the difference between "cultivating communities" and "building churches"

eat laugh practice stay

i originally wrote this post in 2010, and it’s part of down we go. but in the past couple of weeks i’ve had some interesting conversations that reminded me of it and i thought i’d pare it down and re-post it. it’s funny, still, after these years, my thought is pretty much the same except for adding one more point at the end.

there’s a huge difference between cultivating a community & building a church.  

like the word “pastor”, the word “church” has become gravely misunderstood. if the average person was asked what they thought of when they heard the word “church”, most people would 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).”

i doubt 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, sacrificing comfort, and bringing the good news to hard places together in practical, tangible ways.” 

i personally 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 message are good enough, some Christians out there will come. i’m not saying they’ll come in droves–that’s a unique phenomenon these days, but if the basic elements are there, certain people will come and find what they are looking for.

cultivating real community is a whole other animal.

over the course of the refuge, we’ve muddled around in all kinds of ways and have definitely had our shares of ups & downs & “what in the $(#&!@*^! are we doing?” moments, but i’d say the one thing that has always been central is focusing on cultivating a diverse, experiential, advocacy-infused, transformational healing community.

it’s also why we’re small. sometimes it’s all just…weird. the formulas work for a reason.

formulas can build churches.

but the formulas don’t create community.

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.

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 often 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 have chances to practice love. we 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 sacrificial love for one another can’t happen when we sit in the pews and listen to a message and just go home or only hang out in a small group that talks about the bible but never what’s going on in the deep places of our heart and experience.
  • cultivating a community isn’t measurable. relationships can’t be measured. life change never happens in a snap. slogging it out over the long haul is brutal and tries our patience. the fruit is harder to see, sometimes completely imperceptible to the un-Jesus-trained eye. the “results” we tend to look for as humans is sometimes elusive. church building looks for quicker fixes, success stories, measurables, 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. it’s also why i appreciate jean vanier’s book, community and growth, so much, too. real community crosses gender, socioeconomics, education, and other great divides that tend to typically separate us. in community, the relationships aren’t “to” or “for” but they are truly “with.” and in real community, everyone can play and participate, not just the pretty, popular, or powerful.
  • cultivating a community usually doesn’t provide financial stability. i whine about money all the time because i know the pressure that could be lifted if the refuge could get a big church’s coffee budget for the year. but i’m also glad 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, they don’t have more power or voice and are in the same boat, just looking for a place to love and be loved like all of us. we are all here because we want to be together. it also means we always have more needs than resources but somehow it always works out in the end.
  • cultivating a community values diversity not homogeneity.  this means holding the tension of a wide variety of differences together and honoring that true unity is not uniformity. it’s recognizing the image of God in each and every person and the value that that person, with their unique beliefs, perspectives, gifts, and experiences, brings to the community.

my dream is that more and more people will experiment with radically different models of living in community together in a wide variety of contexts.

the world doesn’t need more “churches” but i think it desperately needs more communities.

what are some of your thoughts & experiences on the difference between cultivating communities & building churches?


ps: i’ve got a post up this week at sheloves magazine that folds right into this. communities are a place to help remind us who we really are, because sometimes we forget.  i hope we can play our part in helping others remember the image of God they bring to this world.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • “deep and meaningful connections with people, carrying each other’s burdens, eating with one another, sharing resources, advocating for the marginalized, sacrificing comfort, and bringing the good news to hard places together in practical, tangible ways.” is exactly what church is to me. And, It only took 4 surgeries and 2 bouts of chemotherapy to bring me to that realization.

  • As always insightful but you can tell you write from experience!

  • Some very important observations, Kathy!

    In the “what’s not included” category, in your description, I note “theology”, and glad it ISN’T there…. Yes, we all have a private theology and a Christian community may have certain points not shared by all communities. But, my bias… hopefully they are very general and focus on compassion and acts growing from it, in imitation of Jesus, not abstract “trinitarian”, “atonement”, “justification by faith” or even the “nature and work of Christ” kinds of points.

