the difference between cultivating communities and building churches.

Yesterday at The Refuge’s Sunday night gathering we had some cupcakes and sang happy 11th birthday to The Refuge. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 11 years. When it started I was just wrapping up my 30’s and now, in 3 weeks, I will be turning 50 years old (more on that soon, yikes!).

The Refuge is a Christian community and mission center, and I’m always reminded how that’s different from our typical view of “church.” I’ve written about this before in Down We Go and in two other posts in 2010 and 2014 but I wanted to revisit this morning because I am more convinced than ever that in a broken and fragmented world that people are desperately looking for community.

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

Like the word “pastor”, “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” (or a host of other things related to their experiences, both good and bad).

For the most part, people don’t associate the word church with “deep and meaningful and vulnerable 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 see new church plants popping up all the time, sandwich boards and ads coming into my mailbox at home and in my Facebook feed. The typical elements are not that hard to find–a gathering place, music, a good message, and some kind of programmatic glue will bring something to fruition.

Cultivating real community is a whole other animal.

Over the course of The Refuge, we’ve definitely had our shares of ups & downs and “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 church building formulas “work” for a reason.

Formulas can and do build some really amazing churches.

But the formulas don’t usually 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, make room for doubt & questions & fears and somehow create a safe and challenging container to learn to love God, ourselves and others and be loved by God, ourselves, and others requires a whole different way of thinking.

In re-thinking this today, here’s a short list of 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.  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 others. Like so many other ways of the kingdom Jesus’ call to love requires a level of commitment to time, vulnerability, risk, and sacrifice and that can’t happen only facing forward in a seat and going home.

~ 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 and to some, we often look like losers. Church building looks for quicker means, success stories, measurables, things to capitalize on to make it grow.

~ Cultivating a community requires breaking down power differentials. That’s what I love about deep 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 and the path of descent. Real community crosses gender, socioeconomics, education, and other great divides that tend to typically separate us. In community, relationships aren’t “to” or “for” but they are truly “with” and everyone can play and participate, not just the pretty, popular, or powerful.

~ Cultivating community allows for people to enter in ways they need to. Churches tend to count their membership by Sunday worship, but in community people can enter and engage in all kinds of creative ways. I always think of the Refuge community as people being connected over the course of a month in some way, shape or form. It’s so foreign to so many but so freeing, too.

~ Cultivating a community usually doesn’t provide financial stability. I laugh sometimes that if we could get a big church’s coffee budget for the year, our burdens would be lifted. Certain formulas do inspire finances! I have found that most of the community cultivators I know struggle financially, and I think accepting that reality can be helpful. It does mean we have to be really creative (and sometimes that is extra tiring).

~ 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. Whew, that’s hard to do, but to me a big tent one of the prettiest parts of community.

What would you add? No matter how big or small, I always love hearing about community dreams and experiments people are trying in beautiful and creative ways, little glimpses of the kingdom of God.

There all kinds of people dedicated to building churches, and this isn’t to dismiss their work. But I also want to highlight in the world of faith shifts and resistance and deep pain and disconnection and struggle, oh, we need more communities.

Messy, beautiful, slow, weird, inefficient, holy, healing ones.

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.


  • So I’m at the beginning stages of developing a community like this (I hope). Technically, I’m a church planter, but my denomination is giving me a lot of wiggle room and allowing me to try a-different-from-the-usual model.We are in a rural, small town, and about to move into a low-income neighborhood. We have a community garden, and we are making friends in the neighborhood. We get together every Sunday evening to eat and talk, and while there is nothing big or flashy to report…we think we are all learning to be a little more like Jesus. I just returned from a church planting conference, and while there were some things that were helpful…I largely felt a little out of place. I have been to CCDA too, and those are more my people. . I will definitely be looking up Jean Vanier’s book (and I’ve been following your blog for a while now), but are there other authors, leaders, etc. that you would recommend?

    • hi carey, love hearing what you are nurturing…i know that feeling of being at conferences and connecting on some levels but not on some others. you might resonate with some of the things in “down we go”, too. i am trying to think of books over time that have stuck with me, and my brain is a little fried at the moment but we read “irresistible revolution” by shane claiborne a long time ago & it resonated in a lot of ways with some of the big themes. you might also like resources from parish collective or transform network. you can check out their websites and resources and see what you think. you might also like the new parish by dwight friesen, paul sparks & tim soerens. i love all kinds of things on, too. hope that helps a little and feel free to email anytime!

  • So my deep questions would be these First can the two, building community and building churches in the traditional sense, be done at the same time or has our model of church building become outdated? Second, can we be true to the truth of God’s word and build community at the same time? It seems that some churches are so eager to build community and be accepting that they endorse or accept things that are not Godly. Third, do these communities always have to be in inner city or low income neighborhoods? It seems when these types of posts or blogs are started most of the talk centers around low income inner city churches. I think there is a danger in making those areas our primary focus. The danger is that we only see the needs in “those kinds” of neighborhoods. People all over need community, rich or poor or somewhere in between, people are hurting. Maybe those with more resources can cover it up more, but the pain is still there. The other danger is that the rich or affluent can get puffed up and see the poor or the inner city folks as projects to be fixed and not people in rotten circumstances. Just some deep thoughts


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