Big city church (6): You can’t build community by trying to


This is the last post in my ‘big city church’ series. And today I want to show you that you can’t build community by trying to.

Some time in the last two decades, churches started planting 5pm congregations out of their 7pm services. I hope you’ll allow me to use these times symbolically, in a let-the-reader-understand kind of way, and not begrudge me 15min either way.

They all failed.

Barneys was one of these churches. Out of our 7:15pm service we planted not one, but two 5pm congregations. Neither exists today. And while it wouldn’t be fair to generalise out of our mistakes, have a look around and tell me what you see. Every 5pm congregation planted out of 7pm has a finite lifespan. It looks something like this:

  1. 7pm congregation planted to reach young adults (especially youth and uni).
  2. Parts of 7pm congregation start to grow up and become professionals, postgrads and tradies.
  3. These young workers don’t have a clear social identity – no longer youth, not yet in social circles that include families, everything about their self-definition is negative: ‘I’m not uni’; ‘I don’t want to be around noisy children’; ‘I’m not a morning church person’.
  4. But negative identities can’t sustain. They lead to instability and sense of imminent (and immanent?) crisis.
  5. So the young workers/postgrads cocoon. ‘We want community,’ they say.
  6. Pastor, fearful of them leaving the church (especially, nowadays, to the hipster church down the road), allows formation of 5pm congregation for ‘community’.
  7. Some of the members of this new congregation fall in love. It can’t be helped.
  8. Some of those in love get married. Some even have babies.
  9. When these new 5pm families leverage their new family-based networks to invite their non-Christian friends to church, perhaps for a baptism, the conversation goes something like this: ‘So, you want me to bring my 2 year old child and newborn…’ ‘Yes…’ ‘…to a strange church environment…’ ‘..Yes…’ ‘…at the witching hour…’ ‘…’umm, yes…’ ‘…on a Sunday night before work…’ ‘…well…’ Cue hysterical laughter. You can finish it off.
  10. So, one-by-one, the 5pm families drip out. And because they ‘drip’, rather than move as a cohort, the wind of reality blows them away, one by one, to another church, and the morning congregation of their original church dwindles and dies.
  11. And those who stay at 5pm? Well, they watch it shrink and die, too. Because it was founded in the pursuit of community, which makes it really hard to break into.
  12. One day, the pastor gets a gun. And the 5pm service is no more.

This is because the pursuit of community is, ultimately, death to any real and lasting experience of it.

Community – in a sense much more profound and much less naff than describing a uni as a ‘learning community’ or a suburb as a ‘local community’ – is a social context in which people are loved and accepted. We experience community by experiencing being known, treasured, invested in. We can presume that the early church believed in community, because they expected Christians to welcome one another, because Jesus stands between us, and welcoming one another is the same as welcoming our king:

Matt 10:40   Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me,  and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

This is particularly important when it may be difficult to welcome someone:

Rom 14:1   Accept the one whose faith is weak,  without quarreling over disputable matters.

The means by which we are enabled to welcome the other who is different and difficult is by learning to love them as God does.

Eph 4:2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another  in love.

Which means that community is a by-product of love.

But here is the crucial point: we cannot directly pursue community and love at the same time. It must be one or the other. If we are in pursuit of community for its own sake, we will be driven to marginalise those who make community different. We will create circles of community, and hierarchies, and in-and-out, and even those who are in will start wondering what is required to stay in, and honesty and vulnerability will fly out the door, and we will keep asking ourselves ‘do I belong?’ and, well, the whole thing will remain bright and brassy on the outside but corrupt and rotten on the inside till it collapses under its own weight.

If, on the other hand, we pursue love, community comes along for the ride. How do we love one another? By seeking one another’s good. By conforming one another to the likeness of our master. By serving, encouraging, teaching and rebuking. In short: through discipleship. Brad House, in his book Community, is good on this:

No one really debates the need for people to exist within community. It is not merely a Christian understanding; it is a human understanding. But belonging in and of itself will never be enough. Hanging the need for community on belonging is like hanging the need for water on thirst. The need for both is deeper….We do not have community groups to close the back door of the church. We do not have groups because people need to belong or we need to care for one another. These are good but secondary effects of authentic community. These effects are not the foundation. We have community groups because we have seen the glory of God and we have been given the grace to live our lives to exalt the Christ. We have community groups because we have been reconciled to God and one another…. Unfortunately, though, I am not sure the church at large knows what to do with community groups. Most have some conviction that they are necessary but relegate them to a form of social day care. We have been content with having community groups rather than employing them to advance the kingdom of God. It is no wonder that many in the church today find community groups obligatory and a waste of energy…. With this in mind, I would like to suggest that there are three primary functions of the church for which community groups can and should be the vehicle. They are discipleship, pastoral care, and mission…. There is a reason that the New Testament is littered with commands to love, teach, admonish, and rebuke one another. By discipling one another we are not only learning, but also we are teaching the gospel.

