Urban Tribes

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 5, 2004

Sociologists have identified a new stage of life that is changing the social landscape of urban America and that points to the vital need for the church to function as a nurturing community. It used to be that most people would grow up, graduate from high school, get a job or go off to college, and then get married in their early twenties. In 1950 the median age for first-time marriages was 21. Today fewer young adults are getting married at all, but among those that do, the median age is 26 and climbing [statistics, quotes, and publication information for this Window on the World come from the U. S. Census Bureau, as published in the October 6, 2003 edition of USA Today]. The result, the sociologists say, is a new stage of life that comes between growing up and settling down.

There are many reasons for this demographic shift. Some young people are still trying to figure out who they are. Others are still waiting to find the right man or the right woman to marry. Still others want to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of their parents, so many of whom are divorced. But whatever the reasons, growing numbers of twenty- and thirty-something men and women are remaining single for longer. Not ready for marriage, but hungry for community, they are banding together in what sociologists call “urban tribes.”

An urban tribe is a community of friendship that provides emotional and practical support to a dozen or more young people who are living and working in the city. Membership in these tribes tends to be fluid, but they usually form around a group of people who work or went to college together, and who bring in new members as they make new friends. Meeting on weeknights for dinner or hanging out on the weekends, they find mutual support and a place to belong. “If you never find anyone (to marry),” said one tribe member, “you still have us. You are never alone.”

People have always had groups of friends, of course, but the connections in these urban tribes are unusually intense. In his book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment, Ethan Watters identifies six characteristics that are common to most of them: intense loyalty that gives people a place to belong; rituals and routines, such as regular dinner meetings or shared vacations; work projects, in which group members pitch in to help one another with household projects; love of gossip, with tribe members eager to trade information; defined roles, with various members serving as event organizers or advice givers; and dating rules, which vary from one tribe to another, but help to clarify relational expectations within each tribe.

These urban tribes are a powerful reminder of our deep need for community. Many aspects of contemporary life hinder the establishment of meaningful relationships. Most of us lead fragmented lives, in which the people we grew up with, the people we work with, the people we live with, and the people we worship with form completely different communities. But people are still looking for a place to belong, and if we are going to reach the rising generation, the church must become the community that people seek. Is our tribe offering the kind of personal loyalty, caring friendship, weekly fellowship, and mutual assistance that people need in these post-everything times?

The church ought to be the most caring and complete community of all. Our loyalty to one another is based on our shared identity as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Our weekly routine is centered on our shared experience in public worship, and also—for many of us—our time together in Bible study, prayer, and Christian service. We also share table fellowship, breaking bread together in our homes and in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, which is based on the gospel truth that we have a Savior who died for our sins and who will love us forever. Our conversation is not gossip, we pray, but we do trade information about what God is doing in our lives, including through our struggles and failures. Whether our roles are carefully defined or not, they are shaped by God's Spirit, who has given us gifts for ministry. And we too have guidelines for romantic relationships—biblical principles for sacrificial and submissive love that give men and women the best preparation for marriage. Everything that is right and good about a healthy urban tribe should be found in the church, with the added blessing that comes from being together in the presence of God and following his good instructions for a life full of joy and purpose.

There are also some things in the church that seem to be missing from most urban tribes. Our tribe is more diverse. Rather than being limited to the perspective of people our own age, we have meaningful, mutually beneficial friendships with people who are older and younger than we are. Our tribe is more permanent: friends may come and go, especially in our accelerated culture, but our bonds of fellowship in Christ will last forever. And our tribe is less inwardly focused, or at least it ought to be. We have a purpose beyond enjoying one another's company, or even helping one another. We gather for the glory of God, and unlike many tribes, we exist for the practical and spiritual benefit of non-members.

We pray that our tribe will increase as more and more people come to faith in Christ and join the Christian community. And we pray that our community will be all that it should be as a place to belong in an alienating world. We want to say to our city what the apostle Paul said to the Thessalonians, that we are “delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8 NIV).

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