In my tradition, pastors are encouraged to reflect occasionally on a number of different ministry strengths and skills. Some are as obvious as Preaching and Worship Leadership or Pastoral Care, and some are more specific and perhaps unusual, like Being an Agent of Change, or Advocacy. One I have been musing on lately is this: Building a Sense of Community.
Perhaps it's because long long ago, I named this blog "Faith in Community." I did it for a number of reasons: I was involved in community social ministry at the time, and felt that churches needed to be a force for positive change in their local and wider communities. But also, I have always been convinced that faith grows and is challenged in the context of a faith community of some kind.
But, this is the age of individuals, not the age of community, much as we say we long for it. This is the age when we have the freedom to go our own way; what would compel us to throw in our lot with one another? The question is: how do you build a sense of community in a congregation, a sense that we are not simply a collection of individuals who show up on occasion on Sunday morning, but that we do all belong to one another, which is a truth of the gospel that we do not often seen, at least not lately.
I did see it in my little rural parishes. They knew each other, sometimes for generations, and though they were often independent, they also knew that they were all in this life together, all in their small communities together, all in their faith communities together. The downside of this was that sometimes they did not assimilate newcomers easily. However, they did know that they belonged to each other.
Here are some first musings on some practices that might build community.
1. Eating together. It's one of the most basic of activities. We all need to eat to live. But when we eat together, we share our common hunger with our food. Eating together binds us to one another. The easy conversation that comes with the food also plays a part in building community.
2. Learning together. I've noticed that some communities will advocate that they read a book together over a period of time. Sometimes I see the notice at the Public Library -- we're all reading "Three Cups of Tea", and the author will be with us as well. In churches, when people gather to puzzle over the words of Holy Scripture, or read a common text and together meditate on how it will affect their individual and common lives, they build community.
3. Shared experience. When I was in seminary, I was a part of a program called "the Integrated Quarter." During this time our classes, out of classroom learning, and other experiences were integrated around a common theme, "hope in suffering." There were just 20 or so of us, and all of our classes were together. I volunteered at a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, along with a few of my colleagues. We went to plays together, and sometimes discussed them afterwards. Shared experiences.
4. Shared service. Sometimes the service is as small as supporting one member of the community at a time of crisis. Sometimes it's a mission trip, traveling to another community and deeply learning how all of our gifts and even our liabilities work together to make us a team that completes a mission. We come together to address a community need or advocate for change. Shared service builds community.
5. Shared language of prayer and worship. We learn hymns and prayers and rituals, and we practice them together. This prayer, this song is something we know by heart and it defines us. There are few of these hymns and songs any more, but on occasion I have experienced this at a funeral when many people together sing a familiar hymn that they know well, or when I have heard people sing, "Be Present At Our Table Lord." For a certain generation, this is a shared prayer, and it binds them together.
Most important of all:
6. A shared mission. Churches exist to witness to the love of Christ in and for the world, in some way or another. We exist to bear one another's burdens, and to reach out beyond ourselves. We are part of one another, we are a community, because we share this purpose. In the past some people have pointed out that the people who begin and build a church building naturally also build a sense of community. They are engaged literally in building something with one another. When the building is complete, though, the building is not finished. In fact, the work of being God's people is more important than ever.
Maybe your mission is to be a place of radical welcome for everyone. Maybe your mission is to feed people. Maybe your mission is to be a place of healing. Maybe your mission is to be a place where the creative Spirit empowers artists to proclaim God's love.
At Pentecost, the disciples stopped being a collection of individuals who followed Jesus and became a people chosen for a purpose and mission: to share the powerful love of God made real in the life of Jesus, and in their lives, as well.