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

cultivating communities

“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?

* * * * *

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.

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.


  • Great post! Thank you for the reference to Vanier’s book – I want to read it.

    I try to almost never use the term church to refer to the group of which we are a part. It is almost a dirty word, like the word Christian, to many people, and conjures up all kinds of images of unkind, unloving, self-centered people who want your money. I don’t need to make up statements like that – I hear them regularly from people on the street.

    Cultivating community is hard work. It’s much easier to take the usual path, both as groups and individuals. Isn’t it amazing how many of us know more about people who are in movies than we know about our neighbors, the grocery clerk, the insurance man? Our friendships are with people on-line, most of whom we’ve never met. With whom do we spend more time? On the other hand, who will be by our side when our marriage falls apart, our spouse dies or our health fails?

    Once people get hooked on fast food, many of them prefer it, even though they’re getting fat and their health is suffering. Once people get hooked on fast relationships and easy, skin-deep community, many of them prefer it, even though it does not nourish their souls. It’s just so much easier, and frees up time for watching movies and surfing the net, watching and reading about people we’ll never know and who will never know us.

  • I resonate with this post so much, Kathy. Over the years in my community we have gotten comfortable telling people up front “We don’t have long-term plans to create a children’s center” or “We are not going to be building any building.” It causes some to leave, but it alleviates our tension about trying to be for them something we have no intention of being.

    I think it’s also vastly important for pastors of these communities to find friends who can be supportive and encouraging, because we are looking at long-term change and will likely continue to struggle with growth and money and logistics while simultaneously feeling that we are really living into our calling. Sometimes these two realities can feel at odds, because we have been taught to view our communities in terms of qualities of “success” that do not make sense for what we are growing. I’m all for rejecting those falsely-applied criteria and trusting that we know in our spirits when we’ve stumbled on something that is “working.” But we might need some friends who remind us of this when we begin doubting ourselves when asked for our baptism statistics. 🙂

  • Love Henri Nouwen and L’arche! Now that you’ve mentioned it I have to go back and read that again and the book you’re reading sounds good too.
    This is such a great post…thank you, thank you.

  • Thanks Kathy…great reflections. You’ve got my synapses firing, so I want to throw some thoughts out and see what you think.

    I think there is a whole level of complexity that is added to community cultivation when you add the factor of movement/institution. Community/Church and movement/institution are two different, yet certainly overlapping, spectrums. I think it is possible to build institutional communities (Benedictines) or movement communities (think anarchist affinity groups). It is also possible to build institutional churches (which are the default) as well as movement churches (maybe an example of this would be Vineyard churches in the early years of the movement…or perhaps emerging churches today).

    If this sort of rough (and simplistic) set of tensions were set into a chart (you know, the old x and y axes chart from algebra class), we could probably plot each of our communities on it. The question I’m asking is: which sort of church or community works best in which sort of context? Is there a place and a need for a highly institutional Church? What about for a highly movement-driven community? Etc?

  • p.s. — but dang can’t the east coast gathering be a little bit later!? I can’t see myself going with a baby less than a month old — next one I want to be there for sure! 🙂

  • Speaking as someone from the UK who has been in a church pursuing community in it’s many guises for many years this is a very interesting post.

    Oddly we tried to do it while still entangled in the ‘classic’ evangelical / pentecostal church model. As we progressed it became more and more obvious that these two concepts (sacrifical community and ‘old wineskin’ church) cannot co-exist.

    Part of me still yearns for the old times – part nostalgia and part security-blanket. The problem was that it just didnt work.
    Now is the work of making some flexible tents for communities…

    Thanks again for a great post 🙂

    • rob – your post came in after i had already commented, but thanks for sharing. i know that feeling, sometimes longing for the “good old days” and also knowing there’s no going back. would love to hear more about your community!

      • smudge – good to hear from you from afar….thanks for taking time to comment. i do miss “egypt” sometimes but the further i get away from it, the less and less. i think the part i once-in-a-while miss is the security and predictability of it all. but i’m pretty sure the early church wasn’t too filled with security & predictability, ha ha! the wild is just that–wild & unpredictable.

  • i am glad there’s been some good response to this post here and on twitter. i like to think that the idea of cultivating community–of being radically connected to others–is God’s image in us. that is what God created us for and that despite all the twists and turns we seem to take to try to “find what we think we’re looking for” deep down, this can’t be shaked. anyway, thanks for the comments so far…

    jason – thanks for taking time to say hi. it’s funny that you say that because we feel like such babies at this sometimes, but i guess in reality we are coming on our 4 year anniversary. where are you guys?

    sam – that is a good metaphor about fast food. i know that in my own life. what’s easiest, accessible, etc. but in the end it never makes me feel all that great. often, real community doesn’t make us feel that great on one weird level (as in, when it gets hard and we want to run for the hills), but i think there’s something deeper inside if we will listen to it that says “this is the real, this is good, this is where you are learning, this will satisfy.” sometimes, honestly, i think we are afraid of feeling that connected, it’s so foreign for so many. i know it’s taken me a lot of years to fully give my heart, i was always very independent and only gave “this much” but over time i realized how lonely i was and how much i was missing. thanks for sharing, as always….

