Church Isn't Automatically a Community: 3 Ways to Make It So

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“We were created for community.” That is a common phrase used in faith circles today.  The understanding that Wesley had is dawning a new on our generation: we are not created to be “holy solitaries” but rather created for community. Perhaps in part this is a pushback on the individualized focus of the American culture, the “My Way” lingo of the 80’s that lasted through the start of this new century, or a response to the impact of the great camp meeting era that focused on personal salvation and commitment. Whatever the exact cause, we find ourselves now re-capturing the insights from Wesley, Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, and many others who previously reminded us not just of the value of community for Christian spiritual formation but the necessity of it:

“The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, p. 26).

“In the Christian community we gather in the name of Christ and thus experience him in the midst of a suffering world…In community, we are no longer a mass of helpless individuals, but are transformed into one people of God.  In community, our fears and anger are transformed by God’s unconditional love, and we become gentle manifestations of God’s boundless compassion” (Nouwen, McNeill, & Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, pp. 54-55).

“Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness” (Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, preface).

Bonheoffer in Life Together suggested that Christian community is a gift of God’s grace.  If community is a gift of God’s grace, if it helps us know and experience Christ, and if it is the only way to truly become compassionate, then we must be compelled to seek it, develop it, embrace it, and nurture it for us and our people.

Unfortunately, a congregation isn’t automatically a community. Our language might infer that, as we often use the words congregation and community interchangeably – but they are not inherently synonymous.  You can have a congregation that is filled with individuals who are “holy solitaries”, who never function truly as a community, and thus they are not afforded the opportunity of spiritual formation that happens only within community.

A social scientist, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) in The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments in Nature and Design and later in his (2005) Making Human Beings: Human Biological Perspectives on Human Development, pioneered the concept of the ecology of human development in which he suggested that not only does the society or community impact the individual via five systems or spheres of influence, but also the individual has an impact on those spheres – their community. It is a give and take. Bronfrenbrenner (1979) suggested that these inter-relationships become the “vehicle” that stimulates and sustains development.  Inter-relationships, or life in community, stimulates and sustains development – Bronfenbrenner concludes what Nouwen, et al. advocate.

Interestingly, long before social science was a field of study Wesley grasped this concept. He witnessed the reality personally and in the lives of his people, the early Methodists.  Holiness cannot be achieved alone – it requires community.

But how does this “social holiness” occur? How do we create community? And are there transferrable, guiding principles that we can look to that will help guide our approach?  Let me suggest just a few to start this conversation.

In order for us to be in community we must have some things in common…

We must share in a:

1. Common Purpose: Why do we gather together? What is the purpose of it?

If our common purpose is not clearly defined and understood by all, then it is easy for our individual purposes to battle for supremacy.  A common purpose requires us to relinquish our individual pursuit for the sake of the community and see our individual purpose in light of our community’s common purpose.

You have witnessed congregations who have gotten out of balance in their purpose. Perhaps in part it is because the common purpose has become cloudy or vague or has lost its meaning, and strong individuals within the congregation push for their individual purpose to be all of our purpose.

Blevins & Maddix, in Discovering Discipleship: Dynamics of Christian Education, suggested: “Congregational formation’s function [purpose] is to build up, to shape communities of faith that serve God and love neighbors {WHY} for the sake of transforming their world” (p. 181).

Local formation in community to create global transformation.

What is your common purpose?  Do you know it and do your people know it?

2. Common Ritual: Rituals are corporate actions that carry with them meaning.

Rituals may be things we do every time the congregation gathers or things we do seasonally, but they are routine and meaningful either intentionally or not.

What are rituals that your congregation engages in? Consider things like how you meet and greet, if you have coffee in the lobby, if you open the service with a Psalm or liturgical greeting, how you handle the sacraments and how often they are enjoyed, Easter egg hunts and Good Friday services, how you recognize prayer requests, and how you welcome visitors.  These are all rituals.