    I’m not in the kind of community you describe, but if yours (or a similar one) was in driving distance, I’m almost certain I would be. To be fair, my progressive (United Church of Christ) community does share a number of your elements, and I’m glad to be there. And it has a lot of individual “self-determination”, being of congregational rule…. Glad I’m not within another type of church gov’t., which is often anti-community.

    • I’m curious Howard, can you explain what you mean by being glad theology isn’t there? In my experience discussing theology has been conducive to building community. I’ve had some great conversations with people over the years.

      Perhaps it’s not the subject itself but how it is approached that has been your concern?

      • Yes, Adam, my explanation wasn’t all that clear… it’s more the approach and the dogmatism (false certainty and reductionism) of so much of it that I see as a problem. Few are more into and enjoying of theological discussions than I am, and I DO consider it important. I actually push its study, too. But how it is approached and moderated (by a pair, themselves, or any sized group) is critical. And keeping the abstractions tied directly to concrete issues surrounding “right living” (or “righteousness”) and compassionate action is a challenge we (myself included) often don’t meet…. in which case “theology” becomes a distraction. Anyway, that’s context important for my real meaning… I appreciate you catching it.

        • Thanks for clarifying Howard. Yes I agree with the approach being the issue, not the subject itself. For me, having chosen to study theology has been freeing.

    • i have so many wonderful UCC friends. i do think a safe and challenging place to wrestle with theology is important but it’s just never at the top of my list of what builds true community. some of those other things create the space for it. thanks for sharing, i always love hearing from you.

      • Good point… I agree that the “other things” often are needed to “create the space” (or atmosphere) for it. And so often we do start from the wrong end, as it were, or move too quickly, insensitively… That also relates to a thought re. your discussion with Adam re. community building dynamics. I haven’t followed them all, but gratefully have seen a few posts in at least a couple places (don’t recall where at the moment… maybe even here) on the “problem” (not literally) of introversion. I do think a healthy community/church (or any community) has found ways to draw out and “hear” (sometimes by reading non-verbal signals) its introverted members and visitors. Our society tends to be dominated by extroverts and ambiverts (balanced), with little room for or interest in the voice of the more introverted, who often have a LOT to contribute even in words, if given the right opportunities. Does your community have any deliberate methods or structures for addressing this? And how has it worked, if so?

  • I’ve been reflecting on this since your posting last time about community builders. Thank you for the spark you have given that has provided me with the opportunity to do so.

    What you wrote last time with “if you are some form of a healer, a bridge-builder, a community cultivator, please know your gifts, your heart, your presence, your leadership, your imagination is desperately needed out here. we need to you to help us remember who we are… may you step up and out and help us all move toward a better place together” challenged and encouraged me.

    What comes to mind for me with community building is what I have experienced through sport, the creative arts and theological discussion. In each of theres, there has been common interest and endeavour and the willingness to defer to one another in the interest of something greater than any one of us.

    On the other side of the coin I have encountered resistance and even hostility to community. When someone is over individualistic and / or narcissistic, doesn’t take ownership for personal thoughts feelings and behaviours, then it jut takes one person like this wielding control to ruin any sense of community and cause division and segregation. Often these folks have charisma and win people over to their way of doing things, however dysfunctional it may be, they get to be “the man” (applies to women too).

    What I have learned in such communities or with such individuals is to keep my heart guarded and have strong boundaries. If I have a leadership responsibility I can do something about what is going on but if not then there is little I can do other than make sure I am taking care of myself.

    So for me to “step up” requires that the situation is conducive to building community. There are many who want community but either aren’t able to or don’t want to go through the means to achieve it.

  • We’ve been discussing the maxim “obedience is better than knowledge”. How many Bible studies, seminars, and seminars must we attend and listen to before we’re ready to put on our sandals and walk the dusty roads following Jesus as he wanders among the people – the lepers, peasants, prostitutes, widows, orphans – showing them God’s love? I would add the maxim “where there is no obedience there is no knowledge”.


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