    danielle – oh someday we need to sit across the table and have a real conversation. we have so much in common, and i think that while the demographics of our communities may be a little different that our heartbeats are the same and we see up close and personal what it’s like to be in the trenches of life together, how slow change sometimes is, how beautiful it always is. i am so with you, though, that we need to stick together and support each other in staying the course, otherwise it’s too discouraging. we found some lovely friends in portland early on and basically they saved our tail, they had been hacking at it for far longer than we and when we all sit around the table it’s like soaking in so much hope and truth and courage to keep going. sometimes when i’m in other circles it feels like they are speaking a foreign language. peace and hope to you as you lead your beautiful community. i hope we can connect one of these days soon….

    mary – oh man, this is such good stuff. i have a book for you on saturday, one of my favorite nouwen books “the inner voice of love” that i’d love for you to have, you’d so dig it if you haven’t read it yet and it is such a beautiful community piece. i’ll try to remember!

    mark – it is fun to hear from you. i remember our fun conversation at new conspirators almost 2 years ago now where even though our communities look very different we have the same passion about what it looks like to really “be together”. well, i’m horrid at algebra, but i really do think it’s true that we could probably “plot” our communities on axes like that and we’d all land in different places. you asked “which sort of church or community works best in which sort of context? Is there a place and a need for a highly institutional Church? What about for a highly movement-driven community? Etc?” i do think that’s the tricky part, discerning and experimenting with the “sort of church or community that works best in which context.” i think the problem is what we mean by “works best”. part of the problem in all of these conversations related to “church” is that even though we are experimenting with new models, in some ways we have old measurements that are still looming over our head. look at all of us who are out here in these wacky communities trying to live this out–we’re all poor and trying to figure out other ways to feed our families. i am starting to accept that isn’t going away but at the same time, there’s this part of me inside that says “if we were doing x, y, or z, then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about it so much anymore.” that got a little off track. i do think there are places and contexts for highly institutionalized churches and it’s not fair of me to think that everyone should or would connect with God and people the way i do. but i think i still won’t let “community” off the hook. i don’t see how we can when we read the Bible and look at the in-the-trenches-with-others model we have in the early church. with a lot of pastoring & loving & modeling & justice & action it’s possible to have a highly institutionalized church that is a true community–i know of a few. but not a bunch. how about you? i am guessing that as humans we tend to take the path of least resistance, almost always. the ways of love, mercy, justice in true community are so counter-cultural (in the white, western culture)i just think we’ll always have a pull away from them if we take our hand off of it…i’d love to hear more of your thoughts…

    randi – we’ll miss you! i think they’re going to podcast it, though, so hopefully you can participate from afar in some way. can’t believe baby’s almost here. that went fast!

    – thanks for the link

    steve/transform – thanks for the link, really looking forward to practical ideas being shared at the gathering on how to cultivate new & existing communities…

  • rob – your post came in after i had already commented, but thanks for sharing. i know that feeling, sometimes longing for the “good old days” and also knowing there’s no going back. would love to hear more about your community!

  • Hi Kathy – My wife and I moved to North County San Diego in the summer of 2008. We worked the first year just to integrate here. Then we started gathering some folks we’d met as a small community of faith 7 months ago. It’s very incipient – we’re still figuring out what it means to be committed to one another within a culture of isolation and distance.

    Thanks again!

  • Kathy,

    Thanks for again putting into words various thoughts that were rattling around within me. I know so many of are wondering if there is a way to gather regularly gather and be involved in each other’s lives in a way that adds meaning to our lives, rather than diminishing our souls and expands our hearts toward people, rather than creating some sort of dichotomy. Thanks for being willing to be one of the first to journey down that path with all of its weird twists and turns. You might want to consider a re-posting this on Communitas Collective because it is so darn good and timely.

  • Kathy:

    Wow this is possibly the best article I have ever read on the topic of Church and community! One of the things that it did for me is open my eyes to something I never thought about much. When I hear or even think of the words church and christian I wince…

    An almost involuntary response…like physically abused animal or person when someone raises their hand even to loving touch them. My image of both is a people and a institution that causes pain, that uses, manipulates, even lies and betrays. Thank the Lord that the word community does not do that, because 25 years ago I was part of real community of Christ followers although in our case we did not purposely pursue community we (about 70) simply pursued relationship with Father and one another together, because we loved being together. I didn’t even recognize we were living what the New Testament describes the church to be until one day the Holy Spirit pointed it out to me.

    My attitude is changing though, because I believe that what you describe as community is what is in the heart of every one who has placed faith in and follows Christ desires. As real community is in the very DNA of Christ after all he is God and God is a community of 3 and since we are in him and he in us that same DNA has become ours. Now I’m not saying that all community will look or behave exactly the same, but if it is born of the life of Christ within us it will produce the same fruit!

    Its interesting that I found this today seemingly by accident as I could sleep so I decided to go to facebook, then Networked blogs… Its interesting also, because I just posted something as my last Facebook status right before ending up here that is relevant to topic as and I had this topic in mind as a wrote it.

