feel that it is mine, that it is part of me. But in the end there is nothing keeping me there but my sole choice. If at any time my preference, style, or taste changes, I’m gone. Community throughout history has been based on the necessity of obligation. In late modernity, we are trying something never done before: we are trying to have belonging in community based not on obligation but on feelings. I’m in community when I feel it! These feelings give me great desire and wonderful experiences; the problem is, of course, that feelings often fade.

I can’t choose community like I choose my favorite coffee shop. I choose my favorite coffee shop because I like the atmosphere, the people seem interesting, and the coffee is good. I don’t feel obligated. If the décor changes or I switch from coffee to smoothies, I’m under no obligation to remain loyal. Our communities may feel like places where we really belong, but they are very easy to move on from, because they are based in our preference and taste, not in obligation. I like that I can easily choose in or out. But what happens if the monster of death gets me? What happens if I become so maimed that I become a burden to the community? What happens if those ravaged by seeing the monster face-to-face, those suffering from schizoid episodes, fill our communities? Will we stay? Will the community still exist? Or in other words, can a group of people face death even in the pits of hell and remain together? What will keep them together? Preference, taste, and style are no match for the monster of death.


Community has become a buzzword within the church; it is one of the essential marks of the emergent church sensibility. We have realized that in our world we must be more about community than denominational bureaucracy, more about places of belonging than places of airtight doctrine. This is all good and right, except that we have rarely explained what we mean by community and what it is that will keep us together. Is it the music? The preaching? The location? The children’s ministry? The people? I presume we would say the people, but what about the people? That they’re cool? Interesting? What in the end holds the church together? In a world without obligation it would be hard to force community to be formed around obligatory structure. In the end, for the most of us, community is just about the feeling of belonging. But, again, feelings fade.

I wonder if there are not many who would love to be in community, who enter our buildings or meeting areas and feel nothing, who have been so beaten up by life and experiences of death that they feel nothing. I wonder if there are not many who see us in our moments of community worship and community fellowship and wonder if we have really dared to see and admit how alone we really are and how deeply painful loneliness is. Psychologists say that patients have the hardest time talking about loneliness because loneliness is the closest feeling to the annihilation of death.

Church is about community, we say. But does the church and its packaging of community simply hide us from what is truly deep inside of us? We have shouted to the world that church is about community; the church of the future will not be about institutions or doctrine but about being together. Maybe we should be shouting, with so many others in world, that we are lonely, that we are alone, that death kills all in our communities and we are scared. Maybe the world does not believe because we have offered personal options for community instead of belonging in a community that knows and speaks of the despair of loneliness. Maybe the only way to form a community that can withstand preference, style, and taste (and the institutional failures we confront) is not to base it on feelings of togetherness but on naming and bearing the despair of our shared loneliness.

Action Points

  • How do you define “community”, and how does your church and/or youth ministry define “community”? Take some time to consider how Andy’s reflections on our culture’s understanding of community interact with those definitions.
  • In your opinion, what is community based upon? If you were to ask your students that question, what do you think they would say?
  • What can we do about the tendency to put “expiration dates” on our expressions of community? If youth ministry by its very nature has an expiration date (e.g., high school graduation), how can we facilitate “real” community—both within the youth ministry and beyond it—that can last beyond expiration dates?
  • What communities have most shaped you? What can you learn from these communities that could have a positive impact on your youth ministry community?

To read more see The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010).

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Andrew Root

Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Seminary) is assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN). A Fuller MDiv grad, Andy is the author of several books, including The Promise of Despair, Children of Divorce, and Relationships Unfiltered. He has worked in congregations, para-church ministries and social service programs.

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