On Building Community in a Congregation

ShepherdIn my last series of posts dealing with Richland Hills and the instrumental music controversy, I mentioned the importance of building community in a congregation. It’s certainly more important and more urgent than buying a piano. You can bring in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and your members will still leave if your church doesn’t provide them community.

But I’ve had some trouble defining this concept of community I keep talking about. So I thought I’d try to explain myself–and hopefully help myself understand this a bit better, too. I need to start with a somewhat fictionalized story. Many, but not all, details are borrowed from my own church–or from problems we’ve faced in the past. This is not where we are now, but some of it is.

Sandra and Robert were new in town. He’d recently graduated from college, and had his first real job. She was looking for job. They had grown up in the Church of Christ but hadn’t been very active while in school. But with the new job and new town, they felt it was time to find a church home and maybe find some friends, too.

Their first Sunday morning, they were warmly greeted at the curb by a very nice older man. As they walked into the foyer, they were greeted again and were handed an announcement sheet. The sheet included some simple instructions for new members, but because they’d grown up in church, they already knew the drill.

Shortly after services began, the worship leader asked the members to take a moment and greet those around them, and the visitors found themselves surrounded by very nice people, shaking hands, and sharing that they were new in town, looking for a church home.

At the end of the service, they turned in a response form indicating they were new in town and looking for a church home.

After a nice church service–much better than what they’d grown up with!–several families met them and spoke. They asked for directions to class, and one of the women personally walked them to a class for their age group. On their way, they picked up a visitor’s packet off a counter in the foyer.

The class host spotted them as visitors and introduced them to the class. After a well-taught class, they met a few more couples, found their way back to the foyer, and went home.

That afternoon, a minister called them and chatted. He invited them to come back to church the next week. After the call, Sandra pulled out the visitor packet to see what they had to do to get involved. Much more so than Robert, Sandra was a social person. She thrived on personal contact and was desperate to make friends in this new town. And she was hoping for help finding a job.

The visitor packet contained a sheet listing dozens of jobs members could volunteer to do. Although they’d grown up in the church, they’d never been adults in a church before, and so this was all somewhat foreign to them. But they went over the questions, and they checked several boxes each and dropped it in the mail with the envelope the church had provided.

The next Sunday, they turned in their attendance sheet, checking the box saying they wish to place membership. The following week, the couple was scheduled to meet with some of the elders to discuss membership. Meanwhile, a church secretary added their names to the computerized volunteer database.

That Sunday they met with the elders and were announced as new members. They proudly stood as their names were called, and they were applauded. Meanwhile, in class, the class host announced that they’d placed membership, and several couples welcomed them to the church.

On Sunday nights, the class broke up into three small groups that met in homes. The group leaders were trained to invite visitors and new members to attend their groups. But one leader’s group was struggling with personality issues and the failure of many members to keep their commitments to attend or bring food. He was too ashamed of his group to extend an invitation. He wasn’t worried, though, as two other groups would surely pick up the slack.

Another group leader had done very well, but his house was packed out. The group refused to split and there just wasn’t room in their garden home to squeeze in two more. But he wasn’t worried. Surely someone else would take up the slack.

The third leader had a small group that was also going well. However, one of the members was going through a divorce and another had problems with a chronically ill child, and the group was emotionally exhausted helping to support these two members. It just didn’t seem appropriate to bring new members into the group during this difficult time. But he wasn’t worried either.

During the next several weeks, none of the ministry leaders called the church office to get the volunteer list. After all, they’d already gotten their work teams together, and those few that needed more help called on people they already knew. No one wanted to risk counting on someone they didn’t know.

As a result, three months later, Sandra and Robert realized that while they’d met lots of people, and all of whom were very nice and friendly, they’d not made a single friend. And they’d not been invited to a single social event with people their own age. Nor had they been asked to do any ministry. And so, they visited another church, and then another.

Finally, they joined gym, made friends, and gave up on church altogether.

Now, an insensitive sort would blame the couple. After all, they could have called the ministers, or the elders, or someone and asked for help. And they could have waited longer.

But the reality is that they did everything the church asked them to do, and that should have been enough. And young people, new in town, will often not know how to get plugged in. It’s the church’s fault.

And yet this is a very up to date, very well organized church. It does all the right things. But despite their best efforts, they failed. Let’s consider the mistakes the church made–

First, the small group program needed better leadership. The group that was too large should have been moved to a larger home or else multiplied into two smaller groups. The group that was falling apart should have been encouraged and perhaps reorganized. The group with the troubled members was doing just fine. It really would have been a mistake to invite the new couple.

