I slipped into the back pew and stood there fidgeting with the Bible in the rack in front of me. The church I was visiting met in an old Presbyterian building from the time when churches actually built huge, impressive structures complete with steeple, stained glass, and an ornate pulpit that didn’t move off the stage for a worship band. I had found my way to this hip little inner-city church because people claimed it had a strong community where everyone felt welcomed and loved.
After prayer, a thirtysomething lady stepped to the front of the room, asked for visitors to remain seated and announced: “Go and greet these new people and make them feel welcome!”
Everyone started moving and talking and shaking hands and laughing, but they didn’t come my direction. I sat there like a lump as people walked past me to the coffee kiosk in the back. One older lady smiled briefly at me and then hurried on.
I felt crushed.
Sometimes I wonder if community-building in many churches has fallen into the same trap that so many other things have fallen into: We talk more about it more than we actually practice it. Sermons, Bible study books, podcasts, tweets, Facebook rants—they’ve addressed community at some point. Home groups sit around and talk to each other about how great their community is when they may have someone sitting on the sofa right next to them who feels wildly disconnected from everyone else. We love the idea of community—everyone engaged and involved and connected—but how many people show up like I did to the back of that church, longing for someone to reach out to them, shake their hand and have more than a two-second conversation?
Church should be a place where people feel safe and comfortable and secure and ready to share life with others. But if no one ever initiates that conversation, how much of a community do we really have? Should it always be the outsider’s job to try and connect? Or should the insiders be more intentional about looking beyond their own cliques?
Everyone has to do their part. The insiders and the outsiders in any church community need to be involved. There are lots of things we can do to work on our communities, but I think these three serve as a good posture to build from.
Put yourself aside.
So often, one of the major roadblocks to building community is our own selves. If we worry constantly about whether others will like us or be bored with us, then community is going to go nowhere. Stepping outside of our own issues, swallowing that lump of pride in our own throats, and reaching out a hand to the person next to us who seems lost and confused or just plain out new, are what will begin that process of building long-standing community.
Whether you’ve been on the inside of a church or are coming in from the outside, allowing yourself the grace and awkwardness to talk to someone new is what plants a seed of community.
Be willing to put in the time.
Relationships and community take time to build. Even if someone seems unwilling to talk, keep taking the time to engage. Don’t be pushy or force them to do something they wouldn’t want to do, but take time to ask questions. Ask about their week, their job, what things they like to do for fun or in their free time.
Realize that building community takes a lot of time. Friendships hardly ever explode into full being overnight. Often they grow slowly over a long period of consistent time and energy spent together.
Walk alongside people, not at them.
One of the biggest fears many people have is the question of safety. Are they safe to engage in their current environment? Will they be judged for any one of a myriad of daily choices? Will this group turn on them as soon as they say or do one thing wrong?
Many people church communities have a reputation of walking at people with a finger raised and shaking in disgust. Our churches need a reputation of arms around shoulders, walking together to face the challenges of life. If people feel they’re going to be judged or ridiculed or ignored because of a life choice, they’re not likely going to engage in any community. Instead they’ll be walking to the door, grabbing their purse, and never coming back.
This doesn’t mean that we excuse poor life decisions or make light of sin. This means being willing to recognize the world is broken, people are broken, and we all have issues in our lives to work through. Community is a place where those issues can be explored safely and in context of loving relationships.
Will communities always be safe? No. Is there risk in every relationship? Yes. Can we improve? Yes, indeed. As churches continues to talk about community, finding the grace to interact with each other in the midst of a broken, hate-filled world is difficult, but it is definitely worth every step of the journey.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Shaun spends most of his time musing about God, life, and the ChurchÑall while waiting for the next Travis Thrasher novel. He can be found often ranting on Twitter @shaunstvn.