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Modeling Community: An Interview with Mark Batterson

Coffeehouses are our postmodern wells. We wanted to create a place where church and community could cross paths. If we would have built a church, I don’t know how many people in our neighborhood would have gotten excited. When we said we were going to build a coffeehouse, we became heroes in our neighborhood. We have free Wi-Fi; we have a place where people can hang out, have a conversation and get a great cup of coffee. And, hopefully, they’ll land at one of our Saturday night services or one of our events, and we’re finding that that’s exactly what’s happening. It is really cool being in the marketplace and feeling like the message is getting out because we’re rubbing shoulders with people every day.

modelingcommunity
Mark Batterson, author and  pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., talks about the fear of relationships among many Christians, reaching diverse groups and what pastors can do to build community.

In your latest book, Wild Goose Chase, you hold the view that our lives with God should be an adventure. What part does community within the Body play in this adventure?

Well, I think life by yourself isn’t much of an adventure. I’m going to preface this by saying this: I would like to think that when I pronounce the Benediction at the end of our services, I am sending dangerous people back into their natural habitats to wreak havoc on the enemy. That really is the DNA of the book—that we’re about being on mission, and that’s part of the adventure of living for Christ. To me, the greatest adventure is God inviting us into this thing called the Great Commission—how He didn’t call us to do something on our own. God loves the adventure of doing things together, and in the same sense, the greatest joys in life are things that bring us closer together with one another. For example, I’ve got 100 life goals, and a lot of those goals involve other people. I want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, but I don’t want to do it by myself; I want to do it with one of my kids. Or, I want to run a triathlon with one of my kids—there’s something about doing something together that synergizes the entire experience and makes it more adventurous.

People crave community, but at the same time, they often fear it or don’t make it a priority. Why do you think this is?

It’s as old as the Garden of Eden. To me, there’s a little bit of a theological answer, but the initial reaction after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was to hide. They got leaves and hid their nakedness. I think what happened was, when we sinned, self-consciousness entered the equation. To me, growing into spiritual maturity is becoming less self-conscious and more God-conscious. And I think that’s why there’s this beautiful idea of “confess your sins to one another.” By the way, I think that’s one of the least practiced spiritual disciplines in the Church. The Church was meant to be a safe place where we could reveal everything about ourselves and still be accepted. Unfortunately, I think what we’ve done is create a culture where there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy, and that’s probably the biggest turn-off to those who are outside the Church. And it starts with leadership. People will be transparent to the level that I’m transparent as a pastor. I feel like if I’m transparent, it creates a culture where God knows the worst thing about us and still loves us, and that ought to free us up to admit our strengths and weaknesses, and love each other as is.

What are the most effective things your congregation has done to build authentic community?

One of our core values is that everything is an experiment, so we’re always trying to find new ways to create community. Let me start from the outside in. Last Friday night we did an event called Screen on the Green, where we brought in a huge screen and did a showing of the animated film Ratatouille in one of our parks on Capitol Hill. We had 481 people show up. Now, the vast majority of those people don’t attend National Community Church, and it may not be like a real spiritual thing, but it was amazing to see the way it brought a community together—neighbors sitting on blankets next to neighbors, families and couples. That’s an example of a first-touch sort of outreach. I know the Church is the one creating community within the community. So, that’s an example of how we did that from a pre-evangelism-outreach perspective.

But then, once people come into our spiritual family at NCC, we really do focus everything, and everything for us boils down to small groups. How can we get people in relationship with six or eight or 10 or 12 people? We do a free-market metric system, so we launch new groups three times a year, and we let our leaders get a vision from God and go for it. We have a range of about 90 different groups, and they range from Bible studies to running a marathon together. They are so diverse; they’re as diverse as our leaders are. What it is, is just finding touch points. We had about 150 people going through Alpha, which is an exploration of the Christian faith, last semester. So, they range across the board. The idea is, let’s bring people together, and as we bring people together, it begins to create that community.

