The best way to build community

November 24, 2016 — 11 Comments
Photo Credit: @superamit Flickr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: @superamit Flickr via Compfight cc

“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.

11 responses to The best way to build community

  1. For what it’s worth, having served in both scenarios (small group church & organic church), I still think that the ‘Sunday Service’ thingy is a stumbling-block to true community, it has developed a mindset over many centuries which is very hard if not impossible to break out of.

    At the same time I certainly go with your general line of thinking in building better community. Certainly, ‘adding on’ is not the answer. Imho your last sentence is ‘key!’ Thanks bro.

  2. i’ve had real daily, deep, family style community off and on for just over 40 years, but it’s been more off then on. it’s been seasonal in a weird sort of way. When we hear our without it, as we have been for over 15 years now a deep, unsatisfied spiritual hunger drives us. When we’ve had it, a deeper spiritual hunger has sustained us. The thing we noticed everywhere is that there is either spiritual hunger or nothing. Everything in between is tradition, and lukewarm or formalism and mantra like following of leaders and rules. Real hunger killers. The biggest problem we face is the lack of spiritual hunger, and we have no idea how to stir up Gods people from their satisfied condition.
    it appears that real community will not emerge until God’s people become dissatisfied with the systems we’ve created.
    from what I have read from history, that happens divinely, resulting from God sweeping into the midst of his people by his spirit, and birthing hunger for Jesus amongst them. i’ve been through one of those sweeps, and can tell you it’s irresistible and all consuming. apathy and worldliness and hunger for trinkets is burned up and replaced by vulnerability and transparency and fresh new hunger to be with others who know him. and he pours out of us without effort or even intention on our part, Infecting many in our vicinity, like a virus. I long for that kind of community again. I’ve tried many times to re-create it, and restore it, and speak it and act it into being. it’s hopeless and I’m tired, and discouraged, and we are mostly lonely, in the midst of hundreds of Christians who are not hungry. please come Lord Jesus and revive us and save us from our own goodness.

    • Greg I concur with so much of what you have written. True community is a rare thing. I love your talk about spiritual hunger, it’s fundamental, isn’t it? Hungry for Jesus, even more than community itself.
      I’ve been privileged to check out ‘church’ and ‘community’ around the world, including China on a number of occasions. Yes, we are dependent on the movement of God’s Spirit, but as Andrew Murray (who saw true revival) once said, in the absence of general revival we are called to live in personal revival. I may also say, very humbly, that I have tasted of that genuine, rare community you have referred to here in my own country, but mostly only after I left the institutional church some 10 years ago, having pastored denominational churches for 38 years. Let us pray for more of that around the world. It seems doubly difficult in 1st world countries with so much comfort and ease, generally speaking.
      At the same time I respect Joshua as a brother in the Lord in his vision and efforts. May God guide him and those with whom he is working, and indeed all of us.

      • Erroll, Greg wrote a response to your comment that he accidentally sent to me in an email instead. I am posting it here with his permission:

        “I love Joshua’s heart and passion too. As a matter fact, I’m grateful for any inclination, or gratitude or feelings of love toward the Lord, from anyone, anytime. our heart sleep with Hope and expected joy when sometimes we meet people who we even suspect might love him. We’ve seen so many, if not most, fellowships go awry, or be hijacked by human personalities, and I believe personally that universal disappointment among gods children in each other, has produced an equally universal hesitancy to open our hearts and minds to Christ in one another. I can honestly report that I have learned and experienced and been filled with The fruit of God spirit more through his children then in personal prayer, Bible study, and worship. Or at least it seems that way. That may sound sacrilegious or idolatrous, I hope not because I certainly love the Lord above all, but I don’t think I love his people any less. I also think that there are quite a few scriptures and scriptural seems that apply to the corporate body of Christ as much as they apply to individuals. As a matter fact I’ve become very suspicious about how western minds have overlaid what I have experienced and understand in the Scriptures to be the nature of God, through Christ and the church, as a collective body, who’s head is Christ. I know we believe that and teach it and at least try to pattern our lives after our understanding of that as a concept, but I’ve concluded that we learn what we live, in spite of what God teaches and Jesus demonstrated. We just aren’t living every day has a body lives every day, with only one head. I’m pretty sure that when Jesus spoke about us not understanding the bread and the depth and the height of God’s love, that he was challenging us to in fact know Gods love deeply, and not by Bible study and personal devotions only but through daily fellowship among the brethren, with Jesus as our only head. He is the embodiment of that an ending all consuming love and the early church where the reset paeans and benefactors of him as the fullness of the Godhead bodily. It transforms them overnight. So powerful is his love that thousands of Jews abandoned overnight, millenniums of scriptural old testament traditions and feasts, and temple worship and the entire parody of genuine Judaism that was then Israel. There’s very little mention of arguments or discussions or councils convening to hammer out catechisms and agreements and establish codes of conduct’s and behavior, other than the question of circumcision much later. On the contrary, for the first time since king David, the Bible says that all of God’s people were with one accord. That one accord impelled them to very quickly create an entirely new culture of sharing, and knowing one another after the spirit, and laying down their lives even for their enemies. That went on for many decades and turned the world right side up. And it continues till now. But now we find ourselves in an almost identical situation as Israel before Jesus came. Factions, traditions of men, extra biblical texts, teachers & schools of prophets, militarized, wealthy & selfish, and captives in a land we once dictated the culture of. I believe nothing short of a second coming of Christ, to cleanse his people, will fulfill Gods heart desire to extract and overcoming family from a mixed multitude. Unlike his first coming, Jesus commanded us to bring his parousia presence into our communities and world by loving one another as he loves us. But the message we hear preached today is that instead of him waiting for us to do is we were told, we are waiting for him to save us. conveniently, this is a message only received in the comfortable pew of western civilization’s. Anywhere that history records, and the newspapers report that Jesus has broken out among the people with salvation and healing, It’s largely happening where God’s people are living in one accord, sometimes by necessity and sometimes by choice. They discover the riches of Christ, through one another as he walks among them comfortably, sharing their thoughts and feelings and ambitions and loves and hates, as one of us. From that kind of community comes revival and healing. And it is self-sustaining if we remain watchful and open hearted to him, especially through one another, not allowing wolves and false teachers to lead astray the simple and beguile the proud. This I believe is the gospel that we should preach, that will create that spiritual hunger in those in whom the spirit has planted the seed of Christ. We can either wait until some national disaster drives us to it or we can get out in front of the coming tsunami of apostasy and evil, and cry out to him with all our hearts to come. And then we can follow up with doing what he told us to do by radically laying down our lives for one another, having all things in common, no man calling anything is on, meeting daily in one accord etc etc. He’s waiting for us while we’re waiting for others. No wonder there are so many wandering in the wilderness.”

        • Thanks Greg and Josh! What a refreshing, heartfelt and insightful bit of writing from Greg, if I may say so. I could really enjoy a coffee and fellowship with him! (and with you, Josh. Trouble is I’m on the other side of the world!) I fully agree that the Western Church has largely not grasped the ‘corporateness’ of salvation and God’s plan for his people. Some of our black African communities seem to grasp it better, in my more recent experience.

          Go well, friends.

  3. I concur. Well said.

  4. Thank you for this writing! With your permission I translated it into Hungarian and posted it on filippi314.com

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