    Its been a while since I’ve been hear, but I surely needed this today.

    Tom Wilson

  • What a wonderful, encouraging, post! Thank you, Kathy, so very much!

    For those who have experienced this in some small way, we not only look back wistfully and say “I remember when…” but we also are encouraged that the hearbeat of what we believe Family of God should be is absolutely true and it’s the very reason we refuse to settle for less, going without Sunday morning gatherings rather than being heart-sickeningly disappointed.

    For those working in the trenches in their various churches, who believe there is something more and long to see/make that happen, this post will be of phenomenal encouragement!

    Please, please, please, continue to share your thoughts along the way. Each of them shines a light along a path that sometimes (often?) seems too murky to follow.

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours,

  • jason – san diego is my fav city on the planet, we moved here from coronado 13 years ago, i still miss it every day and am always whining and complaining about the weather in colorado. i’ll have to take a peek at your blog when i get back and learn a little more about what you’re trying. best to you & your community as you step out in faith to live it all out together.

    glenn – thanks and it is fun to have these conversations and hear what others are doing & how much this thought resonates deep within for so many. thanks for your heart for “what could be”…i am glad to be part of CC & look forward to what continues to develop…

    jonathan -thanks for the link! how are things with you guys?

    tom – great to hear from you as always and i am glad this stirred up something inside. it’s been a fun conversation. you have tasted it, you know what’s possible, and as you know, once you’ve experienced it it is really hard to ever go back to “fast food” as sam said.

    margret – thanks for reading and that is my hope, whatever’s here that someone could use to move or encourage them to live out some of these crazy kingdom principles i gladly pass on. murky is a good word!

  • Kathy, well said! Excellent thoughts.

    I think church as community is the paradigm JESUS established. GOD is all about relationships and living ecologies. We modern humans are all about machines and programmable outcomes. We’ve molded the Bride/Body/Church into our image of efficiency and control. But of course there is no real life in that.

    It’s the difference to me between hyper-efficient factory farms and small, sustainably minded family farms. The question is not: ‘is it working?’ but we should ask: ‘what kind of future are we cultivating?’

    Again, great thoughts! I very much agree.
    Jason Fowler

  • btw, here is my favorite quote from “Community and Growth” ..
    The mission of a community is to give life to others, that is to say, to transmit new hope and new meaning to them. Mission is revealing to others their fundamental beauty, value and importance in the universe, their capacity to love, to grow and to do beautiful things and to meet God. Mission is transmitting to people a new inner freedom and hope; it is unlocking the doors of their being so that new energies can flow; it is taking away from their shoulders the terrible yoke of guilt and fear. To give life to people is to reveal to them that they are loved just as they are by God, with the mixture of good and evil, light and darkness that is in them; that the stone in front of their tomb in which all the dirt of their lives has been hidden can be rolled away. They are forgiven; they can live in freedom. Jean Vanier

  • Clay Shirky spells out some of the essential differences between a centrally controlled organization (what I tend to call a “congregation” or “aggregation” versus a true community).

    1. Audiences are built. Communities grow.
    2. Communities face a tradeoff between size and focus.
    3. Participation matters more than quality.
    4. You may own the software, but the community owns itself.
    5. The community will want to build. Help it, or at least let it.

    “Broadcast connections can be created by a central organization, but [community] connections are created by the members for one another. Communities grow, rather than being built. New members of an audience are simply added to the existing pool, but new members of a community must be integrated. One of the most important things you can do to attract community is to give it a fertile environment in which to grow, and one of the most damaging things you can do is to try to force it to grow at a rapid pace or in a preset direction. “

  • becoming an apprentice – thanks for the link & your thoughts about becoming good wine. good stuff!

    jason – thanks for taking time to comment, nice to hear from you. the words “efficiency & control” are very good ones and describe it well. and our addiction to it is really pervasive, more than we probably even know. i always appreciate what’s on your site, too.

    len – great to hear from you. i am always reading & one of these days hope we get to have a real conversation. i finished community & growth on my trip and haven’t had that many pages dog-eared in a long, long time in a book. i had this quote underlined, that is for sure! thanks for the shirkey thoughts, too.

  • Just came across your blog – your thoughts go straight to the heart of the ministry I founded five months ago. Thank you so much for sharing your points. I will be sharing this with my team as we continue to courageously think out of the box and provide alternative ways at spreading the Gospel and engaging in our community.

    • thanks tress, for sharing. i am glad you found your way here and look forward to hearing more about your ministry if you ever want to share.

  • Thanks! Our church sounds just like this. We’re 3 years in and small, determined not to be driven by programs and looking for ways to foster community. This fall, the women of our church plan to meet weekly for 6 weeks in an effort to learn about growing in community, relationships and authenticity. I found your post while researching materials for our time together. If you have resources or ideas to share, I’d welcome the input.

  • This is an excellent re-centering piece for my heart. I work as the community coordinator at my church. I struggle with feeling that God did lead me to this position, but also feeling that trying to build community from a position in an organized church setting is a non sequiter. Any thoughts on whether it is possible to help make space and foster actual community in this setting?


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