The Church talks a good game about community. But do we know what it is?
Programmatically, the Church has equated community with small groups, or, more traditionally, Sunday School classes. Gotta have a booming small group program. Right?
Small groups are great. They are ideal. But different models work for different church models, different programs work for different communities, and different motivations work for different congregational cultures.
We have all been hearing for a long time that small groups are where churches experience community, but we are only recently hearing admissions that maybe they aren't all they're cracked up to be. (See Gary Lamb saying nobody's doing them all that well. See Dan Edelen's The Small Groups Boondoggle.) And of course, as the recent research is showing, the churches most invested in small groups program as community are not exactly pleased with the spiritual maturity of the disciples it has produced.
So what do we do? Scrap small groups?
But I do think we need to rethink some things, check our assumptions and expectations.
Each Sunday night, after our Element service, we have an "after party" dinner at a local restaurant. Same place every week. We generally have about half the service attendees join us, and the waitstaff rolls their eyes and sighs when they have to push tables together to accommodate us. (Yes, it is a great exercise in grace for our people. :-) Occasionally, service attendees invite friends to the restaurant who won't or don't come to the service, and these folks join us for dinner.
Last Sunday night, I took a breath and a break from conversation with a friend, blocked out the distractions of the music and the football games on the overhead televisions, and looked down the table and each face. People were smiling, laughing, talking with each other. I was noting the connections people had made because of this thing we do. I practically saw the thing in slow motion, I was so intent on just basking in what was happening.
I turned to a fellow leader and said, "You know, don't let anyone tell us that this isn't community." He nodded, because he was thinking the same thing.
The problem is that some would be quite eager to tell us that if we are not sitting in a circle and doing a Bible study of some sort, we are not experiencing community. That what we were doing was too "loose" to count.
We have recently shifted our Monday night Bible study to a Monday night dinner, and while nobody really objected, the predominant mood was that maybe we are now settling for less than community.
I think we need to bag preconceived notions on what community is, how it is experienced, and whether one can even quantify how "successful" it is. Certainly as the emerging data is demonstrating, the sheer volume of people in bursting-at-the-seams small groups programs does not automatically equal spiritual maturation.
So what do we do? How do we experience community?
I think a church culture's approach to nurturing community within its congregation should include some, if not all, of the following ingredients:
a) The value of "life together" must be cultivated corporately in the context of worship service teaching. Preaching must convey the virtue -- the necessity -- of discipleship in community. What has happened is that our messages mainly preach "practical tips for your successful" life, and then we are surprised that the people receiving a steady diet of this are selfish and aren't interested in spending time with others. Even the Gospel content in most churches has trended toward "personal salvation," so we cultivate the value of a private, isolated faith. What you win them with is what you win them to -- so let's win them with the idea of the reconciliatory Gospel. Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with each other. Inspiring and implanting this value is more than half the battle.
b) We have to recognize that for the most part, community is organic. I have been in programmed small groups that worked really well, with people really connecting relationally and investing in each other's lives outside the small group meeting. And I've been in some where . . . well, nothing "clicked." The difference was not that one had good curriculum or a better facilitator or more mature Christians or more things in common or better personalities or were part of a better program model. The difference was something intangible. Call it chemistry. Call it spark. Call it divine appointment. The difference was that in one group, connecting felt forced, and in another, connecting just happened. And both sorts of groups can happen within the same sort of church small groups program. Our church has used the same model for the last 3 or 4 years. I have led small groups each year of the current model. The first two "semesters" I had groups that were awkward, forced, stagnant. The last few I've led have been tremendous, with people really connecting and committing to doing life together and bearing each other's burdens and growing spiritually.
Chronologically, the ones that "worked" occurred after the firing of our pastor and during a time of spiritual breakthrough in congregational brokenness. It had nothing to do with me or the model or the class material. It was something the Spirit did with the right mix of people in the right place at the right time. It was organic. And you can't program that.
c) On the other hand, this is not to say that community cannot be intentional. Organic is not the same thing as purposeless. So while you can't install a program and expect it to create something that can really only be nurtured organically, we can be intentional and deliberate about the ways we cultivate community. I think what this means is that one doesn't have to have a certain set of program ingredients for community to work (a set number of people, a set sort of environment, a set sort of material to cover, a set schedule or a set format), but one does have to have their mind set on community. This means leaders of groups and leaders within groups should be intentional about maintaining relationships outside the group. Maybe your group happened organically -- meaning, you didn't start meeting at the start of an official small group schedule but perhaps just started hanging out having met each other in church or elsewhere -- but you should be intentional about following up on people's lives outside the hangtime. It's not really community for one to say within a meeting "My mom died last week" and everyone to say sorry and pray and then everybody go back to their regular lives until next week. Community is saying sorry and praying and then offering to grieve with the person and being intentional about being present in their life, even in small ways, outside the group and during the time of grief. Small groups can be cathartic group counseling sessions, but they can't just be that.
d) Further on intentionality: We've got to ditch the notion that small groups are living room Bible studies. Community happens wherever 2 or more are gathered in God's name. So a congregation that is worshiping together is experiencing community. A congregation that has meals together is experiencing community. And more importantly, a congregation that serves the community together is experiencing community. Some of the best connections our folks make in experiencing community is when they participate in our service projects. We may not be sitting in a circle asking what such and such passage "means to you," but standing in a line serving meals at the local homeless shelter or separating to do scattered fix-up work at an inner city children's after-school program is often more community building. Is it any surprise, given the inside-out ethic of the kingdom, that focusing outward can build us inward more often than an insulated attempt at learning more information?
This will likely require the gradual shift of a church toward a greater missional mindset.
Those are some initial thoughts on the rethinking of community in our churches. As we push evangelicalism toward reformation, what we are not urging is bailing on community. Indeed, as some of the megachurch gurus are now saying we need to double back and work on individual spirituality, I think pushing community is more important now than ever. But we have to remember some bottom lines:
a) Community can't be programmed, but it can be nurtured.
b) Community is an experience, not a statistic. (In other words, numbers can't always be trusted.)
c) Community doesn't have to be formal, but it does have to be intentional.
The Formation of Reformation is a weekly series surveying the overarching theme of this blog -- namely, "reformation of the discipleship culture of the American church." New posts in the series appear each Wednesday.
The Formation of Reformation, Part 1: Pastoral Culture