Having grown up in a Christian family, I’ve spent my fair share of time in churches, youth groups, and bible studies. And for all the differences in music, teaching, preaching style, and theology that various groups exhibit – the one factor that always stuck with me was the community. Was the group or congregation characterized by love? Did they care about each other’s lives outside of the 5 minute “greet your neighbor” portion of the service? Were group members genuinely interested in learning and growing together, or more interested in the refreshments? Some groups I will always remember fondly, for their love and open hearts. Some, though, just didn’t make the cut.
Shaun Stevenson has similar recollections of being ignored by a church when he was desperately seeking community in his Relevant Magazine article 3 Ways the Church Can Build Better Community. He writes,
Sometimes I wonder if community-building in many churches has fallen into the same trap that so many other things have fallen into: We talk more about it more than we actually practice it. Sermons, Bible study books, podcasts, tweets, Facebook rants—they've addressed community at some point. Home groups sit around and talk to each other about how great their community is when they may have someone sitting on the sofa right next to them who feels wildly disconnected from everyone else. We love the idea of community—everyone engaged and involved and connected—but how many people show up like I did to the back of that church, longing for someone to reach out to them, shake their hand and have more than a two-second conversation?
The first thing we need to do, according to Stevenson, is put ourselves aside – including our worries, our fears, and our pride. In a blog post on Crosswalk.com, Kelly Balarie tackles the worry that many Christians face, wondering “Does what I do even matter? Am I making a difference?” She reminds us that it’s not about us – it’s about the Lord, and how God can use us to help others!
If we affected one, we have pleased One. God values the least of these. He is not looking for numbers; he is looking for changed hearts. What you are doing does matter. If someone has been changed, your work has had huge impact. And, imagine all the people you have impacted who have never even told you.
The second way we can build better church community is by being willing to put in the time (and real community definitely takes time to grow!). In Ron Edmondson’s 5 Reasons a Church Stops Growing, he gives many practical suggestions for how Christians can achieve growth and health in their communities. For one thing, he suggests, never stop dreaming!
Dreams inspire, challenge, and grow people and organizations. What could the church accomplish to reach its community? You’ll never dream bigger than the dreams God has for you or your church.
He also encourages communities to take risks for, and with, one another.
You can’t succeed at anything without a measure of risk. Playing it safe never grows anything. The call of God always involves risk-taking.
Finally, Stevenson writes, walk alongside people, not at them.
One of the biggest fears many people have is the question of safety. Are they safe to engage in their current environment? Will they be judged for any one of a myriad of daily choices? Will this group turn on them as soon as they say or do one thing wrong?
In How to Make Your Church a Safe Place for Sinners, Stephen Altroggle insists,
If there is one place where it should be safe to tell secrets, it should be the church.…We can offer Christ, the one who forgives our darkest sins and gives us power to overcome them…We can offer real shoulders to cry upon, a real community to receive support from, and real help in desperate times… We can offer the forgiveness of God, which comes through true confession.
Later in the piece, he speaks directly to small group leaders and members:
[W]hen possible, open up about your own struggles. Let people see that you’re a messed up person who desperately needs Jesus. Let people see that even though you’re a jacked-up sinner, you don’t despair because you have Jesus. When the opportunity presents itself, open up about how Jesus has helped you in the midst of your struggles and messiness. In doing so, you’ll give hope to those who are burdened by their secrets.
Not every church community is going to be great at all 3 of these things. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work at it! Stevenson closes with this encouraging paragraph:
Will communities always be safe? No. Is there risk in every relationship? Yes. Can we improve? Yes, indeed. As churches continues to talk about community, finding the grace to interact with each other in the midst of a broken, hate-filled world is difficult, but it is definitely worth every step of the journey.
Does your community fight selfishness? Are you willing to put in the time (and effort) to grow? Are you walking alongside people, not at them? Share your stories in the comment section!
Debbie Holloway is the Family Life Editor at Crosswalk.com
Publication date: March 25, 2015