Changing Notions of Community
Community is core to the Christian faith. From the very beginning, fellowship and life together have characterized Christ's disciples. But the centrality of Christian community to the church doesn't mean that it's easy—nor does it mean it always looks the same.
Today, as growing numbers of Christians struggle with the weekly gathering of a local church, the number of people attending church, and the frequency with which they're attending, are declining. So what can leaders—inside and outside formal church contexts—do to foster true community amidst new realities?
Leadership Journal's Paul J. Pastor gathered a diverse group of Christian leaders around a kitchen table in Portland, Oregon, to discuss the modern state of Christian community and the local church:
- Kelly Bean, activist and community cultivator, who has led non-traditional Christian gatherings in her neighborhood for nearly 25 years.
- Bob Hyatt, pastor of Portland's Evergreen Community, a church holding services in the Lucky Lab brew pub.
- Jelani Greenidge, writer, itinerant worship leader and engaged layperson throughout the Portland church community.
- Brandon Rhodes, writer and co-leader of the Springwater Community, a lay-led church scattered across multiple homes in Portland's Lents neighborhood.
Sharing laughter and local street tacos, the group dug into the deep end of the church and community conversation.
Paul: A growing number of Christians don't feel that attending a weekly gathering is important for their faith. What is behind that sentiment?
Bob: In my experience, there are three common threads for people who leave the traditional church. One, is that when people (often new in town) join our church to build relationships, they will leave once they have some sense of "community" established. "What do we need the rest of you guys for? We made a couple of good friends."
Second, some people are wrestling so much with faith that they're not even sure about the whole Jesus thing, about the place of worship in their lives, or any of it. And so for them it just doesn't make sense.
Then there are the "fainters," the people that on paper are still committed to Jesus, but they have a baby and nap schedules get in the way, or work just starts piling up. They become more and more sporadic, then eventually you just don't see them anymore.
Jelani: Yeah. It's different for everyone, but for many, the reasons (like them or not) are programmatic—"I don't feel like I'm getting what I want out of this experience." Perhaps there aren't people enough "like them" to connect with, or the music doesn't do it for them. On the flipside, I also know a lot of people who have endured a lot of bad programming for the sake of relationships—but if enough of the people that they're connected with leave, then they're out.
Kelly: I have admiration for traditional church congregations. But I do think that the institutional structure can be restrictive. I don't advocate that people leave church—I have hopes for churches that encourage people to mature in their faith and engage in community. But sometimes there are good reasons that people leave. Some have had toxic experiences with church. Some people have been repressed and held back. We all can think of stories like this.
Additionally, people today—regardless of generation—are suspicious of institutions. Many are cynical and disillusioned. They're less likely to be loyal. Sometimes this is consumeristic, or programmatic like Jelani mentioned, but other times it's a search for authenticity. They're looking for a place where there's room to do more than consume. Many congregations are only set up to provide a consumer product, even with good intentions.
What are some positive things that draw people away from traditional churches?
Kelly: This could sound arrogant—I don't want it to. Sometimes people mature beyond the limitations of their congregation, and their leadership doesn't know how to engage them anymore. A pastor will say, "Stay around and serve because you're mature." But there isn't an avenue for them to really do that.
In my research, I consistently found people who said, "I had to leave to save my faith." Instead of disengaging, when they left they engaged with other people who were seeking a deeper level of authenticity in relationship and faith. I have seen and heard that all over. Even in East Africa, which is very Christianized and very conservative and traditional, there are groups of people running into limitations with structures, but continuing to grow into deep discipleship.
Brandon: Yeah, certainly. Alan Jameson wrote a book called Chrysalis, studying people who have left church and then returned. He argues that different churches are for, in a sense, for different stages of a "chrysalis" journey where we just harden, and turn into goop, and then turn into something better on the far side. There's some wisdom to that.
Bob: As a pastor, I'll always encourage people to find community—whether it's a house church, a neighborhood church, or a larger church. I'm with St. Rick of Warren—"all kinds of churches for all kinds of people." I have to say this though—don't think that you and two or three of your closest friends grabbing a beer together replaces loyal Christian community units. That's not the fullness of Christian community.
Bob: There are a lot of churches that are nowhere near the fullness of Christian community. They're not doing it right. But if I have a bad experience at a job I don't write off work. I don't think we have the option as Christians to write off church. We have to remain engaged with the bride of Christ. We have to be part of the communal aspect of Christianity. Even if it is a house church of five to ten people, that's great—as long as they're doing all the things that a church is meant to do.
So at what point does a gathering become "church" then?
Brandon: It's like the famous phrase from a Supreme Court justice on pornography: "I know it when I see it." Having too-firm boundaries—whether the Eucharist, reading Scripture, or a covenant—misses the deeper movement of Christ. You smell the aroma of Christ, as it is present in a place and in people over time. Talking about Jesus over beer is sort of a proto-ecclesial space. A couple years down the road, you might look back and see that it was church, but it isn't church in itself.
Kelly: I like that.
