A List on Building Community

I had an interesting and enjoyable conversation with a young man today. He wanted to talk with me about building a community based church. He said that there are all kinds of materials out there on traditional models of doing church. But there is hardly anything out there concerned with building a church that emphasizes relationship and community. Almost all material out there is on how to tweak style, not substance. He asked me if I knew of any. No, not much. He said that he’s saved a file of all my posts on community. He wanted to talk with me about it. So he called me and we had a good chat.

Here’s some of the things we talked about:

  1. There are no rules to follow. If few are doing it, then they are doing it in their own unique contexts with their own unique people in their own unique way. There aren’t grand general rules that apply to all situations.
  2. It’s like being a pioneer or an explorer. I have a good friend who teases me about comparing what I did as a pastor to being an explorer. I admit: my physical life is not in danger. I’m not living on seal blubber and sucking on snow in sub-zero temperatures. The dangers I faced are different. But they are just as real. It is no joke pioneering this kind of church community. It is serious business. And it takes a great deal of courage. But if you value it, it’s worth it. What materials are out there on doing what he wants to do? Hardly anything. Are there materials out there on how to be a pioneer? What does that take? Guts. Resilience. Period.
  3. I compare what I was trying to do with being a family. My family would rebel if I tried to be their autocratic, charismatic, visionary leader. Businesses and countries are a whole other matter. If you want to build a corporation, then be that kind of leader. If you want to build community and be a part of it yourself, treat it like family.
  4. Flexibility. You have to do it one day at a time. Although you might have some general values that you embrace, strategizing weeks or months or years ahead is a futile exercise. It’s like your family: you have values. You can generally plan ahead. But if you have kids, you know that each day is a new day and must be executed freshly.
  5. Be openly humble. Admit to your people that you don’t really know what you’re doing or how this is going to turn out. You are learning one day at a time. You are learning and discovering together. You are not the all-knowing leader.
  6. He was concerned about burn-out. Lisa and I found it interesting that we couldn’t tell if we were always working or if we were just always hanging out with our friends. That’s what community is. I rarely met people in my study. I always avoided the feeling of clinical. That’s not family. Rather, we always met over coffee, lunch, or wine in the evenings. And Lisa and I made it a point of taking an evening or two to ourselves and a day on the weekend. Easy-peasy.
  7. Smaller groups help glue the community. Each smaller part strengthens the larger part. This is where everyone gets to play, experiment and experience community up close and personal. However… and this is something else I’ve discovered over the years… a smaller group with disgruntled members can cause problems.
  8. Chaos theory: it is messy, unpredictable and unattractive. When people discover a place where they can experiment in authenticity and encounter the authenticity of the other, sparks fly. Some start fires that destroy. But some start fires that warm the heart. People won’t flock to it for it’s appeal. But those who want to experience community will trickle in.
  9. This kind of community can attract very needy people. Some stay and find healing. Some stay until they figure their needs aren’t being met according to their liking and leave. This can include the pastor ,)
  10. My experience is that money can be a problem with this kind of community. If you want community, it takes volunteerism. Which means you can’t employ the tithing campaign. You will rely on people’s goodwill. Which sometimes runs thin. But those who believe in what you are doing and value such a community will bless it beyond their means.

This is just a start but I ended at 10. I like lists of 10.

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  • Here are a few more that might fit a more relational dynamic (from my bro in Christ Wayne Jacobsen):

    We value:
    – God’s power over human effort
    – Transformation over conformity
    – Mutuality over hierarchy
    – Authenticity over entertainment
    – Modeling over celebrity
    – Following Jesus rather than implementing models
    And the presence of the Living Christ above all else!

    How to tell if someone is really passionate about HIS kingdom or if they are building their own?