How, then, do we build community? By not building it. Don’t try to trick yourself, in a left-hand, right-hand kind of way. Don’t call it discipleship in the hope no one will see through the veneer and realise you are really trying to make community. Let it go. Free Willy, and all that. Fly away!

Instead, love. Build small groups and clusters and one-to-ones and triplets that are seeking to disciple one another, and in God’s good time, community will come. How can it not, when people (freed from how this will affect their place in the ‘community’) are opening their lives honestly to God, to one another and to the power of his Holy Spirit applied through the word?

You might want to reconsider calling your groups ‘community groups’, though our option (‘growth groups’) is even worse (I chose it). You might want to watch your language of community if you want your congregation to grow. You might even want to watch your heart: am I in this because I want community? Or because the Lord Jesus Christ has called me to love?

There are lots of things you can do by trying to do them. Run a marathon. Bake chocolate tarts. Build a shed. But there are some that you can’t. You can’t be filled by the Spirit by trying to – you need to discipline your heart and pursue godly character, and the Spirit joins in the fun. You can’t make friends by trying to – no one is less attractive than the person seeking friendship. You need to befriend – to serve others.

And you can’t build community by trying to. So stop trying. And pastor, breathe.


18 thoughts on “Big city church (6): You can’t build community by trying to

  1. “Build small groups and clusters and one-to-ones and triplets that are seeking to disciple one another, and in God’s good time, community will come. How can it not…?”

    God’s good time must be very, very slow, because for most of our churches that have done these things, it still hasn’t arrived.

  2. Jonathan, I think I’d cautiously disagree on two fronts. Firstly, I suspect I’m more optimistic and positive than you about the experience of church – and, I’d probably argue, more clear-sighted. Half-hearted, frustrating, shallow, directionless and faithless though church can be, most Christians I know can also speak to her power and beauty. Certainly, at Barneys, there are great stories of being carried through life by the love of small communities.

    Secondly, I’ve allowed for the failure of community through the failure of biblical purpose. It’s not in the doing of these things community has found, but the hearts and intentions of those that do them. Starting a small group does nothing. But seeking to meet together faithfully to carry one-another’s burdens, exhort, encourage and rebuke, and sit together under our Master’s care and instruction – I see community arise from those intentions all the time.

    1. To be honest, Michael, my main beef with your blog is that you stole my theme. Greyzed, that is.
      I’m pretty sure they created it just for me.


  3. Great article, and I agree that creating a group identity or ‘community’ on negative criteria can’t work. However, can I offer an anecdote?

    I attend a CBD church which started up a 5pm service about 10 years ago. It attracted the typical crowd of post-grads, single professionals and couples with no kids. However, instead of the singles falling in love, marrying, having kids and leaving the church, they mostly transition into the morning congregation. When the kids are older, families move back to the 5pm service which has a concurrent youth group.

    There have been four or five church plants in recent years with 50-100 people from the 5pm service going – however numbers have stayed strong while the plants also thrive. New Christians are coming to this service, being linked in with home groups and taught the Bible.

    It’s only been ten years, but to me this looks like a 5pm service which is working well.

  4. Hey Mike, just some reflections on your opening point. When I was at St Paul’s Carlingford helping at the 5pm congregation there I noted this at the time – that the lifespan of this congregation was limited to maybe 5 or 7 years because there was no feeder for the congregation (because the 7.15 uni congregation who grew older would just stay there) and a clear exit strategy – get married have kids and move to morning church. That’s pretty much what happened, but people weren’t too concerned – accepting that congregations have a natural lifespan and churches needed to constantly evolve.

    In the end I think they recombined some congregations. I don’t think anyone considered it a failure.

  5. Thank you for the great insight about the instability of the 5pm experiment. As a sociological comment, it’s interesting that in the diocese of Chile where I work, every single church (but one) has only one service on a Sunday – the morning family service. When space fills up, its time to plant another morning congregation off site. This is because Chileans (and Christians!) value family. The upshot is that a family service is inherently stable – no one ever experiences the angst of “am I too old for the youth service – but I don’t have kids to go in the morning…”, and so there is less chance of loosing people through “demographic fade out”. Also a family service is great for modelling, etc, etc.

  6. Hi Michael,

    This is the first of your blogs I’ve read and it’s been an interesting read. So let me kick off by saying “thank you”.

    I think your point is well made about the primacy of love and the importance of leading your congregation members first to respond to God’s call to live passionate lives of Christ-like love and self-sacrifice, rather than pursuing community directly via some other mechanism.

