I am still on my “community first, church second” roll from the “Re-Designing Church for the 21st Century” article that I posted two weeks ago. One of my readers wanted more than just a good theory; he wanted specifics. His comment ended with this challenge to me: “Now. What. Do. We. Do. About It?!?”
Given that we have 96 churches in our presbytery and a broad diversity I often don’t give specific advice knowing that what will work for one church won’t work for another. Better to offer a general concept and unleash the creativity that is specific to each individual congregation, is my thinking. Besides that I have often favored being the one to simply ask the question and pose the possibility giving God as much room to enter into the dialogue as possible.
But this is one area where congregations often feel stuck. Some churches will want some assurance that if they put their efforts toward community first that it will result in a stronger, more vital and growing congregation. Other churches are willing to give up the expectation that there has to be a direct tie between community-building and church growth. But they still wonder, “How do we do it? How do we go about building community in an institution based on membership?”
I want to tell you that it isn’t as hard as you may think. The hard part is putting energy into something that may not directly result in membership, church growth, and more support for the budget. In churches where there is already limited energy it is natural to expect that any efforts at reaching people in the community will result in the strengthening the membership of the church. Letting go of that expectation is the much more difficult hurdle than actually building community.
There are signs all around us that people are desperate to build community and to form into shared networks of mutual support and learning. If I Google Meetup.com it will show me that there are over 2,000 groups within a 25-mile radius of Portland with groups ranging from as few as ten people to over 2,000 people. There are people meeting to hike together, study sacred literature, learn to line dance, travel around the world, and even explore nude beaches (this is not an endorsement, by the way, only an observation!).
More and more we are experiencing churches who sponsor community-building events not for the sake of enticing those attendees into membership, but simply for the sake of providing a safe, nurturing and rich environment for people to connect, learn, develop relationships.
My two previous articles highlighted the need to think about “community first, church second” as we live into this this 21st century as the Church. My reader stated strongly, “Now. What. Do. We. Do. About It?!?” Here are some ideas that come from my experience and exploring.
- Start a Meetup.com group in your area initiated by someone in your church who has a particular interest or passion’
- Look through the meetup.com list and choose one or two groups that you would be willing to sponsor either by the use of your building, paying the minimal monthly fees, or partnering with the group on select activities;
- Partner with your neighbors to organize dinner parties somewhat along the lines of The Dinner Party, that caters to young adults who have experienced loss;
- Scour the list of community events and groups on Craigslist to see what activities and groups you could add additional support for and partner with;
- Work with Oregon-based “The Hearth Community” to sponsor community story-telling events. My experience at Bethany, Grants Pass tells me that despite people not attending church they are still deeply interested in a community drawn together by stories (we live out of the Biblical story).
- Check out the following emerging communities that should give you more ideas:
For more information and background on the emergence of spiritually-based communities that are forming beyond the church read “How We Gather”
I will repeat: The hard is work is accepting that building community won’t necessarily mean membership.
But building community is not all that difficult.
It’s what people want.
And what people want happens–either with us or without us.