Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Creating Community

As promised (threatened?), here is my inaugural foray into pro-bono, unsolicited blog-based church consulting. As someone who grew up in the church, as a pastor's kid, I have seen a lot about what works, and what doesn't in churches. It's usually not cool to go to the people who run the church you attend and say, "You're doing it wrong."
But I think my unsolicited advice is awesome and people should pay me for it.

I have been to many churches over the years on several continents. I have heard many pastors talk about community.

"We want to be a community."
"We want to be a community that......(plug in any number of values here)"

Talking about the desire to be a community is clever marketing. You get to give many of the people listening the impression that community is an important value for the organization.

There are, however, many things in this world that only come about by means that have nothing to do with talking about them or expressing even very strong interest in them. Take children for example. There are very definite concrete steps to take to produce children. These steps have nothing to do with, and are independent from, saying words that express interest in having children.

Now if, for instance, a couple talks about "really wanting children" over a long period of time observers are left with the impression that they are lying, or unable to have children, or just do not know the steps to take. But their talking about it just gets irritating to anyone who cares enough to pay attention.

Stop talking about it and actually start doing it.

Just like producing children there are concrete definite steps that can be taken to actually produce community. There are two things that must be present for the formation of community. The first and by far most important is a shared story. The second is shared history.

Community comes from shared identity. The deeper and broader that sharing is the greater the sense of community. That is why there is such a sense of community among older generations in small Midwestern towns. They have a shared identity. This identity comes from two interrelated factors: the story the town tells itself about itself and the people living out that story. Now in such a situation the story is a pervasive part of the life of the town, which everyone who lives there is exposed to constantly, and the town is small enough that the history of the particular people necessarily gets tied up with enough of the other people that there forms a cohesive shared history among the present generation actually carrying out the shared story of the town.

Developments that try to replicate such communities are a joke. They spend their time talking about how into community they are but there really is nothing real beyond the marketing. The marketing is there because people feel they want something that emotionally stirs in them when they hear the word community. But actual community is difficult and a hard sell. This is because the shared story must be concrete and has to be something defensible. That is, you need to be able to say "It is this and not that." This necessarily closes the doors on people who want that and not this. And then, shared history is a difficulty because you need to share actual history with whoever is in that community or you need to leave. The actual sharing of life is one of the more difficult things for humans to do....particularly North American Christians. (Just look at our divorce rate.)

So If we as a Christian Church are going to take the steps to form a community what will we do?
There are things that leadership can actually do to create community. (There is a sense in which, given the difficulties we have with community, especially when there are easier options, that we will be creating community with the "people who are left" after the process of community creation has set in.)

First step: preach the Gospel.
Establish a shared story. It just makes sense that if a group is going to claim to be Christian that the Gospel should be it's core identity. Set the Gospel as the shared story by preaching it and doing nothing else to distract from it. Every Sunday, no-one stands up in front of people to do anything other than preach the Gospel. Nothing is taught other than the clearer exposition of the Gospel. If you hear that and think well that will get old then you should look for a job other than preaching because that probably isn't your gifting. Establish the Gospel as the shared story upon which the community is built by preaching it and only it.

This will probably push some people out. This is valuable information because they are people who you should probably evangelize and likely should have been evangelizing all along.

Second step: develop shared history.

Having laid the foundation of a shared story, the people will most likely already be sharing more history. This can be strengthened by planned group events that are focused on living the shared story out together particularly in the face of some level of hardship, unpleasantness, or pain that compels the group to depend on each other in order to accomplish the effective living out of the story. Do ministry together outside the walls of the Church to an extent that participation in these events becomes sensibly integral to being in the community.

Start with doing those things. That will keep some Churches occupied for years, others will realize before they even start that they really would rather just reap the marketing benefits of community talk without the hard, focused, leadership heavy commitments of actual community.

But wouldn't you rather live in a community that shares the Gospel as it's formative narrative and the members of which deeply share with each other personal history in actively living out that story together?

Oh yah, I think that somewhere I have started discussing what that shared gospel story might look like.

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