The Healing Power of Community

The Roseto Mystery (Introduction) in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers is a ‘must-read’ for all Christians who believe in the importance of the community of believers relating on a daily basis as part of the Body of Christ, and the influence of the Church as a major healing force in this world.

Roseto Mystery

In the late 1800 early 1900’s, the people from Roseto Valfortore, Italy immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. A couple of thousand settled in the eastern hills of Pennsylvania and named their city Roseto. In the late 1950’s, Stewart Wolf, a physician from Oklahoma, discovered something amazing about the people. At the time, heart attacks were an epidemic throughout the United States and the leading cause of death for men under the age of sixty-five. This was before cholesterol-lowering drugs and aggressive measures to treat this disease. For the men of Roseto, Wolf found no heart disease for those under sixty-five years of age. For men over sixty-five, the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of the rest of the country. The death rate from all causes in Roseto was “30 to 35 percent lower than expected.” Furthermore, “there was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime.” For the most part, the people of Roseto “were dying of old age.”

Several Possibilities

Wolf first examined their diet. Instead of the healthier Mediterranean foods from the old country, they cooked with lard and ate more sweets. “Forty-one percent of their calories came from fat.” Despite battling obesity, heart disease was conspicuously absent. Next, he examined genetics by comparing them to their ‘cousins’ from the old world who settled in other parts of the United States. This proved to be a dead-end. And finally, he considered their location, that maybe something in the water or soil insulated them from disease. But after comparing Rosetans to immigrants in towns nearby, this didn’t provide the answer either.

The Power of Community

One day, in search of an explanation, Wolf strolled through the town and observed Rosetans visiting with one another, stopping to talk on the streets or to chat on front porches. He noticed the “unifying and calming effect” of the church and its central role along with the “extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure.” Most households had three generations living under the same roof with grandparents highly respected. The “egalitarian ethos of the community” discouraged those with wealth from openly displaying it while the failures of those less successful were covered. “The Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.” At the time, the medical community thought of health in terms of genetics or choices about diet and exercise. “No one was used to thinking about health in terms of community.”

The New Testament Church

When I read this story, I’m reminded of the early church (Acts 2:42-47) where believers met daily both in the temple and in homes, devoting themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer, sharing all things in common and praising God. They lived in community, committed to one another in all areas of life. Contrast this with the church at Corinth, a divided church filled with quarrels and jealousy, bickering over doctrine, among other issues. Things had gotten so bad that Paul had to remind them of the correct way to observe the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11). He chastised them for celebrating individually, without waiting on one another. At one point, he says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (or died).” (I Corinthians 11:29-30 NIV) “Recognizing the body of the Lord” is not only about being in right relationship with God. It is also about being in right relationship with one another. When Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of me”, He asked us to remember Him, not as individuals, but as part of a community of believers in right relationship with one another.

The Healing Power of Your Community

So, before you take communion the next time, don’t stop with only examining your relationship with God. Spend some time looking at your relationship with others. Do you need to go to someone and repent? Ask forgiveness? Mend fences? If so, go do it before you partake of the Lord’s Supper. Your health may depend on it.


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