By Mark Tabb
Illustration by Gayle Kabaker
Dan wasn't looking for a church home. Although he attended a Baptist
church growing up, that was a lifetime ago. "Christian" hardly described the
life he'd lived since he last walked through the doors of a church. His wife
mentioned going to church from time to time, but Dan never had much interest in
going back. The birth of their first child changed his mind. His daughter
needed to be exposed to stories about God, but that was as far as he planned on
taking it. She would learn about the prodigal son and Jonah and the whale, and
Dan would live his life the way he always had.
But when the pastor and other men in the church took the time to really get
to know Dan, he began to see a greater need than making sure his little girl
learned all the words to "Jesus Loves Me." He realized his own need for Christ.
When asked, Dan can't pick out a sermon or Sunday school lesson that suddenly
made all the pieces come together. In fact, the quality of the worship services
and other programs of the church played a relatively minor role in his
conversion. The biggest factor, the one thing that kept him coming back and
softened his heart to the gospel, was the relationship into which the community
of the church welcomed him.
The need for community
Community and relationships have always been a part of local churches, yet we
live in a time when they're more important than ever. The need for community is
so great that many church planters consider it the ultimate key to reaching
people. "When planting a church, one cannot ignore the key component of
community, relationships, even dare I say, intimacy with one another," says
North American Mission Board missionary Philip Nation, a church planter in
Atlanta, Georgia. "We live in a 'garage door world' where you can go in and out
of your house without ever having to speak to another human in the
neighborhood. But people are returning to their front yards and waving at the
kids in the neighborhoods. Why? Because they are lonely of soul. I am
constantly on the lookout for people in search of community, and then, I simply
invite them to my community of friends-Lake Ridge Church. And yes, as others
have observed, often they are converted to our community before they are
converted to Christ.
"Authentic community with one another stands as one of the great
explanations of our faith," says Philip. "After all, the scripture clearly
states that the world will know we belong to Christ due to our love for one
another. Community is important because it displays the gospel and creates a
relational space in which to tell the gospel."
Yet building community isn't as simple as throwing a group of people
together in a Sunday school class or home Bible study. John Mark Yeats,
minister to singles at Northside Baptist Church, Indianapolis, says the dynamic
of many small groups keeps them from becoming a place where "outsiders" can
feel they belong. "Many people in Sunday School classes are so busy catching up
with one another they don't have time to get to know anyone new," he says.
"It's not that anyone intends to be unfriendly, but an hour or two a week isn't
enough time to maintain the friendships they already have in the class, much
less build new ones." Building inclusive community within a church will never
take place by accident. It takes a great deal of effort. And it all begins with
Leaders as community
Whether a church seeks to build community through small groups or through
intentional relationships on a personal level, it must have leaders who are
committed to the process. Mike Shepherd, a small group leader for over 15 years
and National Director for Small Group Development at Serendipity, says building
community begins with leaders who share a "heart-deep vision" for making it
happen. "Without heart-deep vision from the core leaders, we'll never start
these kinds of groups," Mike adds. When searching for leaders to pioneer this
strategy, Mike looks for people who are "secure in their spiritual journey and
understanding of the pre-Christ ways of thinking and living. They need to be
comfortable just hanging out with nonbelievers like Jesus did."
More than anything, those who lead in building inclusive community within
the church must be models of the Christian life. In this setting, the gospel is
truly caught, not taught. Those contemplating coming to Christ can see faith
lived out. The church and Christian community become more than a dispenser of
theological information. Leaders take the role of a fellow traveler, helping
searchers find their way to the truth.
Leaders must also guard against the danger of a group becoming inwardly
focused. Mike Shepherd says those who build community must always maintain
global and kingdom perspective. They must also look at life through the eyes of
an nonbeliever. By doing so they guard against small groups and other
community-building strategies from becoming nothing more than in-depth Bible
studies. In doing so, they must also continually reach out to nonbelievers.
Most relationships in life form around some sort of common interest. Those who
have not yet made a commitment to Christ therefore lack the greatest common
interest that brings a church together in the first place. Community isn't
about hanging out with people who think, act and look alike. Those who pave the
way in building inclusive community must work at bringing together diverse
people, and ensuring that even those who don't fully understand all that is
going on feel safe while they try to figure it all out.
Moving outside the
Building community and relationships that change lives takes more than an hour
or two on Sunday mornings. The process must move outside the four walls of the
church building to be effective. Real Life Fellowship Church in Corpus Christi,
Texas, combines building community with hands on ministry as a means of making
this work. Their small groups get involved in a variety of projects in the Bay
area, doing everything from yard work in neighborhoods to serving food in
homeless shelters to maintaining sailing vessels equipped for handicapped
individuals. They've found that people, regardless of their spiritual
condition, have a desire to contribute to people beyond themselves. "We believe
community is interactive," LifeGroup pastor John Haigler explains. "A community
that is healthy offers opportunities for engagement with others. It's
encouraging to nonbelievers to see the Christian life lived out
By taking part in mission projects nonbelievers forge deeper relationships
with the people within the church community and open themselves to the truth
that compels them to act.
A church doesn't have to have an organized community-building program to
make this happen. Building relationships can be as simple as playing a round of
golf. A large part of the change that took place in Dan's life took place on a
golf course not far from his house. He and the pastor of the church he began
attending started playing golf together once or twice a month. Most of the time
they talked about their tee shots or lining up a putt. Yet the conversation
often turned to the questions Dan was wrestling with. The pastor was careful
not to make their time together an 18-hole sermon. His goal wasn't to convert
Dan on the golf course but to build a friendship.
The process of building community and friendships takes a great deal of
time. By definition the process can't take place overnight. Nor can it become
something we try for a time just to see if it might work. Christ died to redeem
a people for Himself. He never meant for us to remain disconnected from one
another. Rather, he calls us to be a community of disciples who are loyal to
Christ, modeling authenticity in our relationship with the Lord, sharing our
lives with others who share the same passion. When the Spirit works to pull
people together He creates a fellowship that goes beyond sharing stories about
the weather. He builds a community that continually reaches out beyond itself
while attracting those who long for authentic relationships.
We're surrounded by people who feel isolated, alone. They're looking for
something real, something genuine. Information won't satisfy the emptiness
inside them. Programs and technology leave them bored. They need authentic,
genuine, Christian community, the kind that shows everyone everywhere that
we're Christ's disciples because of the love we have for one another.
Mark Tabb (www.marktabb.com) is the author of
15 books including Living With Less, The Upside of Downsizing Your Life
(B&H). He lives in Knightstown, Indiana.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC