When I pastored a small, rural church there were certain expectations of me that I was not prepared for. About 3 months in or so, I heard rumors that some people were feeling neglected. I didn’t understand. I had generally visited those in the hospital or those who were “shut in” their homes. But those weren’t the people upset…it was a few people that were there every Sunday, happy as can be. What I didn’t understand is that these few folks had expected their pastor to simply show up randomly at their doorstep for a visit. Now, I’m from the city; and doing something like that would not be OK. In the country, however, it’s a different story.
People everywhere have certain expectations and levels of need when it comes to connection with others. And while “community” is a central part of a church experience, expectations on what that sense of community looks like is just as diverse as it is in other areas of life. Recently, the idea of community has taken more of a prominent role in American Christianity. The “mega-church” experience has often left people feeling disconnected, falling through the cracks in the midst of program-based ministry and stadium worship events. “Emergent” ministries and many house church movements have often served as an alternative, where community is the primary expression of faith.
Since different people are looking for different levels of Christian community, how can the church provide community for everyone? To me, the only solution is to foster a certain culture that is healthy and practical. Here’s what that “culture of community” looks like.
- In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “love one another.” At some level, people of a church need to go out of their own way to care for others. We live in a hyper-individualistic society that is becoming increasingly disconnected. The church has a unique opportunity to provide a connectedness that the often cannot be experienced in the world. However this type of community is participatory. It cannot be experienced in a healthy way with a “what have you done for me lately” attitude.
- Care and community is not the sole job of the pastor. I’m very resistant to the institutional mindset that a professional clergy person is paid to visit. The church ought to care for one another. In high school a friend from church got into a motorcycle accident. Nearly 20 or so people from the church went to the hospital and prayed together in the waiting room. That is Christian community.
- Christian community is different than simply spending time together. I’m all about fellowship times and pot-lucks (I think it’s a requirement of Methodism). But Christian community is much more than “hanging out.” There is a bond that comes when Christians gather to worship, pray, study, and work for justice and mercy outside the walls of the church.
As I look at my list, it’s pretty apparent that to me community is something that is given rather than taken. In the book The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today, Theodore Runyon lays out what community looked like to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
“The praise and prayer which our lips express are called forth by the grace which our hearts receive. And the same love that flows to us from the Savior of all, flows through us to all of God’s children, especially those in need and distress. Because what is received from God is loving concern, it cannot be retained by the recipient but must be shared. This is the very nature of divine love. Thus the church is the living organism of piety and good works, never the one without the other, and both in faithful service of God and of humanity” (pp. 106-07).
While we’re all looking for fulfillment in church, a consumer-based approach is never healthy. As one pastor put it to me once, if church were a grocery store, the goal is to move shoppers behind the counter to work at the register. Consumers become contributors.
And the cool thing is that in the process of giving, worshiping, loving, and serving, the church experiences community. I experienced this countless times on the mission field in Haiti. One time, a small group of people had come to our mission to work for a week. While leading devotions on the third night, a powerful confession came out. “I never realized until now how racist I am,” said the tall man. What followed was a moment of prayer, confession, and forgiveness. Community happened –not from demand or expectation, but as the fruit of people looking to give, serve, and grow.