    1. Do they come primarily talking about a HIM or about an IT (meeting, method, principle)?
    2. Did they help us learn to listen to God together, or did they tell us what to do so we wouldn’t need to hear from him ourselves?
    3. Did they leave us freer to trust Jesus more, or were we overwhelmed with principles we needed to apply?
    4. Were we brought together in our ability to love each other more, or were we fragmented over methods and theologies?
    5. Could they still affirm people who didn’t see things the same way the did, or were they defensive and distant when questioned?

  • There are folks who are doing this well– check out The Crowded House in Sheffield, UK, as well as Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA.

    Also, Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, who are leaders in The Crowded House, wrote a fantastic book called Total Church.

    I know there are others, but these are some of the most encouraging/promising movements I’ve found.

  • good list john.
    yes chris, there are a few. i’ve heard of some. but they are amazingly sparse. no?

  • kelseyud

    I think most people today (myself included) long for authenticity. We live in a disconnected world, and all of our social relations somehow seem virtual to us in a way. Especially since the internet’s advent. Everything becomes meta and pseudo, we are talking about talking about things, instead of actually doing them.

    I grew up in a church similar to that. Everything was mostly valid in the “spiritual sense”. I never really experienced real community, I think. We did have meals together after a church service, maybe once in every 6 months, but even these times when we finally did something “unchurhcy” (well, as it can get in the church basement) it was always kindof compulsory and organized. We did have smaller communities, like, a youth group, where for some reason I never really was able to fit in. Home Bible studies were started but eventually died after a few months. And then I started to just float further and further.

    But anyhow, I think there’s this disconnection between people and a virtualisation of all relationships, and this cancer of pseudo and meta-life. We do not live, we just live as if we lived. I love this quote from Simone Weil, found in her work titled “The Need for Roots”, really accurately describing this disconnection:

    A lot of people think that a little peasant boy of the present day who goes to primary school knows more than Pythagoras did, simply because he can repeat parrot-wise that the earth moves round the sun. In actual fact, he no longer looks up at the heavens. This sun about which they talk to him in class hasn’t, for him, the slightest connexion with the one he can see. He is severed from the universe surrounding him, just as little Polynesians are severed from their past by being forced to repeat: ‘Our ancestors, the Gauls, had fair hair.’

    So… authenticity is the keyword I think. Getting real. Whatever the cost.

  • Brian

    “…there are all kinds of materials out there on traditional models of doing church. But there is hardly anything out there concerned with building a church that emphasizes relationship and community.” What a telling statement that is! Kinda like: There are all kinds of materials out there on traditional models of gardening, but there is hardly anything out there concerned with building gardens that grow flowers and vegetables.

    @kelseyud: awesome Simone Weil quote!

  • Brian: There are all kinds of materials out there on farming. But one voice crying in the wilderness, obscure but important, is Wendell Berry. His material on farming totally goes against the flow.

  • dcsloan


    Could we have a more complete and precise citation for the material from Wayne Jacobsen. It would be a big help with the research.

    Thanks for whatever you can provide.

  • dcsloan

    For those who are concerned about what church has become, consider reading “Reclaiming Church”


  • k8

    I have found that when it’s less about “community building” or frankly, building anything at all and the focus is on getting to know God, that’s where true authenticity in relationship shines.

    That’s when people WANT to come together and HUNGER for that community. Focus on God and your relationship with Him and the community will come.

  • Darrin

    NP, I’m glad you had coffee with him and not me. I would have talked him out of it. And I would have been too negative… Or at least begged him to think about some of the things he will experience. Our experience doing this was wonderful in so many ways, yet unsuccessful in so many others. Authenticity is what we strove for, transparency, eschewing organizational authority in favor of relational life, relationships not programs etc. etc. etc. But man O man was it hard. And costly. Maybe you need to consider a book about this in order to make a living and teach young would be pastors striving for authenticity what they will meet.

    I would have added to or agreed to your points of discussion… on;

    2. You are a pioneer alone so for the most part avoid ministerials since you as a pioneer will not benefit from your colleagues who are settlers. In fact throw out most of what they spend most of their time on and don’t be envious of their greener pastures, because they actually ARE greener.