How do you reach out to people in a place as diverse as D.C.?

I’m starting to think of church and influence differently. We have an immediate family, people who attend NCC on the weekends, but we’ve discovered that we also have an extended family, people who are all around the world connected to us via webcast and podcast. Last year, I preached in all 50 states and 83 countries without going anywhere, and I did it via webcast. In talking about community, there was a fear that technology would kill community and keep people apart. And I wholly think it’s had the opposite effect. Email helps me keep in touch with my family. I wouldn’t know what my extended family was doing every day if we weren’t emailing each other. I just recently became a Twitter addict, and I love it! It’s a great way to know what’s going on in people’s lives at any given moment. It’s the same with blogging and, as I’ve found, with webcasts and podcasts.

Ultimately, we want people to have a face-to-face, physical community, but we’re discovering that often starts with a virtual community. And if that’s the way we can create a touch point, we’re all for it. In fact, this weekend we had a girl visit from Germany who, about eight weeks ago, put her faith in Christ after listening to one of our podcasts. She came over here for vacation, and NCC was on her must-see list because it’s a place of incredible spiritual significance. So you can imagine, there was an immediate bond with her because that’s a part of the community. That doesn’t really answer your question, but I’m just excited about the possibilities and feel we’re living in an incredible day and age where we, as the Church, need to redeem technology and use it for God’s purposes.

Can you talk a little bit about the idea behind your unconventional church locations?

I went into church planting with a traditional mindset: meet and rent a facility so we can buy or build a church building. And then we started meeting in Union Station and realized that you can’t build a Union Station. I mean, 25 million people pass through Union Station every year; it’s the most visited destination in D.C. We have food-court restaurants, great movie theater screens—and not too many churches have their own subway system. It is the perfect set-up. At some point, doing church in the marketplace became part of our DNA, so movie theaters are not short-term rental options for us. They’re our long-term strategy. Our vision is to meet in movie theaters and Metro stops around the D.C. area. That’s kind of the theater side. We also own and operate the largest coffeehouse in Capitol Hill, and we get asked a lot, “Why would a church build a coffeehouse?” The reason behind it is that Jesus didn’t just hang out at the synagogue; Jesus hung out at wells. Wells were not just a place to draw water; they were natural gathering places in ancient culture. Coffeehouses are our postmodern wells.

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We wanted to create a place where church and community could cross paths. If we would have built a church, I don’t know how many people in our neighborhood would have gotten excited. When we said we were going to build a coffeehouse, we became heroes in our neighborhood. We have free Wi-Fi; we have a place where people can hang out, have a conversation and get a great cup of coffee. And, hopefully, they’ll land at one of our Saturday night services or one of our events, and we’re finding that that’s exactly what’s happening. It is really cool being in the marketplace and feeling like the message is getting out because we’re rubbing shoulders with people every day.

What parting last words can you leave with pastors trying to build community?

I think one reason why God wants to be in commission with us is because nothing brings people together like common mission. It doesn’t matter whether you’re part of a sales team trying to reach a goal, or you’re on a football team or basketball team trying to win that championship, or you’re part of a church that’s been given this great commission. I really think a healthy community must be on mission. Communities that just say, “Hey, let’s get together every week for an hour and a half” become a very selfish, inward-focused experience. Those communities concern me. For there to be healthy community, you’ve got to be serving and on mission. We’re always encouraging our small groups to do service projects and go on mission trips. We don’t want people just getting together, singing “Kumbaya.” We want people who understand that we have been commissioned by God to share the Gospel with everyone, everywhere. That means our next-door neighbor, the homeless shelter down the street, the Little League where we can be a positive influence and the orphanage we build halfway around the world in Uganda. I think it’s all of those things. That’s why my last word is, community exists, in part, to be on mission together. It should never be an end in itself. It’s got to be about being a part of something that’s bigger than us and more important than us. And that is the mission God has called us to.

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This article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly Vol. 01. You can subscribe to the Quarterly or buy individual copies.

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