“Community” is something of a buzzword these days; different people use it to describe different things. Overall, though, most people who use the word envision deeper, more intimate relationships between themselves and other people.
Christianity community centers around the person, work, and teaching of Jesus, but the core concept remains the same: Community means sharing life with each other. Church leaders, ministers, pastors, small group practitioners, and workers of all sorts are engaged with this question of how to form, create, build, or otherwise enjoy a deeper experience of community.
I’ve been engaged with this question for a long time myself. From my first paradigm-shifting experience of community at Bible college to a subsequent three-year organic house church experiment to my most recent service as director of small groups for a local congregation, I feel like I’ve learned a few things. The latest lesson being that the way to deeper community is quite opposite the way we typically do things in the West. Allow me to explain.
Western culture is steeped in consumerism, and we Christians hardly recognize how often our efforts to build the Church reflect our ingrained western values. One example is how we think the solution to spiritual need is found in constantly adding more things to the program. We try to provide people who come to church with more and more opportunities to “serve” or get “plugged in.” As a small group director for the past year and a half I have seen how this mindset translates into our community-building efforts as well. Before I explain how, let me give you a little insight into how this model works.
In most traditional churches the small group has moved in to replace the older practice of Sunday school. This is a welcome improvement, in my opinion. Small groups are offered as a way to facilitate a general practice of life-sharing within the church, as participants come together around a common interest or life experience in the hope that they will form lasting relationships which live beyond the duration of the group. The most noble pastors, one of whom I currently have the privilege of working with, view the Sunday service as a means to feed into small groups rather than the other way around. Ideally, then, small groups are not an end but a means, a kind of bridge over which people may pass to get out of their isolated existence into fellowship with one another.
Even though the small group model is superior to its Sunday school predecessor, it still often fails to serve the intended purpose of building community. To be sure, participants will often report a deeper level of intimacy with other members during their season of involvement, but once the group ends they generally go back to living separately from one another like before. In retrospect, we see that despite any real gains that were made during the small group experience, the net result is that people simply added one more thing onto their already busy schedules for a while, after which they returned to business as usual. When all has been said and done, their lives are no more integrated with other people’s than they were before.
This is not to deny the value of small groups or to discourage the activity of small group advocates, but I believe we have to be honest about the net result of our efforts if we wish to serve most effectively. When it comes to the question of community-building, it is apparent to me that the solution is not found in adding more to the program or convincing people to tack one more commitment onto their already busy schedules. Rather, I propose that the way to deeper community is found in taking the lives we are already living–work, kids, chores, ballgames, et al–and simply opening them up for one another to share.
As I look back over my life I see that this instinct has always been present in my spiritual pursuit. Not only would I try to find new times and ways of gathering with other disciples, but I also found it natural to invite others to share in my regular activities as well, be it hobbies or work or whatever. Was I going out to mow my neighbor’s lawn? Why not bring another brother and do it together? That way we could share both the labor and reward and enjoy each other’s company before and after the work. I won’t say that as disciples of Jesus we are obligated to share every last minute of our lives with each other, as we all need time to ourselves to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but I’ve always been enriched by inviting other brothers and sisters to share various aspects of my daily routine. There are challenges to this practice, of course, but the reward often outweighs the cost.
After fifteen years of seeking to know and follow Christ in community with other people, this is my most mature conviction on how it is best done. Nothing beats a text message to start the day, a phone call when I am discouraged, a cup of coffee after work, or another family with whom to share dinner. This is the way to deeper community for our churches today, as it always has been and always will be. By sharing our day-to-day lives with each other we will find a fellowship that is grounded in real life and not just a Sunday morning service or Thursday evening small group.