Community is important. The community you find yourself in has a great impact on who you are. When I first gave my life to Christ, I had almost no Christian friends. I took a look around at my community, at who I spent my time with, and realized that if I was going to continue to grow in my newfound relationship with God, I would have to put myself around people who would encourage me in that, instead of spending most of my time with those who would love me, but not support my faith walk.
When I read the gospel of Matthew for the first time, I was struck by Matthew 12:46-50:
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
This passage impacted me because it meant that my family just got a whole lot bigger. I didn’t come from a family that followed Jesus, so it was meaningful that I had inherited this whole new family that could support me in my faith.
Even though Jesus has expanded the definition of what family means in his kingdom, for many years in the Church we have primarily discipled through our genetic families. Parents disciple their kids, and those kids grow up and disciple their own. Church elders have often been the patriarchs of the larger families in a congregation. For decades, this has mostly worked, but it has functioned for two reasons. First, most churches have not been large churches like we see today; they’ve been smaller and built around their immediate community. Second, for generations, North America has been culturally Christian. It was expected that you belonged to a church, so people would come to faith or a deeper understanding as they grew up in that church.
We all know that this is no longer the case. We now live in a post-Christian culture, where many people have never even stepped foot in a church, let alone had their parents bring them to weekly Sunday services and youth group. Yet we recognize that our community shapes our understanding, our identity, and spurs us on in our beliefs. So, we have a problem. If the people in our churches only disciple their children, entire communities of people may never come to faith; we will isolate ourselves and fail at evangelism.
The people around us impact who we are, for good or bad. I learned early in my Christian life that if I didn’t surround myself with those who knew Christ as their Savior, my life in Christ would be difficult to pursue. Yet at the same time, I also recognized that if all I did was spend time with Christians, I wouldn’t be able to form relationships that would give me the opportunity to share my faith.
This past fall at Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, I started to ask our staff questions to help us build an initiative and strategy that could have a large impact on our church and our community. I asked, “What do we excel at? What can we improve on? If you were lead pastor for a day, what would you do? And how would you go about accomplishing that?” We compiled our answers and looked for commonalities. We then surveyed people who had come to our campus in the last 18 months regarding their experience with us.
After compiling that information, two things stood out: people were looking for a sense of belonging and had a desire for real community. I believe my church is not unique in this; it’s probably the experience for most people who attend our churches. How do we create a sense of belonging and a place where people can be in a community that helps build them up in their relationship with God?
The book Transformational Church addresses the need for community. A leadership coach quoted in the book says, “I believe the biggest reason Christians in general experience so little transformation in their lives is that they ignore the Bible’s relational mandate for how to effect change. We were never meant to live the Christian life alone. Christianity is an interdependent, community-oriented faith. And yet when we set out to improve our prayer life, or deal with our anger problem, or increase our income, or become a better father, most of the time we work on it completely alone.”
We saw the truth of this in our church, so we started building a system for small groups to once again be part of who we are as a church. However, this wasn’t just about setting up a bunch of small group Bible studies. We began to see the mission of groups as providing a place of authentic community where relationships are grown and faith is deepened. Groups help facilitate our relationships, create community where each of us live authentically, grow spiritually, develop disciples, serve our community, and help us go beyond our church doors.
This can (and did) feel like a big undertaking, especially if you want to do it well from the beginning, so it was important to establish what some of the essential components for success would be. We created a leadership force, developed a coaching structure so that our lay leaders had training and ongoing development, and shaped a culture of how our groups run and how to start new ones.
No single initiative will transform our churches or communities. But as we strive to follow Christ’s example, seeing our church communities as our families and our broader communities as our mission fields, we pray that God’s transformational power will work through our churches so that his culture shapes our communities. It has been a blessing to see people live life together in their homes and in our community and spur each other on in their faith. The family of God goes beyond genetics. Let’s embrace that together.
Rev. Kristian Anderson is East Campus Pastor at Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church in Moorhead, Minnesota.