So I’m struggling with this concept of the Kingdom as a preview of heaven. I mean, it’s not mainly about the assembly — right? It’s not about whether we can achieve a phenomenal emotional high on Sunday morning — not that that would be a bad thing. But we can’t let the assembly substitute for a community shaped like the cross.
So how does a local congregation become a community? I mean, what draws a few hundred people together into a spiritual community? How does that happen?
Well, I’m no sociologist or anthropologist, but I think the answer is shared passion and shared experiences.
I mean, I’m an Alabama football fan. I go to many of the games. I watch them all. And so that makes me a part of the “Bama Nation” (even though I’m not a fan of the term since it started with, I think, Florida and “Gator Nation”).
What is it about being an Alabama (or Florida) fan than makes you into a distinct “nation”? I mean, we don’t vote. We don’t pay taxes (unless you count the price of a ticket). We have no king (not even Coach Saban). We just have a shared passion. We enjoy one thing — a lot — and it brings us together. And once a week, during the fall, we gather either at the stadium or around a TV to watch football together — and to talk about games we saw 40 years ago and to remember a long, long history of success.
One of the significant features of Alabama football is the shared memories of exciting moments from the past.
There’s the “run in the mud.”
Hunter vs. Manning (Archie, not Peyton):
Lenny Patrick’s runs to be beat Auburn and give Coach Bryant the all time record for wins:
I just love this stuff!
So anyway … I think the community that forms around college football is built on a shared passion and shared experiences. Countless Alabama fans did not attend the University of Alabama and have not even set foot in Alabama. But they’re part of the Bama Nation and the community of fans — because they’ve watched the games, followed the players, and share a passion.
On the other hand, the community shared by the Bama Nation fanbase is nothing compared to the community formed by the players themselves. Training and competing side by side, working together toward a common goal, creates a much, much stronger bond than merely watching others play football. The players who are on the team today will be at the funerals of the fellow players 60 years later.
It’s like the bond formed by soldiers who go into battle together. You may come from very different cultures and live very different lives, but taking enemy fire and making life-or-death decisions as a unit seeking a common goal will form community like nothing else.
So in the world of church, how do we form community? Well, some churches do it pretty well and some do it very poorly. On the other hand, some churches — not just Churches of Christ — see little importance in community. Rather, they think the important thing is to have orthodox beliefs, participate in the sacraments, and give your tithes and offering. Attendance is emphasized by many, not all, denominations. But few church leadership teams think in terms of intentionally working to form community. But sometimes the Spirit and members manage to do it despite the leaders.
So what forms community?
- A shared passion. If the members don’t have a passion for the things of Christ, there will be no real community.
- This is one reason a well-thought and prayed-through vision is so important. It helps the church share a passion — for serving each other, for prayer, for worship, for evangelism, for missions, for service projects … there are countless possibilities. But all passionate churches find at least one Christ-thing to be passionate about together.
- Obviously, passion can’t be imposed by the leadership. It’s a work of the Spirit and so has to be discerned, not found in an evangelical popular book on how to do ministry. The leaders and members have to, you know, talk to each other.
- And don’t forget the children. People are passionate about children — and churches that make a point to help parents be better parents and show concern for children will be rewarded with members who are passionate about their congregation.
- Shared experiences are easier to develop, but it’s the unplanned things that really bring a church together.
- Working together to host refugees from a hurricane or tornado brings the volunteers together — as well as the members who sacrifice to make it possible. Shared sacrifice forms community like nothing else.
- Working on a regular ministry does it, too. My church was founded as a campus ministry, and many of our members joined us because of the campus ministry. Even though students are now coming through 40 years after I did, we share the experience of having attended UA and been part of my church’s campus ministry. Passion unites with shared experience to bind us to one another.
- Fellowship events, picnics, Halloween parties, Christmas plays, and all those sorts of things help create a sense of oneness and shared memories.
- Testimonies have huge potential, because they let us share someone’s life experience. They can be extraordinarily powerful, far more powerful than a sermon or Bible class or Halloween party.
- Tragedies bring us together if we’ll deal with the tragedy as a body. 30 years ago or so, a beloved elder had a terminal cancer diagnosis. We met together one Sunday night and prayed. 30 or more men led prayers, passionately calling on God to extend his life. And it knit us together as a congregation.
- Small groups — if you share a meal in someone’s home. When I invite you into my home, I’ve shared something of myself, and I’ve created an atmosphere usually reserved for family. You cannot replace homes and food. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners — and it wasn’t in a restaurant. It was in someone’s home.
- Bible class. Well, it’s not the best place to form community unless you do it right. Many years ago, we were part of the “young marrieds class.” Back when we wrote in cuneiform, you know. The elders were kind enough to basically leave us alone. We picked our own materials and teachers, and we ate together after Sunday night church. (This was long before small groups became a thing.) We helped herd each other’s kids, held each other’s babies, and leaned on each other to figure marriage and parenting out. When a new couple visited church, we grabbed them and invited them into our group. We wanted to build our group, and so we helped build the congregation. And we did this for years. And years together made us fast friends. I pity those who’ve never experienced this sort of thing.
- Accountability groups. We’ve had several groups of four or fewer form to meet weekly for mutual spiritual growth and support. It’s intense, and it forms community.
- All-church retreats. We’ve not done this in a long time, and you can’t be but so large before this doesn’t work, but we used to have all-church retreats. We’d rent some cabins in the woods, invite a speaker, and plan a weekend for the entire church to eat together, sleep in bunk beds, play volleyball, and have classes on practical Christianity. Oh, and we stayed up until 2 a.m. playing cards and talking and eating fattening snacks.
And I could go on. Elders who see their job as enforcing orthodoxy and making budget don’t understand the social dynamic of what makes a church a community. And it’s not just the social things (fellowships, as we prefer to say). It’s serving each other and serving others and working together to build a church.
So if you want to destroy a church, all you have to do is take all leadership away from the members, move small groups to the building, divide classes by something other than age group and life situation — so it’s hard to find and make friends — and don’t bother making the church attractive to children and their parents.
You see, people are more passionate about their kids and grandkids than just about anything else. Make your church a great place to raise kids, and it’ll grow — not just bigger but as a community. And I don’t just mean having a great children’s program (although that really helps). I mean helping the parents find each other, forming classes and small groups, teaching on parenting and marriage, and making certain the parents feel that the elders are committed to the safety of their children.
One last point: forming community is essential, but forming a cross-shaped community is the goal. Community is not enough, or you’d may as well call the church “country club.” You do this by being certain that your community-forming activities are cross-shaped activities as well. They should involve service, submission, sacrifice — even suffering. Nothing else matters.
Hence, a children’s program that demands little of the parents won’t do the trick. But a children’s program that teaches the parents how to be Christian parents who raise Christian children (Orange) makes a world of difference.
Therefore, fellowships that are just fellowships don’t get you very far in true community formation. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they are not enough. Eating together forms community. Taking communion together forms a cross-shaped community. Service projects done together with passion for those being served (not just the idea of service) form cross-shaped community. Helping parents raise their children to be faithful Christians forms cross-shaped community.
Making people happy does not. Trying to hold a church together politically does not. Avoiding the hard questions does not.