One of the great things about summer is the opportunity for building community.
In fact community is one of our main drivers as a church. We look at it as one of our chief aims. We see that so many people around us are quite isolated or in quite limited social circles. One of the great desires that you see in Jesus is his involving people from all sorts of backgrounds together in his new community.
The thing is, however, that building real community takes real effort to do. I noticed that amongst the tragic death of David Cameron’s agent, Christopher Shale, was the way that he realised that the Conservative party in his constituency didn’t have a real purpose to it. The leaked document revealed that he was looking to change this by trying to make it into more of a caring community.
The point that he realised is that community rarely “just happens”. It requires effort and commitment. This is not a sociological or theological treatise on community but rather share some of what I have observed and learnt over the past 13 years in ministry.
One of the first things that I have noticed about most people is that they are far happier doing a task or a defined job rather than social interaction. There is a nervousness about talking to people and joining in with things. People often prefer to sit behind a desk or hand something out that allows them to interact on a job level rather than a social level. So one of the key things is to help people to break out of the tyranny of the task and engage in meaningful social interaction.
When people invite friends or family or neighbours to something they want to know that they won’t be embarrassed. They are putting their reputations with their connections on the line and if it goes wrong or its naff then there is a potential cost to be paid.
Creating something good and that builds community creates a momentum of its own. Its why our Holiday Club has grown to capacity – we are expecting about 280 people this year to it. We get over 500 people coming to our Feast in the Field each year and usually 5-600 for a film when we take over screens at the local cinema.
People often put most of their energies into improving some aspect of a service or ministry rather than improving social networks. Once a service or ministry has passed the “its safe to come to” test then all the real work has to be focussed on the relationship building. This means that leaders of services and ministries have to really “over-emphasise” this aspect. So with Feast in the Field, the Holiday Club, trips to the cinema – they all pass the “safe to come” test.
What then needs to happen is to look at how we ensure that these become real opportunities to create community.
People, even Christians, tend to ask ‘what is in it for me?’ When you design an event you need to ask – who is this really aimed at? What will you actually do?
So, for example, each year we do a Feast in the Field. Its aim is to encourage people to bring friends, family and neighbours to a low key event to help build relationship. We want to make it accessible for people with families and so there are plenty of things for children and teenagers to do. We want to make space and include those who don’t want lots of activities and so we have a jazz band and a cream tea tent. But some things we specifically rule out. For example, we choose not to have food stalls or stalls where things are sold. We don’t want a fete. We want people to talk and make conversation and develop relationships in a relaxed and fun atmosphere. By people bringing picnics it means that people have to sit down to eat. We also try and design the field so that people tend to sit near each other giving people the chance to talk to people that they don’t know.
All of this is done intentionally. Not to manipulate people and control them but rather to make it as easy as possible to get to know others. To help people on the path to creating community.
We see these large-scale events as an investment in community and so these are not self-financing events. Feast in the Field, trips to the cinema, Holiday clubs are all things that we budget to invest in. It is important to see them as investments rather than a cost. Indeed, it can appear rather odd in our audited accounts as they are entered under fund-raising activities and we get strange comments from the diocese about spending more on fund-raising than we get in!
Along-side our large-scale events are our smaller-scale ones. We have lots of these over the course of the year. Each of our small groups (including our youth ones) put on communal events to do a number of things. The first priority is community building. This comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It can be dinner-dances with 150 people, a fun fiesta with over a hundred people or going bowling or for a ramble with 8-10 people. The point in all these is that we are intentionally asking our “old friends to meet our new friends” in an environment that builds up community.
One of the “game changers” in this was when we gave each small group £250 to support a charity of their choice. They were allowed to “invest” this in social activities that allowed them, hopefully, to raise more money for that charity. This then became a great reason to invite others to come and join their event and has allowed all sorts of imaginative events to be put on. It also helped people to get over the fear of inviting people and has led to a building of community. Of course, we love the fact that charities are being helped but we also love the fact that people are inviting and involving others in community.
We always say to our small groups that those we invite and come along and pray for may not attend our small group meetings but they are part of the small group community. The aim is to move the perception that this group is just a club that meets once a week and is made up only of those that attend. Community happens through the week – in emails, phone calls, prayer requests, cups of tea and coffee. Community is intentional.
It’s slightly different for an ongoing service or ministry. It’s very easy for people to end up being focussed so much on the task that they miss the person. So, you come to the end of the service and you look round for your friends and become nervous about talking to strangers (or even don’t really notice that they are there). Or you are doing a ministry (such as a toddler group) and focus on the functions – doing the craft, collecting the money, serving the teas and coffees.
But when we do that we miss a major reason for doing all this – building real community. Where a ministry is not building real community then one needs to question its very existence. The craft, the teas and coffee, the collecting the money are just ways to make conversation, to ask how people are and to listen to peoples answers. To suggest having a tea or coffee during the week to get to know people better.
The things that don’t really matter are how many people come – size is only good if there are lots of people trying to build community. What doesn’t really matter is what you do. What matters is the interest that you take in people and listening to them.
Then there is the real community of being open with one another. We have found in our small groups that being open and real with one another helps us grow and mature together. It allows us to share one another’s burdens and to encourage each other along the way. One of the ways that we do this is by encouraging people to answer heart questions about the bible rather than just intellectual ones. It means that we can look at what that means for us as a group rather than how much I can show I know about the bible. Bible knowledge is great – but its only great if we learn how to apply it in our lives – and to do that we need each other to encourage us and to love us when we struggle and to pray for us when we feel prayer-less.
I always fear it when people say to me that they “want to get deeper into the Word”, that they want “real meat”. The problem is that all too often this becomes a way of avoiding becoming real with one another. All too often it becomes a smokescreen. Most groups like this struggle in taking the armour off and being vulnerable with one another. Often these groups share at only a superficial level and don’t stay in contact much outside of the meeting.
A community that is real with one another helps us to grow. And the benefits of real community are huge. It means that we become real and honest with people. We share the good and the difficult with people. We find people who are interested in us and we become interested in them. There are 105 “one another’s” in the New Testament (according to the NRSV version). They include:
Love one another
Be devoted to one another
Bear with one another
Be compassionate with one another
Encourage 0ne another
Greet one another
Offer hospitality to one another (without grumbling!)
Live in harmony with one another
Accept one another
Real community is awesome. Why would we put up with less? But to get there requires effort and sacrifice.