    3. as in number 2, you are creating a dysfunctional family. Come to terms with that before the first meeting. Resolve that for yourself. There’s no way around it. It is what it is as part of the human condition. After all, we follow all the Biblical examples of tortured, pain ridden, and bizarre families who lived through incredible complexity, disappointment, and ridiculous but hidden bronze age superstitions and assumptions. So don’t be bewildered when you’re personally torn on the horns of the age old dilemma that you have put your new church on which is to have been created sick and commanded to be well.

    5 and 6. Choose this model, knowing it is only a model and then don’t be surprised when the old addage “familiarity breeds contempt” lines you up in it’s crosshairs.

    8. The most important of all! Many people prefer to be enslaved by teaching, dogma, rules and authoritarian leadership. Freedom and authenticity scares the shit out of them and causes the worst in us to surface creating one sort of fire or another. Understand what it means to function in crisis. throw your seminary books in the recycle bins and enroll in firefighter training and emergency response training.

    9. Don’t underestimate this one! Take notes on what you observe. One day under the tutelage of a clinical or forensic psychologist you will have the makings of the book you need to write to support you in your retirement.

    10. The reality of this one is huge! Appeal to peoples self interest and not their nobility if you want anything done. That’s usually why they volunteer anyway so don’t shock yourself by having to discover this late in the third period. After all they, unlike you, don’t really believe the words of Jesus, “take no thought for the morrow…”, or “take nothing for your journey save staff, no scrip, no bread, no money…”, and “sell all that thou hast, distribute it… and come follow me”, and lastly, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Be prepared to put your own life and your children behind the people you serve. They won’t do that in their own lives but they will expect you to. So refer back to number 9 above to have an exit strategy when you are an old man so you don’t find yourself eating cat food, since you will likely have followed Jesus’ words and won’t have a pension.

    Maybe a number 11 should be added; ask yourself “why the hell do I want to do this anyway?” “what need in me am I trying to satisfy? Am I really going to impress God by this, and show Him that I’m great on his team?” and “will that feeling surpass the feeling of having hated my ‘children, father, wife, bretheren’ etc by doing this?” Take these questions seriously since there will be few to no magic wands down the road when you need them.

    Look at this opportunity with a sober eye and a ruthless basis in reality. You will not get back the years you spend, so spend them knowing full well what they will cost you and cost those who love you.

  • Kim

    I don’t know the church landscape in North America but here in the UK there is a wave of info and conversation about pioneering, and an ordination track now for people who are church planting and need on the job training rather than classroom based.

    A great blog to read on this is jonny baker’s. the Anglican church here has a ‘fresh expressions’ website and another called ‘Share’ that are full of conversation and resources about this way of doing and being.

  • Darrin…how well you expressed this!I would add: They will accept your hospitality, demand your attention, and when their requests become outrageous they will turn on you and attempt to smear your name from here to forever and back. I’ve had it happen and seen it happen to others. Unfortunately, many of those who are drawn to life in community are misfits and very needy. It gives them a place where they are validated and recognized. But you are correct…it will be a dysfunctional family and its best to make sure all your own co-dependency issues are well taken care of first.

  • kelseyud

    Preacherlady, Darrin,

    You both are talking about the “dysfunctional family”. Would you elaborate in what sense such communities will be “dysfunctional”, based upon your experience?

    Also, co-dependency – isn’t that a good thing at times?

    Just a few questions.

    (and kudos to Kim for fresh expressions, which is awesome.)

  • Darrin


    taken from the infallible source Wikipedia…

    Codependency or codependence is a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways that negatively impact one’s relationships and quality of life. It also often involves putting one’s needs at a lower priority than others while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. [1] Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including in families, at work, in friendships, and also in romantic, peer or community relationships.[1] Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, and/or control patterns.[1]

    co-dependency is NEVER a good thing. Perhaps you can employ the term “inter-dependency” which may mean a cooperative and equally participative relationship. The difference is the latter is done from a position of strength, positive self esteem, freedom, and operates from a surplus. The former is from a position of unhealthy need and operates out of a deficit. It’s between choosing to live within a relationship or not being able to live without a relationship.