Every class should have at least one “open” group, that is, a group that isn’t too big to fit in new members and that won’t make visitors feel out of place.

Second, the ministry volunteer system was way too passive. I imagine the volunteer database was never used. At the least, the office should have advised the ministry leaders of the new volunteers and given them contact information. Better yet, someone on staff should have made sure the volunteers were put to work, preferably in a ministry with people of similar age or interests.

Third, sometime during the three months, the class should have had a social event in someone’s home. This would have given Sandra and Robert a chance to make friends and to be better known. Being better known would also make the ministry leaders more likely to call on them.

Now, notice a couple of things. People quite naturally fit themselves into small social groups–they form groups of friends. And people who’ve been around a while tend to be part of “closed” groups, that is, groups that don’t need more friends. In high school, we called these cliques.

But cliques aren’t bad. People need to have friends, and most people can’t be continuously making new friendships, as this would require them to give up old friendships. Nonetheless, all churches have to have several open groups into which new members can fit. Small groups are the classic solution, but only if they are intensively managed.

Second, ministry leaders tend to get volunteers from within their own cliques. They may be shy or unwilling to count on someone they don’t know. Therefore, even in a church desperate for volunteers, new members often have trouble getting connected.

Even short-term mission efforts are often closed to new members, as a practical matter. Rarely is there an all-comers opportunity for such an effort. Rather, these groups, like most groups, get formed informally and all filled up long before a new member even knows the opportunity exists.

Therefore, completely contrary to human nature, an effort has to be made to recruit new members for group activities. They can agree to teach a children’s class, but they won’t get connected until they’re working side by side with others of similar age or interests. But the established members tend to get in line first, thinking themselves noble for volunteering, when they are actually blocking the assimilation of new members.

It’s complicated. I doubt that any church has completely solved the problem, but it’s going to be the key to the long-term health of any congregation (much more so than having the hottest band, which would be vastly easier to do!)–especially large churches.

Ironically, large churches will have far more people of common age and interests and far more volunteer activities, but will often be much harder to break into. It’s just hard to get known by the recruiters and leaders.

Finally, as I’ve said in earlier posts, we have to avoid unwittingly devolving into a social club with a worship service. All this has to be to an end–fulfilling the mission of the church. After all, if you can’t assimilate people who’ve grown up in the Church, how do you expect to assimilate converts? And if you can’t get people involved in ministry who’ve asked to be involved, how can you possibly be serving the community and one another as well as you should?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Leadership, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to On Building Community in a Congregation

  1. Chris Guin says:

    Melrose Church of Christ wowed me the first day I got there by inviting me to a family group immediately after service for meal and discussion – it's the quickest I've ever been integrated into a community. I think lunch immediately after service is a hugely important tool (getting an email address and adding it to a mailing list for a small group – and using it frequently to organize activities – is also helpful).

    Honestly, though, I feel a little uncomfortable about the "friend" aspect of church membership. It's showing love to your neighbor and participating in fellowship with the body of Christ – those are wonderful things. But it's often hard for people from varying backgrounds and age groups to join together as "friends" in a way that locks them in more than being Christian brothers and sisters would, if that makes any sense, and I don't feel like groups ought to be handicapped by requiring that, after worship is done, they all go play basketball or talk about soaps together or whatever. The problem illustrated in the example above would be fixed by more aggressive friendship, but also by the church being more clearly organized around a central, needed purpose. How to do that, though, I really couldn't tell you at this point…

  2. Jay Guin says:

    The scriptures talk more about love for one another than for the lost and the needy, and I think this is because we'll be weak and ineffective if we're not working in concert with people whom we love and who love us. Real love only comes from being together and doing things together.

    The church legitimately can and should help people connect and make friends. It's a loving thing to do — nearly as important as a cup of cold water — it's just not nearly enough.

    The mission is still foremost. Therefore, we should not first build relationships and then serve. We should build relationships while training to serve and while serving. But there have to also be times of pure friendship building within the church. The way people are built, they have to also have down time together to truly feel close.

    Just so, you can feel close to someone you work with, but you'll feel (and be) much closer if you also spend time together outside the office. You'll then connect in more ways and at more levels.

    And so it's a mistake to be so about mission that you fail to enjoy the friendships along the way. But it's a worse mistake to use the church to make friendships but never get around to making anyone else's life better. Using the church to selfish ends is very bad indeed.

Leave a Reply