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What happened to community?

By heath - Posted on 17 July 2006

I have been in pretty much two kinds of churches. I grew up in many small town churches, but since I was about 17 I have been in what you might call niche churches. Either the whole church was a niche, such as upper-middle class educated white people, or a church that was structured around smaller market niches such as college and career or single parents.

Looking back, I can see that the small-town churches, though theologically less sophisticated or correct, more accurately manifested biblical community. It was organized according to one principle, geography. Though there were ministries specific to the women or children, they were integrated with the rest of church life. It was a lively church life in which most participated. Some of my favorite memories of that time in my life are at church during services, Royal Rangers, church suppers, weddings, or just playing with the other children young and old while parents talked.

Unlike the church of my youth, both types of niche churches isolate me so that it is very easy to remain only around people like me. In my position at least, as a father of young children, leaves me seeing the world such that I have relatively little to offer and gain by community. The people with which I associate are have many of the same problems and capabilities that I have. This impedes the feeling of interdependence that fosters real community. When I depend on you and you depend on me, there is a real bond.

The mere fact that I would think in terms of what I have to gain and offer shows how much I have been influenced by the world. People in another time might have thought about their relationship with the church in terms of obligation and responsibility. Here to the church has given way to the world. Many churches tout their programs as ways to obtain fulfillment either through socializing, learning, or serving. Instead, scripture considers these things a spiritual act of worship. It is a worship that on one had God demands, and on the other hand, his subjects offer freely. It is not for us to decided what is best for us, it is only for us to repent and obey.

One way the multi-market niche church philosophy fails is that most of us are not purely one niche. I am a man (men's ministry), a father (children's ministry), a husband (young married class), and a learner-type (deep bible studies). It seems that many times people get involved with too many groups. One can only maintain a certain number of relationships so community is shallow. Conflicting schedules also contribute to inconsistency in attendance which also deteriorates community. Still some, overwhelmed or confused by the choices never get involved at all. People are so busy with all their existing relationships that they forget that one of the purposes of our being here is to gather more worshipers into God's growing kingdom.

The final impediment to real community has nothing to do with church structure. It is the lack of strong preaching of the Gospel. Without any structural help at all, the message of our redemption through the alien righteousness of Christ breaks down our selfishness, our pretensions, our shame, and our pride. It is then easy for us to love those around us in such a provocative way that we realize not only our interdependence but our mutual dependence on Christ. We are equal brothers and sisters. Our identity is no long in what differentiates us from others so that we can judge them, but our identity comes from our union with Christ and with each other.

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You know, Heath, people in the churches of your childhood did not THINK so much about what was happening regarding community. They just enjoyed being together. What they contributed to each other was not thought out. Whatever they contributed to one another, just happened...... It's funny that those times bring fond memories to you considering that those people were not "thinkers", just fellowshippers, simple people who just enjoyed being together, and you, a thinker feel you saw real value in their ways. I miss those times too, but I realize that any lack of community that I feel now, I could change by being more deliberate in planning to spend time with folks in this "niche" church. There are plenty of people longing for relationships...people of all ages. It doesn't happen as automatically as did in those childhood churches. If you miss "non-niche" fellowship, maybe it would be good to expand to different people.....maybe people of different ages. I know there are older people in the church who would enjoy spending time with a young couple with three sweet boys. Sorry....quite enough babbling, huh?

I have often talked to Dan about our childhood community and how I miss knowing the people we attend church with...for awhile I was quite discontent with Willowcreek because of this. While it will never have that same feel I have realized that it is true that with some effort it can at least be more community like:) We took some steps like getting to church earlier and hanging around longer afterwards...sitting in the same spot every service so we could get to know the people around us (even our greeters at the same door). It has helped us get to meet new people, get to know some better and be more intentional about seeing our friends at church so we always know were we'll be sitting. It has really helped to have that "family at church" feel. I think we talked about how Willow is moving towards community based ministry, and it really is cool because you end up around people of all ages and life situations reminds me a little more of our childhood church experience. I have had to accept that first of all we look back at childhood and sometimes forget the bad things about an experience or don't remember them totally correctly and secondly that wherever I am I will have to pray for contentment and make the most of it.

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