“We humans are made for ritual and, in turn, our rituals make us”  (Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith, p. 54). Think in your mind’s eye of the typical rituals employed when your congregation gathers. What are the things that you do?  Now consider, what do those “things” or rituals say about your congregation?  What do they mean?

Westerhoff also suggested, “by their rites will you know them” (p.53). To an outside observer what do your rituals say about your community?  And how do your rituals contribute to congregational formation?  Westerhoff goes on to say that “our liturgies express the hidden meanings of our experience in relationship to the world, to others, and to God” (p. 54).   What are the hidden meanings behind your rituals?  Do you know? Do your people know?

Your answer to this question is vital because another “must have” element in forming community is to share a…

3. Common Testimony – Everyone has a personal testimony.

Each of the individuals who make up your congregation have a personal story – a testimony of what God has done in their life. It usually includes the telling of who they were, what God has done, and what God is doing.  And it is critical in their own personal spiritual formation that they develop the ability to express their personal story.  We know and understand this.  We encourage our people to write out their testimonies; we video tape them, and share them before baptism.  We encourage parents to tell their own faith stories to their children.  The “His Story, My Story, Your Story” approach to evangelism is understood and widely applauded.  Likewise, however, as a community who share a common story it is critical to our personal and corporate formation that we develop the ability to express OUR story and then share it.

Do you know your congregation’s story? What is its testimony?

An assignment early on in the course I teach, congregational spiritual formation, is to “interview” members of the congregation for the express purpose of hearing the congregation’s history in order to gain an insight on why they do what they do.  Students are asked to uncover where have they been (as a community) and what has God done.  Why?  Because the past is an integral part of our testimony and helps give insight into where we are and where we can go.

We know that our past experiences impact our current actions. For example, my parents who were children during the depression still fear food scarcity. Even though there are half a dozen grocery stories within three miles of their home, most of which are open 24 hours, their pantry is overflowing with canned goods.  Why?  Because of their history. They fear food shortage and that impacts their current actions – which to their grandchildren who have never had an empty belly seem unreasonable.  But their current story has a direct link to their history.  The same holds true for congregations – there are current behaviors that can only be understood in light of their history.

In order for your congregation to become a community, they must share in a common testimony.  What is the history? What is their story? They do have one – but do they know it?

Not only must we recapture our congregation’s history and discover where we have been and what God has done in the past.  It is critical that our testimony also includes a response to what God is doing now and an assertion on what we believe in faith that God is going to do in the future.

Remind your people of their corporate story and help them to continue to write it:
What has God done?
What is God doing?
What do we believe He will do?

There is a wonderful, uniqueness to spiritual formation that occurs in community. As our congregations are spiritually formed so are our people and as our people are spiritually formed so are our congregations.

How do we create community?  There are numerous ways, but in part we must share in a common purpose, common ritual, and a common testimony. What are yours? And how are they shaping you and your people?

Image attribution: Digital Vision / Thinkstock

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Rev. Dr. Colleen Derr is the Associate Professor of Congregational Spiritual Formation and Christian Ministry at the Wesleyan Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

4 COMMENTS

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  2. Nicely done.

    There’s nothing more powerful than the testimony. It’s how you share the Gospel without even knowing a line of Scripture. It’s how you disciple, by living out the Gospel. It’s how you encourage others to share their own testimonies (e.g. good news!).

  3. In my experience community happens in the church when you get out of the way and let people breathe. I didn’t become part of a community by some mission statement or vision casting (those things can often just make you feel like a cog in a machine), I became a part of a community when people took the time to get to know me. I didn’t become part of a community in some Bible study, I became part of a community in those hour long conversations in the parking lot afterward that used to get me in trouble with my wife :).

    Community is an uncomfortable thing for leadership because you want to say that you want, or even better that you have it, but you really don’t have any control over it. You need to depend on a group of people being interested in becoming part of each other’s lives. I really don’t think there is a shortcut for that.

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