Bob: Yes—it has to mature past that proto-ecclesial space. For better or for worse, the Reformers made some good earmarks for the church. I don't agree with everything that they said, but I still think that the preaching of the Word, the presence of the sacraments, and—this one is interesting—church discipline, or communal accountability, are what constitute church. Discipline and accountability are the things that are missing from most fire-pit discussions that people would like to be church. If accountability goes, then a community is sub-church at that point.
Oh, and I'd add (with Henri Nouwen) that church is the place where the people you like least always are.
Brandon: Ha! So there's a problem if it's just your pals.
Kelly: It's also important for non-traditional communities to consider how they carry the larger-than-them story of the church forward—like the Hebrew people did in the Diaspora—a story that held them together over time and space. If we forget that, then we become disconnected from the larger story of the church.
Bob: So true. But what I often see in people who are leaving churches is that tradition is the piece that they don't want. The very piece that will maintain their identity as scattered people is exactly what they're giving up.
So the search for novelty in community can become dangerous?
Brandon: I think so. It's exasperating for "searching" Christians to reinvent the wheel over and over. Novelty cycles are exhausting—that's why one of the great virtues of Christianity is patience. Boredom, even with church, may actually be one of God's deepest gifts to us in a consumer society.
Jelani: Yeah, we need to slow down.
Brandon: Exactly! I'm bored out of my mind at our church every Sunday, but I'm trying to say, "Thank you, Jesus." It's hard, and they all know that—I'm on the worship planning team!
Bob: One point that C.S. Lewis made is that having the same thing week after week allows you to inhabit it. I love what Brian McLaren said in Finding Your Way Again—there's something formative about having to go to a place not of our choosing, at a time not of our choosing, to do these things around worship that we probably wouldn't do if it were up to us.
Jelani: Right. That is great.
Bob: When churches are being authentic, there's a natural amount of conflict. People's preferences run into each other. At a certain point, part of what we're talking about is the idea that this is not about you. It's not about what you like. I don't mean that what you like is unimportant, but that's not the point. The gospel is. The body and blood of Christ are.
Kelly: However we define church that's essential—we can't go it alone. We're designed to go forward in community. But I hate to miss the point about why people are leaving. That's really legitimate, and not just about novelty. People are struggling, saying, "I want to figure out how could this look in a way that I haven't seen before." I wonder what the Holy Spirit is doing outside of the human containers that we have created. There's a whole segment of people who aren't bitter or lazy or individualistic who are looking beyond the walls of the formal church.
Brandon: That struggle seems to be crucial—struggling with Sunday, struggling with every other day of the week. Figuring out how to stay in reconciliation and stay in the struggle of community.
Bob: I think that struggle is eternal, and I think our disappointment with ourselves and the church is eternal. Regardless of what form we choose to engage in, we will not find the perfect form that will satisfy our hearts, because it's not church that is meant to do that; it's Jesus. We're looking to the bride to do what the Groom ought to be doing.
Jelani: This is all so true. But every organization also has its own culture—and sometimes the dominant culture of a church can … dominate to such an extent that without any outward negative manifestations, people who are not a part of that culture just won't be able to experience community as easily.
My wife is white, I'm black. I'm thirty-seven. We have no kids. The church that I'm attending now has a lot of people that are friends of mine, but we're still very different. Most of the people there have kids. There are hardly any people of color at all. The church is doing its best to be very inclusive. But when I'm there, there are a lot of obvious points of difference that make it hard for me to connect—I'm just being honest. It takes a lot of work to create a culture that makes space for people who are "other."
Kelly: That's right.
Jelani: Even communities that are working at it don't always do it well, but there's a difference between communities that are actively trying to do that and communities that are just having a good time with each other—an extension of having a beer with my best buddies. It gets to a point where everyone in the community ends up developing the same blind spots. In the absence of external forces of conflict, you don't grow.
That reminds me of what I've heard the Dominican monks call "apostolic witness"—the idea that what Christian community is—without saying anything—is in itself a witness that God has come among us, since our community would never exist otherwise. How do we foster that quality?
Bob: Actually, I feel like this is the place where the traditional church is at a disadvantage—where it hasn't been happening. I think that so many people have chosen to leave because their church has gotten to the point where it's just about the worship gathering. If you define the Christian life as in-and-out, it's been completely up and in …
Jelani: And no out.
Bob: Exactly. Maturing people leave, trying to find the "out"—the outworking of community.
Brandon: But that's not because of traditional structures …
Bob: No, not because of it, but that's where it has happened. Church has been boiled down into "when we get together to sing the hymns."
Brandon: Church choice and location plays into this, too. We can drive to any church we want. It's like Baskin-Robbins Jesus. There are 31 flavors of church—you can get the one that's right for you. We've actually lost a lot in losing our connection to the community of Christians within walking distance of where we live.
The whole "community" conversation looks a lot different when Sunday school and elementary school overlap profoundly, or when the person who serves me Eucharist also bakes my bread.
We have to be honest. Sundays may not be the problem. How apostolic can our witness be when scheduled events are the only times that Christians know and love each other? In our day-to-day life we're scattered to the four winds. As pastors or clergy, we only have any authority for a few hours of the week if our lives don't overlap outside the church.