    Personally, I’d emphasise love of Father and Son themselves even above love and service of one another, and I’d also draw less of a dichotomy between pursuit of community and pursuit of love. But maybe that’s just me.

    The main reason I’m taking the time to comment on your post is because of your analysis of the failure of 5pm services in general and those at Barnies in particular.

    On the one hand, a fair amount of your characterisation of the development and then closure of a 5pm ‘community’ service has the ring of truth for me – it resonates with some of my first & second hand experience of those services. And I think you would have no trouble finding examples of expired 5pm services within recent SydAng history that match up fairly closely with your model.

    On the other hand, I’d suggest (with respect, I hope) that you’ve misdiagnosed the core problems that have beset many other such 5pm ‘community’ services, including the first of the ‘failed’ 5pm services at St Barnabas (a bold claim to make to the rector of St Barnabas, I agree!). What’s more, while I don’t for a minute want to suggest that your analysis is anything but honest and well-meaning, I’d argue that a broad acceptance of your assessment (and other similar assessments by other people) is effectively forming a smokescreen and allowing a number of significant tactical church leadership errors (often the real core culprits) to remain unrecognised and unaddressed.

    My wife Mary and I were founding members of the 5pm ‘Community Service’ that kicked off at Barnies right at the tail end of the old millennium and, in fact, our daughter Katie was the very first ‘5pm baby’ born into that congregation. We were only there for the first 2 years as we subsequently moved to outer suburbia, so I can only speak first-hand about the genesis of this service, not its demise.

    Here are some observations (subjective and limited, but indicative I think) about the genesis of that service that I don’t believe fit your model:

    1. Our collective social identity was not defined negatively (not youth, not family), although its true there was a fair degree of demographic & sociological homogeneity (post uni, 20-30, professional). But then, that seems to be true of most services in most SydAng churches these days (8am = seniors & conservative churchmanship; 7pm = youth & contemporary churchmanship; etc)

    2. While there was an unashamed intent that the new congregation would be characterised by a richness of Christian community, I was never aware of any suggestion that this should or could be pursued directly without the pursuing the deepening of each member’s personal relationship with God and the development of their Christian character. Rather, these goals were all held to be in harmony.

    3. The intended distinctiveness of the service really centred around lay participation and contemporary cultural relevance, and was I think a reasonable response to both (a) the perceived ‘christian consumer’ character of the evening uni-student-dominated service at Barnies at that time, and (b) the ‘Anglican churchy’ flavour of the other services.

    4. In the 2yrs that we were there, the particular innovations that characterised the service added (I think) a nett positive impetus to the growth of our congregation members in their Christlikeness.

    So personally, I don’t think it’s accurate to single out that particular Barnies 5pm service as having been established on the sort of faulty ‘seeking community unbiblically’ foundation that you describe. Maybe it later died the kind of death you describe – I can’t really say. But it certainly wasn’t birthed in the way you describe.

    Concerning the demise of so many 5pm congregations in our city & denomination, I would suggest you consider a few of the following potential culprits:

    1. Many rectors who have been willing to ‘give the 5pm experiment a try’ have subsequently failed to recognise and cater for some of the key needs of such a congregation that are necessary for its longer-term viability, such as (a) establishing a new child-friendly morning service (or radically restyling an existing service) of similar character / style that congregation members can realistically transition to as their kids reach 2yrs+, and (b) resourcing & supporting the service well enough to ensure that lay leadership doesn’t get burnt out.

    2. Some rectors have shown themselves to have only two modes of service leadership engagement: high control & near-zero-engagement. My observation suggests that lay-run community congregations require a much more sophisticated kind of medium-intensity statesmanlike oversight by their rectors. Some (many?) rectors just don’t seem to be ready and able to offer this.

    3. I think many ‘community’ congregations have perhaps failed to recognise the relatively brief natural average lifespan that members will have within the service’s demographic. They therefore tend to underinvest in (a) recruiting new members from amongst those exiting the demographic of the 7pm youth service, (b) being active and intentional in welcoming of new members & integrating them, and (c) providing a smooth, proactive transitioning process into a suitable morning service for those exiting their demographic. (They also, in my view, tend to give insufficient consideration to the merits of meeting earlier on a Sunday afternoon.)

    4. In our modern Australian context, it is the norm for those in their uni & early working stages of life to be highly mobile – to move locations for study or work and therefore to change churches. Until your 5pm community church is particularly large and well-established, a single year of above-average exodus and below-average influx can rob a lay-run ‘community’ congregation of its momentum and effectively kill what might otherwise have continued to be a very vibrant and God-honouring congregation / service.

