Since arriving in St. Louis, Jenny, the kids, and I have been spending time worshipping in a variety of different churches. While we’re holding off getting involved in a church until we know where I will be stationed for my Field Education, we have approached this process as if we were looking for a church to join as newcomers to the area. We’ve tried to be anonymous and just see what it is like being a random family entering a new church for the first time. It has been an eye-opening experience. In the coming weeks I’m going to be posting about some of these visits, but before I do that I wanted to take a couple of posts to talk about how to select a church and what to look for.
As I was cleaning out some of my files the other day I ran across a handout that I used to give to my graduating seniors when I worked in college ministry. It is entitled “Getting Involved in a Local Church”. As I was reading through it I realized that it has a lot of really good advice. It was adapted by one of my former supervisors from the book Following Jesus in the “Real World” by Rich Lamb. It poses a series of questions that every person should ask when evaluating a church along with some comments.
In his opening comments he writes the following:
Just because God may be at work in a particular church doesn’t necessarily imply you should join it. Many factors contribute to preferences in church selection; obviously it would be foolish to talk about preferential factors. It would be like saying, “You should only eat chocolate chip ice cream.” But some aspects of a church are not like eating chocolate chip ice cream – they are more like bread and butter, or meat and potatoes (or for some people, sprouts and tofu). They are essential for a healthy diet, not simply dessert after a meal. It is helpful to ask some probing questions.
The first evaluative question he poses is: “Where can I find community?” Here is what he has to say:
Though essential, finding satisfying community in the context of church can be difficult. Do community-forming structures exist? Church small group structures vary, but usually at least offer the hope (and desire) for community. Obviously, small groups that meet only once per month or every other Sunday evening for one hour will not be conducive to the kind of community we are hoping to find in a church. In fact, this may be a good indicator that the church doesn’t really value community. On the other hand, a church may not offer deep and developed community but may have the ingredients present for community to grow. If you and a couple of friends were to take initiative and bring together a group of people or join a struggling but hopeful small group, then the right conditions for community may come together.
My advice: Take initiative with people (invite them over or go out with them). Be prepared to learn from many different kinds of people.
What I like about the advice given here is that it takes the search for community out of the consumer mindset that we often had by challenging us to ask the question: “How can I help strengthen or even build community within an existing church?” Oftentimes it is easy to slip into a consumer mindset: one in which we expect community to come to us or just meet our needs. But what is interesting here is how he is challenging us to think in terms of building community and taking initiative with others.
So what about you? How well does your church do in fostering community? In what ways can you help build or strengthen community?