At least in America, few rural communities are left. Rural communities included farms and small towns built around agriculture. They featured a limited number of people who lived most of their lives in close proximity to one another. People bought and sold from people they knew. Everybody knew everybody else and everybody else’s business. People were rarely anonymous. These settings experienced a degree of community that spilled over into the churches.
Many urban settings were not much different. People lived and worked in neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods functioned like small towns within big cities. Dwellers bought their food, their clothing, and their hardware from people they knew. They built their homes so that they could sit on their front porches and talk to their neighbors. People took care of each other. They shared a sense of community, and this sense carried over into their churches.
Small towns still exist, but they are no longer rural. The closest Walmart is only a short drive away. Television and the internet give each home immediate access to the wide world. People are transient. In some urban locations, populations turn over every couple of years. In the country, an increasing numberof farms are owned by faceless corporations or are being broken up to provide weekend hobbies for business executives.
Churches are supposed to be communities of believers, not just social clubs where strangers find themselves in proximity to one another. The problem is that congregations can no longer rely upon demographic factors to ensure them of community. Rather, they must deliberately and perpetually aim to foster community among the atomized bits of humanity that enter their doors.
In previous essays, I have suggested that one way of encouraging community is to build upon the interests of specific groups within the congregation. People tend to cluster around common interests, whether these be vocational (e.g., age, sex, family, work) or avocational. These commonalities provide a starting point for the construction of small communities that can be united into a single church community.
The problem is that groups can isolate themselves as effectively as individuals can. A group can close itself off from outside fellowship, perhaps even setting itself up as a kind of elite within the body. Worstof all, interest groups can begin to compete with one another, resulting in cliques and ultimately factions.
In a church that wishes to become a community, both pastors and members must be alert to the problem of factionalism. Church members must take responsibility to avoid the problem. Pastors must oversee the life of the congregation to prevent elites. If a church is deliberate about incorporating its members into a larger community, it can take several specific steps to avoid the emergence of factions.
To avoid splintering, a congregation must first share a common sense of the church’s purpose. This sense cannot simply be articulated by leaders and sold to members. It is not communicated by putting a Unique Selling Proposition on everyone’s pen or coffee mug. In order to achieve a genuine sense ofpurpose, pastors and members must jointly explore the core questions of church life. What is a church? What makes a church healthy? What is the mission of the church? What is a church for? What should the ministry of a church be? What do biblical worship, fellowship, and instruction look like? If a church divides in its answers to these questions, then any sense of community will be ephemeral. Shared answers require an ongoing conversation in which the questions are repeatedly explored.
If this sense of purpose is strong, members will subordinate their vocational and avocational interests to it. They will find ways to integrate and subordinate the interests of their groups into the interests of the whole church. They will be bound to a shared sense of purpose, mission, and ministry.
Given such a shared vision, each group should naturally view itself as inclusive rather than exclusive. The boundaries of the various groups should remain permeable. Guests should always be welcome, and regulars should relish the opportunity to initiate newcomers into their interests. For example, parents should always be welcome at youth meetings, and should learn something about the interests of their children. Sportsmen’s groups should welcome the opportunity to teach people (including women and children) how to camp, shoot, or fish. The appropriate attitude for most groups is, “Anyone is welcome any time.”
Church members should also aim to participate in more than one group. Each member should participate in a variety of interests. One church member might relish conversations about classical music, hunting, and work. A different church member might be a mother of preschool children, a quilter, and a classical music aficionada. By pursuing all of their interests, these two members can bring their circles to overlap and even interlock. If they do, they will become conduits through which the concernsof one set of circles can flow into and be addressed by a different set of circles. Church members should belong to more than one circle and should deliberately aim to construct overlapping circles ofinterest.
As the interests of the various groups begin to overlap and interlock, members can use their groups to serve the congregation. For example, whole circles can pray about the needs of people in other circles, and they can pray intelligently because of the presence of people who are also part of the other circles. Or a group whose interest is music might sing Christmas carols for elderly members. A group ofsportsmen might host another group—or even the entire church—to a dinner of fish and wild game. The possibilities are as boundless as the Christian need to encourage and be encouraged.
Properly overseen, circles of interest within a church do not need to detract from the overall ministry ofthe church. In fact, they can become tools for fostering the kind of community that a church must have in order to function as a church. As long as the various groups share the core biblical values of the congregation, as long as they remain inclusive rather than exclusive, as long as the various circles ofinterest overlap and interlock, and as long as each group sees itself as a servant of the whole church, then these circles of interest will actually help the church to become a community in which the members are helping each other to serve God for His glory.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Lo! What an Entertaining Sight
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Lo! what an entertaining sight
Are brethren that agree!
Brethren, whose cheerful hearts unite
In bands of piety!
When streams of love from Christ the spring
Descend to every soul,
And heav’nly peace, with balmy wing,
Shades and bedews the whole;
‘Tis like the oil, divinely sweet,
On Aaron’s reverend head
The trickling drops perfumed his feet,
And o’er his garments spread.
‘Tis pleasant as the morning dews
That fall on Zion’s hill,
Where God his mildest glory shows,
And makes his grace distil.