As a pastor of a small church, I'm particularly sensitive about building a sense of community. I don't think community is just another 21st century buzzword, I think it reflects the body life described for the church in the New Testament. For example, in our latest study of the Lord's Prayer, I've been struck by Jesus intructions for how to pray. You will notice the use of the plural. "Our Father", "Give us our daily bread", "Forgive us our debts." This pattern is all through the gospels, the epistles, the pastoral letters--commands and encouragements given in the plural. The point is this: Christianity was not meant to be lived individualistically. When you put your faith in Christ, you are baptized into a body, joined to a people.
So it is an important function of the church to create environments where this body life, this community, can flourish. Much of this falls on church leadership. They must work hard to create environments for God's people to fulfill the "one-another" commands, where gospel fellowship, confession, repentance, friendship, encouragement, and life can happen together.
But there is a role for the church member as well. Since I've been in some form of church leadership for a long time, I've really never had the experience that many Christians have in choosing a church. But in talking to people who have joined our church and talking to friends, it seems finding community is at the top of the list when deciding between equally strong, gospel-preaching churches. People will attend and stay at a church where there have friends. But what role do the church members, not the leaders, have in creating such an environment? I want to offer five ways for church members to create community. You'll notice that these are more pragmatic in nature. I didn't mention thinks like small groups, bible study, etc. Those are sort of assumed. I'm talking here really of just developing friendships.
1) Attend the Potlucks
I realize that if you attend a large church you may not know what a potluck is. And if you attend a small church, maybe you think it's outdated. I realize that I'm speaking out of my own experience at a church under 100 in attendance. But my larger point is this: attend social functions at your church. You may think that potluck or chili cook-off or ice-cream social is kinda lame. Maybe there is an NFL game on that night. Maybe you're on a vegan diet. Maybe you'd rather clean out your car. You should attend the potluck anyway and here's why: you can't create community simply by going to church on Sunday morning, checking it off your list, and going home. At some point you need to break bread with people, to experience life with people, to see where your church is going as a body. There is a lot in Scripture about "breaking bread" together, because something beautiful happens when people enjoy a meal together. It breaks down differences and unites you in your need to sustain yourself with food. I've often said that what happens at a potluck may be as important as what happens in church. Don't mistake what I'm saying. Preaching and corporate worship are vital to the body. So is good doctrine. But you can do those two things and not have community and therefore not experience body life and therefore experience a void in your relationship with God. So, go to the potluck and eat the bad lasagna. You'll thank me later.
2) Host other people at your home
If you want to experience community, you need to invest yourself in creating it. In my five years of pastoring, I've noticed something kind of funny. All the friendly people who go out of their way to make friends somehow manage to develop deep friendships. And all the stand-offish people who don't lift a finger to create friendships seem to complain about not being able to make friends. Relationships take work, they take time, they take effort, they take intentionality.
And if you believe the local church is important, if you think that the way we love each other is a picture to the world of God's love for us in Christ, then you'll not consider your church friendships as a sort of neat option, but as something vital to God's mission. Maybe you've never thought of this before, but it could be that having another family over to your house for dinner and developing lifelong, deep Christian friendships may affect the gospel proclamation in your community. Putting that extra roast in the oven may seem sort of pedestrian, but it may be contributing to God's mission in your community.
There is a level of discipleship and spiritual growth that only happens in long conversations over food.
3) Help someone move
It's amazing how much you can learn about a person as you are lifting a couch with them. I know it sounds weird, but working with someone, outside of church, outside of the sort of dressed-up official Christian functions goes a long way to developing life-long relationships. Plus, as Christians, we're supposed to serve our brothers and sisters in the Lord in their needs. So maybe it's giving an elderly person a ride to the doctor or maybe it's helping a Christian brother with his basement remodeling job or maybe it's shoveling snow for a widow. Either way, you develop deep, good, rich friendships as you are working and sweating and struggling alongside people and learning their unique sorrows and joys.
I've found myself that once I've spent a day with someone doing something other than church stuff I've gone somewhere with that person. I've learned about their jobs, their families, their history. I've earned a bit of relationship capital, the right to speak into them and they've earned that with me.
4) Get involved in a ministry
Again, I'm showing my small-church bias here. In a larger church, ministry opportunities may not be as readily available. Maybe they are. Regardless, you begin to make the church community your own by rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. Taking ownership of an area where you can apply your unique set of gifts and talents. And in many cases, you get a chance to work alongside someone you may not know. Perhaps it's folding bulletins or maybe it's working on a church project. Last year we remodeled the outside of our building. Many of our guys came out to work on Saturdays--as a result we got to know each other very well and developed deeper friendships. Many who work in our children's ministries have said the same thing--they've had the chance to get to know and make friendships as they've worked alongside others.
Plus, by serving in whatever capacity you are gifted and wherever there is a need, you demonstrate to the church body that you care about them, that you're not just at church to receive, but to give, that the welfare of the church matters to you. So much so that you're willing to give time and effort to ensure the community is served.
5) Know and pray over the needs of others
Do you pray for the people of your church? Do you know what to pray for? In order to pray rightly for your brothers and sisters, we actually need to know what their needs are. And to receive intercessory prayer, we need to be a bit vulnerable and share our own needs with others. Every church has a different mechanism for prayer requests. You have the formal lists that go out via email and other forms--we should take these seriously and pray for them. But you might also find that person who sits next to you at church this coming Sunday and just lean over and say, "Is there anything I can pray about for you today?" And perhaps if you're having a difficult season, you might ask someone in church to pray for you. Open up a bit and say to them, "Hey, I could use some prayer--would you mind praying with me?"
I've found this to be a vital part of my own spiritual life. I have several folks in the church that pray for me specifically. I've had moments where I've pulled in a brother and said, "Hey can we pray over this really quickly?" And I've had brothers and sisters pull me in and ask for prayer. Something powerful happens in a friendship when you pray together.
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