    A community as a dysfunctional family for me would be similar to an actual family that is dysfunctional. co-dependence marks the relationships (especially between clergy and lay), hidden and or unrealistic expectations, a failure to see and admit flaws and unhealthy emotions and how they influence behavior, an over imposing dictatorial father figure (pastor) or an equally pathetic passive placating people pleasing weak father (clergy). excessive influence and sway given to certain “choice” members due to wealth or capacity to network (gossip). Also, and unchecked ambition for control and power played out in either the clergy or the laity (or both).

    All of these things I would suggest are a normal part of the human condition and can be assumed to be present within people therefore will be present in community. The dysfyunction takes a nasty turn in churches because of the powerful and implicit expectation that it should be better because it is “of God”. The people usually tend to “over-reach” it terms of expecting a taste of heaven or holiness or health in the community that it is simply not able to offer. Attitudes and behavior are expected to be much further in holiness and decency than they actually can be and the resulting dissonance is what creates the dysfunction. I think its (the church’s) main flaw is in its’ DNA. It is a multiplication of the intense dilemma and loosing proposition that believers are stuck in individually, and that is the deeplpy held understanding that we are created sick and yet commanded to be well.

    The best description I have ever heard of what is psychologically and emotionally going on in church life that creates without exception the dysfunction is Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the logically necessary outcome of scapegoating. Many people have reflected on his insights and applied them to community life. Simply genius in my opinion, and dead on right. Google his work and check out a friends of NP’s who writes a lot about it. His blog is the Prodigal Prophet..

  • April Alexander

    Community to me is the natural flow that is birthed out of relationships. It can’t be planned or organized in a strategic way. It comes out of our relationship with God and isn’t forced by our organizational mind set. I think each community is different – what works in one may not work in another. I’ve lived in planned Christian communities, yet I see more community happening around me now that I’m out of that “community.” I’m seeing community happen, all on its own without my help. Someone invites me over for tea, we invite them over to the garden, etc.

    You can see community spontaneously happen naturally in non Christian circles, and I’m learning a great deal from them. They hang out at events, over dinner, over a pint. I think we can learn a lot from their community. We’ve been in a Christian social bubble for so long and are socially challenged because of it. Other than “church community” we don’t know how to function socially out in society. This is all new to me, I’m learning slowly. I’m trying to let community come to me, not making it. Amazingly it does happen naturally.

  • Hannah

    I love this. It sounds just like the church I’m attempting to ‘lead’. So reassuring to read about someone coming from the same wavelength. Thanks!

  • awesome hannah.

  • HS

    When you say there’s hardly anything out there on building community and relationship, are you forgetting the Bible?

    The Bible tells us that it’s Jesus, not us, who builds the church and creates community. That’s why the way we remember how He did it is called communion.

    The church community was foreshadowed in the Upper Room and created at Pentecost. It comprised and still comprises all those who received the Holy Spirit – everyone saved subsequently becomes part of that same community.

    It’s our job to be the church, not to build it, so why are we looking for building materials?

    Jesus is “I AM” and he calls us to become like Him – this is the ultimate authenticity.

    Sure, it’s going to be painful. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and He warned that anyone who followed Him would get the same treatment He got – ie if we become like Him we can expect to be rejected, betrayed, abandoned and “crucified” by those we would have expected to welcome and love us.

    But because we have eternal life we will survive all that and live forever in the ultimate community – the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s what makes it all worthwhile!

  • HS: Is that short for Holy Spirit? Anyway… no we aren’t forgetting the bible. But we can’t forget that each and every expression of church out there thinks its style is informed by scripture. Thousands and thousands!