“christian communities continue the work of Jesus. they are sent to be a presence to people who are living in darkness and despair. the people who come into these communities also respond to the call and the cry of the weak and the oppressed. they enter into the covenant with Jesus and the poor. they meet Jesus in them”
– jean vanier
like the word “pastor“, i think the word “church” has become gravely misunderstood. i have many a friend ask me why i am still stuck on the word. i admit that when people say “i want to come to your church“– i always warn them that it doesn’t quite look like what they might associate with the word. it’s sort of in the same vein of an experiment i heard about years ago where a bunch of people were asked “when you think of the word ‘Christian’ what do you think of?” the answers were “right-winged, judgmental, against homosexuals and abortion, political, and mean.” hmmmm. then they were asked “when you think of Jesus, what do you think of?” and their answers were “mercy, love, compassion, grace.”
if the average person was asked what they thought of when they heard the word “church”, my guess is that they’d say “sunday morning, music or worship, a sermon, prayer, potlucks, either really boring or really inspiring (depending on which kind of churches they’ve been part of).” it is very doubtful to me that people would associate the word church with “deep and meaningful connections with people, carrying each other’s burdens, eating with one another, sharing resources, advocating for the marginalized, and bringing the good news to hard places together in practical, tangible ways.” at some point i’ll have to do an experiment and test my theory.
yeah, i think it’s fairly easy to build a “church.” the typical elements are not that hard to find–a gathering place, music, a good message, and some kind of programmatic glue will usually do the trick. if the music and the message are good enough, some Christians out there will come. i’m not saying they’ll come in droves–i think that’s a unique phenomenon these days, but i do believe that if the basic elements are there, some people will come and find what they are looking for.
cultivating real communities is a whole other animal.
i believe that finding ways to knit hearts together, share life and meals, gather around a common purpose but allow for a wide range of diversity and perspectives, nurture a spirit of justice and action, and somehow create a safe and challenging container to learn to love Jesus, ourselves and others and be loved by Jesus, ourselves, and others requires a whole different way of thinking.
when we started the refuge, we tried to mix these two models. we wanted people to come so we figured out a way to make sure there was music & teaching & a somewhat good vibe. but at the same time, we were quite certain that we wanted to make sure that no one ever said “i go to the refuge because ‘i love the teaching/preaching’ or ‘i love the music’ or ‘i love the kids program.'” we always wanted people to say “i go to the refuge because of the people.” so we intentionally didn’t ramp up our music or teaching and get people addicted to something that ultimately we believe is a “want” not a “need.” i think people got confused. they kept waiting for us to find our stride, and after about a year of muddling around trying to find ourselves it became clear that we were mixing models that can’t be mixed. we began to let go of the need to make people happy and lean into what was deep within our hearts–a desire to cultivate a diverse, experiential, advocacy-infused, transformational healing community. we also found that many people aren’t quite as interested in that. they were looking for inspiring teaching, good music, and something amazing for their kids. what we had to offer was a place to dialogue and be challenged on our faith & life journey, music once in a while because we think there are all kinds of ways to worship together, and lots of messy, wonderful grownups who will love the kids and know their names.
i don’t think what we are doing is the only way. the only reason i sometimes sound like i think it’s the “best” way is because it fits with what i have always dreamed about in the deep places of my heart (even when i couldn’t articulate it properly or really even allow myself to believe it might be possible) when it comes to church–a culture of equality, authentic healing community, generosity, and faith-in-action-not-just-words-or-idea. i respect and recognize there are all kinds of people who value and love different forms of “church’ and i don’t want to dismiss their preferences.
at the same time, though, i still do think there are a lot more “churches” being built than “communities” being cultivated. and despite all of the new and beautiful ideas being experimented out there in the big, wild kingdom of God, there is still a long way to go in shifting some of these strongly held notions of “church.” preaching, music, meeting place, and programs–even if they are packaged in a cooler way–still seem to be the primary things that people associate with “church.” it’s just knit into the fabric of our christian culture, and while i believe many strides are being made to turn the tide, i still think the notion of “cultivating communities” is under-rated and under-valued.
i think it’s in many people’s hearts to do and try. it’s almost like we know somewhere deep that that is where it’s at but the culture is so strong toward the old, typical models that it pulls the other direction. i was talking to some friends who are looking for a new church in the city they moved to and what they have encountered is a wide range of diverse churches that seem to all be replicating the same old same old–with different twists. i always call it putting new wine in old wine skins.
i really think we have to become less afraid to make new wine skins–radically different models of living in community together in a wide variety of contexts.
anyway, here are a few of my thoughts about the difference between “cultivating communities” and “building churches”
- cultivating a community requires an extremely high level of relationship that many of us haven’t learned to really do. this is where i think “church” has done a disservice to many; we have focused on bible teaching but not bible applying. even though we know it doesn’t work that way, we keep thinking “teaching about love” will equal love. the way to learn how to love is to love. and the only way we can learn how to love is to practice in close relationship and have our lives rub up against each other. Jesus’ call to us love, really love, can’t be ignored, and like so many other ways of the kingdom it requires a level of commitment that most of us aren’t really excited to make. being devoted to sacrifical love for one another can’t happen when we sit in the pews and listen to a message and go home or hanging out in a small group that talks about the bible but never what’s going on in the deep places of their heart and experience.
- cultivating a community isn’t very sexy & requires a long view. i think that’s because of the first one. real relationship with messy people is hard. life change never happens in a snap. slogging it out over the long haul with people is brutal and tries our patience. the fruit is harder to see, sometimes completely imperceptible to the un-Jesus-trained eye. the “results” our human nature always tends to look for is sometimes elusive. church building looks for quicker fixes, success stories, things to capitalize on to take it to the next level.
- cultivating a community requires breaking down power differentials. that’s what i love about true community, brothers and sisters of all walks of life really in the trenches together. real community crosses gender, socioeconomics, education, and all kinds of other great divides that tend to typically separate us. i think that’s because in community, the relationships aren’t “to” or “for” but they are truly “with.” this takes out hierarchy and power and opens up the door for transformation in really powerful ways.
- cultivating a community usually doesn’t make money. even though i whine about money all the time, the truth is that i’m so glad it’s not a big issue for us as a community. we don’t try to “get people” to get their money. we don’t try to grow to pay our bills. we don’t compromise our values and our core DNA to attract a certain type of people who would help us not have to struggle so much. though some who have means to help with $ do come and stay, it’s not because they are being wooed for their $ but because they have found a place to love and be loved, like everyone else. we are all basically here because we want to be together. that’s enough.
the best book i have read in a long time on cultivating community comes from jean vanier, who wrote community and growth. i am making my way through it very slowly because it’s packed with so much wisdom. he is the founder of the l’arche community in canada where henri nouwen lived and was deeply inspired. it captures the spirit of so many things i am passionate about and reminds me that there is, indeed, a radical difference between cultivating true community and building churches.
what are some of your thoughts & experiences on the difference between cultivating communities & building churches?
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ps: i hope those of you on the east coast who are passionate about cultivating communities consider coming to the east coast gathering hosted by transform network at wesley theological seminary in washington DC april 30th-may 2nd. i think a lot of practical, encouraging ideas will be shared.
ppss: i have a post up at communitas this week–a field trip suggestion. if you go, let me know what it’s like for you.
and lastly–most importantly–may we lift up our prayers and our hands and our feet and our money and our hearts to come alongside our brothers & sisters devastated by the horrible tragedy in haiti. these moments often feel overwhelming. one tangible and practical way we can be part is to contribute to one days wages who are partnering with people on the ground to provide support.