    Finally, I’d also challenge you on your definition of failure, which seems to be directly related to service longevity. I find no biblical basis for that as a metric of success or failure in the eyes of God.

    If we get smarter and more serious about it, I believe its possible for us to deliver on the 5pm (or 2pm?!) community service dream and it can be a beautiful and God-honouring thing. And even a long-lived thing ! But that won’t happen if we revise our history and tell ourselves that our past 5pm services were all ‘failures’, and that they all failed primarily because of one over-simplified cluster of mistakes that are inherent in the model.

    Michael, I hope you don’t just see this as some sort of ‘bah humbug’ response to your blog. I think you’ve got a good and valid point here about how biblical Christian community is formed, and how it’s not formed. However, in the way you’ve made that point, I think you’ve thrown out quite a few healthy 5pm babies along with the bath water – including a very pretty baby I once met at St Barnabas.

    Regards and blessings,
    Timothy Hill

    1. Tim, thanks for the detailed and thoughtful engagement. I see real insights in your commentary, but at the same time have numerous points of disagreement. Let me relate to each of your posts.

      1. I was told by members of Barneys@5 that one of the major motivators in forming this congregation was the size, youth and style of the 7:15pm service, and a resistance to moving to the morning. There may have been members of the 5pm congregation who joined purely for positive reasons, but they were not the largest group.

      2. Agreed.

      3. Although the service aimed at lay participation, the actual outcome was that it was more staff intensify by a multiplier than any other congregation. Although it aimed for cultural relevance, it never grew and constantly declined, which suggests to me that ‘relevance’ failed to connect with the culture. And I think you have named two ‘negative’ motivations in this point.

      4. Agreed. Though every time I visited, hospitality and welcome to newcomers was worse than either of the other two congregations, which suggests to me the growth in godliness was lopsided.

      Then in your next set of points:

      1. I’ve pointed out above that the Barneys@5 had more staff per member than any other service.

      2. You’re probably right.

      3. The short life span of membership only applies to people who go on to have children. This has a devastating impact to the singles who see all their friends move away every 2 years. Ultimately, it is this breaking of relations as families bounce on into the morning that kills the 5pm service.

      4. My observation on the inevitable death of 5pm congregations is historically true of both small and large groups.

      Finally, I don’t think the closing of a congregation is a failure; but in this case, that it is expressive of a failure already present.

      That was very brief – hope not too abrupt. In Him, Mike

  7. Michael: can you say more about why you think 5pm is a bad time for families?
    I thought that time slot is used alot in Sydney Anglican churches with success for families…
    I can see why a few might find it a “witching hour” (grumpy time?), but if you had a core group that got used to it….?

  8. Wayne, my objection to 5pm is more empirical than anything else. It arises from the observation that when late afternoon congregations are planted out of evening congregations, hidden amidst a mass of noble motivations are usually one or two that sow the seeds of that congregation’s eventual collapse.

  9. Anna, I think one of the great exceptions to this rule are churches such as Holy Trinity Adelaide (with the associated church planting network), which thrive in the shallow ground of a liberal diocese. For them, the planting of afternoon congregations becomes a regional expansion process with genuinely missional intent.

  10. Alistair, having seen churches ‘recombine congregations’, I’d only encourage you to explore with the people involved in the process just how painful that was. For pastors who straddle congregations, and whose identity is associated with the larger church, amalgamations are all happiness and sunshine: fewer services, but the same people! For members of congregations it is usually a gruesome and difficult operation.

    This kind of trauma to a community always – always – leads to a period of recovery rather than mission.

  11. Hi mike
    Speaking as an original Barneys@5 member , we were actually doing really well 5 years in- we loved our service and it was thriving. We were ( for financial reasons) merged with king st and that was where the wheels fell off. Barneys@5 was a different kind if service and was not just about being in a different stage if life as was the other 5pm service. When we merged the king stcongregation’s style dominated – which was the traditional Barneys style- and our congregation’s values and needs became lost. The mourning of the loss of Barneys@5 is still felt by some and we actually lost people not from natural movement but from the disappointment of the service no longer being continued. I know at least 10 people who left because of this reason. I think it was a great congregation that catered to people who don’t always find traditional services appealing . We were also told that the closure of the new 5pm was also a financial decision and nothing to do with numbers etc. we would have obviously moved on as our children came along but I think 5pm was a success

    1. Bernie, I’m so glad that, like Tim, you remember the positives of Barneys@5 so well. I’m certainly not going to dispute those experiences, and while I think I have some different perspectives to offer on the successfulness of Barneys@5 at any stage in its history, I’d rather not besmirch the memories of specific communities. So I’ll simply say: thanks for your reflection.

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