Commencement is a community affair

It’s that time of year again. In the months of May and June, hundreds of thousands of young people—and some not so young people—will be crossing stages and receiving their diplomas or their degrees. If you’re one of those people, congratulations. You’ve worked hard to get to the finish line, and your labors have paid off.

But there’s something else that’s important for our graduates and their families to recognize. Commencement exercises are a community affair. In other words, your graduation ceremony isn’t only about you! The graduation ceremony is a community event.

As someone with two master’s degrees and a PhD, I’ve sat through several graduation ceremonies of “my own,” and as a pastor (for over 20 years), I’ve been invited from time to time to attend graduation ceremonies for those who are closest to me. Some of those ceremonies have been at secular schools, and others have been at distinctively Christian schools. So, with apologies to Farmers Insurance, I know a thing or two about graduation ceremonies.

Recently, I attended a graduation ceremony at a distinctively Christian school. The ceremony itself was celebrative, yet elegant. The names of each of the approximate 400 graduates were read aloud as each graduate crossed the stage while having his or her picture taken.

At first, there was polite applause from family members as “their” graduate crossed the stage. But as the ceremony continued, the polite applause turned into whooping and hollering, oftentimes lasting so long that the name of the next graduate couldn’t be heard.

And then, to make matters worse, some of the earlier graduates began to leave the ceremony long before the final graduates had ever crossed the stage. By the time the final graduates crossed the stage, a full 10% or more of the seats from the early graduates were vacant. At least 20 to 30 of the early graduates grew tired of waiting, and they and their families simply exited the room in which the ceremony was taking place.

Now, we could address these issues from the perspective of etiquette. It does indeed show poor etiquette to be so loud and proud of “your” graduate that the family of the next graduate can’t even hear his or her name be spoken. And it also shows poor etiquette to leave your own graduation ceremony before all of the other graduates have had their turn to cross the stage.

But these breaches of “etiquette” only point to a deeper issue. We live in the age of the “selfie”—a word which was first coined in September of 2002. Too many of us believe the world revolves around us. Too many of us believe we’re the center of attention. Too many of us act as if we’re the most important person in the room. But that’s neither a humble attitude nor is it our Lord’s attitude (see Philippians 2:1–11 and John 13:1–5).

If commencement exercises were about each of us as individuals, then, in the example above, that school would have hosted approximately 400 separate commencement exercises. But, of course, these exercises aren’t primarily about us individually. They are intended to be a community affair.

By analogy, consider the church and its corporate gathering. Neither the church nor its corporate gathering is about us as individuals. They are also corporate affairs. To illustrate that point, consider the nearly 60 “one another” commands that are found in the New Testament. If the church and its gathering were primarily about us as individuals, then the “one another” commands would make little sense. But the church and its gathering aren’t about us merely as individuals. Rather, they point to a corporate reality where we gather together to make much of our Lord and we encourage one another—from the least among us to the greatest among us.

And while a graduation ceremony isn’t the same thing as the gathered church, those last graduates are also there to be encouraged, to be applauded, to be celebrated. They are also important, from the least among them to the greatest among them. So, as you make plans to attend a graduation ceremony for your loved one this spring, please remember to use that time to celebrate not only your loved one but all of the others who have worked hard to make it to that point. Commencement exercises are not only about “your” graduate. They’re intended to be a community affair.