Friday, September 3, 2010

Understanding WV Culture: Closed Communities and the Family Analogy

West Virginia has many different types of communities.  Some of them are what I would call "closed communities."  I am no sociologist, but I will take a stab at exploring a facet of closed communities for the sake of increasing the knowledge of those who live and minister within them.

Closed Communities

By my definition, a closed community is one that is culturally isolated from other communities by virtue of  geography, availability of resources, work locations, and family concentrations, among other things.  For example, a typical closed community developed  around company coal mines.   Closed coal communities are not nearly as closed as they once were, but the effects of their isolation still remains through the influence of older generations.

For the most part, the people who lived in those communities worked in, around, and for the company that owned the mine.   In return the company provided, supported, or encouraged nearly everything that was needed for life in the community within its borders:  doctors, schools, entertainment, department and food stores (known as company stores).

At one time, lack of transportation and the geographical isolation of coal mining communities created a de facto isolation. Transportation was not nearly as necessary or available as it is today.   Work was within walking distance, as were schools and everything else the community depended upon.  Those who were not within walking distance of work or school either hopped the community coal trains (even children) or carpooled.  Attendance at college was not prevalent, but work straight out of high school (and even before) was, so many never had cause to leave.  Churches of different denominations sprang up in the same communities within walking distance of each other.  Children of yesteryear grew up to marry their neighbors and work for or around the company.  The tracing of community genograms is a very difficult task, not because of stereotypical consanguineous marriages, but because the limited number of families within communities tended to intermarry.  People married those they knew within the community.  Thus different families find themselves interrelated by a wide variety of complicated avenues even today.

These communities no longer exist exactly as I have described, but the vestigial effects still remain.  Some of the children of these original company families, now in their 40's and 50's, went to schools outside the community and have gone to college, but many of them have returned to live next to parents, even though they work outside the community.  They may have married someone who lived outside the original community, but in all likelihood it was somebody from the next community over.  Their children (the third generation) are much more likely to attend college, and due to the breadth of their outside experiences and the need to find work as the times and expedience demand, they will not likely return to live along side their parents.  They will go where work takes them.  Nevertheless, the closed community culture of the grandparents has a strong influence upon those who leave and those who remain.

The Family Analogy

Vestigial closed community culture presents a wealth of sociological phenomena that could be explored, but I will focus briefly on one application to church life. I call it the Family Analogy.  The Family Analogy probably has many different applications and directions of study, but I will focus particularly upon the Family Analogy as it is demonstrated in the handling of conflict.

As a general rule, families handle conflict by trying to avoid it as much as possible.  Conflicts inevitably arise and can be very intense, but the method for dealing with difficult people within families does not usually involve reconciliation.  Rather, it is to get past the incident as quickly and easily as possible, as if the conflict were water under the bridge.  Even those who refuse to like each other will put up with each other, chat superficially, hug and shake hands at family events. Over time, families learn what buttons not to push and assiduously avoid pushing them.

For instance, if old Uncle Barry is consistently difficult to get along with, then families simply learn to step lightly around old Uncle Barry. Instead of aiming for reconciliation, they try to avoid the situations in which conflict arises.  After all, Uncle Barry is family, and there is little anyone can do about that. After the blow up, Uncle Barry will still be around, and the family has no choice but to live with or around him.  Therefore, they will quickly move past the conflict as if it had not happened, rather than deal with the underlying problems.  As a result, from time to time, the same difficulties arise, and the same solutions (or non-solutions) are applied.

This scenario becomes an analogy when considering closed communities.  Families may be interrelated in these communities, but this is not the point of the analogy (even though it is a sociological facet to be explored).  The point of the analogy is simply that all those within the closed community, by virtue of the fact that they must live with all the others in the same closed community, are a sort of family.  And they tend to deal with problems in ways that are analogous to the way families deal with them.

The Family Analogy within Church Sub-Communities

This analogy becomes even more valid and visible within church sub-communities.  Churches already tend to be closed communities wherever they are, but this is compounded when one considers those that are closed communities within larger closed communities.  Rather than work toward biblical reconciliation--which requires addressing character, dealing with sin, demonstrating repentance and promising forgiveness--churches sometimes do only what is necessary to get past conflict.  Conflict can and should become water under the bridge as soon as possible by any means necessary, even if those means do not deal with the heart of the conflict.  The result is that the problems continue under the surface, and occasionally blow up (to be bypassed quickly once again), and then everyone can return to smiling and hugging as if nothing had happened.  Peace in families is not always real peace.  It is avoiding conflict by whatever means necessary, even if it means faking it.  The same phenomenon is observable by analogy in closed community churches.

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