Jelani: That really resonates with me. But it becomes hard as church leaders, when there are so many elements outside of our control. We can't control when a member who's a manager at Starbucks gets transferred to the Starbucks across town, and now they can't host the Wednesday night gathering because they don't get off work until God knows when. So on the one hand I hear what you're saying—it's not healthy to have a "31 flavors" approach to community. On the other hand, we all have legitimate needs. We all have our sense of cultural "tribe."
Bob: The challenge is that people are used to picking their communities, and they're not geographical anymore. When we started Evergreen we wanted it to be a community church. We wanted to be all about our place. But then all of a sudden people started coming from all over Portland. We tried desperately to say, "this is going to be the neighborhood we focus on." But it's just been a challenge for us. In some ways I love the neighborhood church community and would like to be that. I just know that the one I'm in right now is not. I don't know what to do with that.
You can't escape the element of consumerism here, but people also ask, "What kind of church makes sense to me? Where do I fit?" It's such a complex question.
Brandon: Yeah. May we be slow to judge people.
Kelly, you have many years of experience leading regular, non-traditional communities. How have leadership and discipleship looked in your ministry?
Kelly: Well, for many years my experience was leading in a church. Then, a small group that we led slowly morphed into a non-traditional home group of about 20 people. There were different life stages for our group—it started as an affinity group, people figuring out parenting. Later, it became about discipleship. Other times it was a study group. We meet weekly for 18 years, then for six years we met once a month for a whole day and evening. We'd integrate outside service projects and worship regularly, but the common thread was deep relationship around Christ.
I depended on delegation for both leadership and discipleship. For our monthly gathering, I'd ask three people—always including one with leadership experience—to plan the service according to their gifts and interests. I'd support them, but they had ownership. Sometimes our gathering became Bible study, sometimes art, sometimes a conversation around justice issues, etc. Sometimes the services blew me away. Sometimes they were weak. But they were always received with support from our group, and we all grew.
I have a firm belief that for any kind of community—traditional church, house church, intentional community—long faithfulness is imperative. That is hard. The more shared life there is with community the tougher it is, regardless of what you had in common to begin with. There are real people wherever we go.
We're always called to be formed by those people who are around us. Community is where we're shaped. Out of that community in that period of time, two couples ended up divorcing. Really sad things happened. It was a terrible, helpless feeling for our community to feel like somehow we weren't able to be there enough, or they weren't able to access community resources enough, because it didn't go the way we hoped. We lost something in somebody. But if it's a safe place for people to bring their brokenness, the long faithfulness pays off.
There are some places where you really are being harmed, or you're being stunted, or you're being called elsewhere. Those are good things to be clear about. If you need to leave a community, leave. Then go find something else. Go make something else. Go bring other people together, but understand—the long faithfulness is where that apostolic witness is, whatever organizational container holds it. Because faithfulness is the thing that is so absent in our culture.
There is no easy way to be faithful Christian community. There are different ways, and there's reasons to explore different ways, for sure. But there's no easy way. And there's beauty in that.
What is the number one quality leaders should cultivate in order to lead a Christian community well?
Jelani: A combination of humility and flexibility. It takes humility to recognize new things that God is doing—to know which things to hold onto and which things to let go of.
It takes humility to keep listening and following God, and flexibility to say, "We thought we knew it all and then this happened. So then we started doing this."
Bob: I've always thought that a leader can lose just about anything and come back—whether it's wrestling with pride and anger or having an affair. We've all seen leaders that have been restored after those things. But the one thing a leader can't lose and ever recover from is teach-ability, the ability to learn from others.
Kelly: Those are so good. I'd add—making way for others in the spirit of invitation. I've seen incredible things happen when there's room for everybody's gifts.
Brandon: Connecting with all that, to trust in the personal work of the Holy Spirit in people. To trust that the Spirit is up to something cool.
What would you say to the pastor feeling discouraged about their church's sense of community?
Jelani: Don't take this the wrong way, but don't be afraid to quit. Don't be afraid to reconsider the forms and structures that have brought you this far. God isn't limited by those things. Sometimes what holds us back is the familiarity of what we already know how to do. Sometimes God wants to take us somewhere else. That doesn't mean stop ministering. But pay attention to what God is doing, and recognize that changing your strategy doesn't mean you've failed.
Kelly: Are you discouraged? Look for the one place of light. Don't try and do everything. Just find one thing that brings you encouragement and hope for your community. That point of light may be the thing that saves your ability to continue ministering.
Bob: One of the worst sins a pastor can commit is the sin of comparing him or herself to others. That's the thing that gets us into the most trouble. We look at what they've got going over there, and we think, Why can't we get that going over here? Know your context, and kill comparison.
Brandon: Curiosity is the leading edge of love. Fear is not. Don't be driven by fear, be driven by curiosity, and see where that takes you. Listen for what the Spirit is telling you about being faithful in your context.
Paul Pastor is associate editor of Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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