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:
- 7pm congregation planted to reach young adults (especially youth and uni).
- Parts of 7pm congregation start to grow up and become professionals, postgrads and tradies.
- 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’.
- But negative identities can’t sustain. They lead to instability and sense of imminent (and immanent?) crisis.
- So the young workers/postgrads cocoon. ‘We want community,’ they say.
- Pastor, fearful of them leaving the church (especially, nowadays, to the hipster church down the road), allows formation of 5pm congregation for ‘community’.
- Some of the members of this new congregation fall in love. It can’t be helped.
- Some of those in love get married. Some even have babies.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.