I have recently started to inhabit a new church community. I want to talk a little about the differences between big and small churches, especially how community forms. Our new church is a plant from a very large, very successful megachurch that I will refer to as the “mothership”. We get new worship music from the worship band at the mothership. Most of our “methods” and “systems” come from the mothership. And frankly, we are a small to medium sized church. We have a sanctuary that seats about 300 people, and we have two services that are regularly about 2/3 full.
My wife and I have noticed that sometimes this church feels a little impersonal. It has a big church style small group ministry. We haven’t joined a small group yet. we have committed to doing so, and are waiting for the selected group to finish a special curriculum which should happen in a few weeks. We also haven’t started serving in any ministries yet.
Our last church was smaller, having less than 100 in regular attendance, but the church we attended before that was very large, growing from just under 3000 to over 5000 during the 3 years we attended. Both of these were short term, where we stayed for less than 5 years. The church we attended before that for 18 years was medium to large varying in attendance during our time there between 600 and 1400, peaking at about our 5th year, with the lowest number at the point of our departure.
In my experience, large churches tend to be tribal, where small churches tend to be “clan-ish”. A church of 100 feels like a large extended family, whereas a church of 2000 feels much more like a tribe with many clans. Some of this tends to be also about the age of the church, and its current growth trajectory. Churches that are less than 2 generations old will feel different than a church where the families have intermarried over 2 or 3 generations. Churches that are in the middle of rapid growth will feel different than churches that are stable size or declining.
So what is the community aspect of church all about? Church community is about knowing others and being known. In my mind, the only way this happens is in conversations. Conversations happen at social events, at bible studies, or small groups and during ministry together. Community is about encouragement and accountability. Encouragement is about sharing each others burdens. It is about empathy. Accountability is about trust. These things happen somewhat organically when brothers and sisters in Christ learn that they have similar situations (family challenges, economic challenges, and yes even sin challenges.)
In smaller churches, people sometimes struggle to find those in similar situations, because there simply aren’t any. In larger churches, people struggle to find the same because there are so many. Even though you know basically the same number of people in church the likelihood that you will encounter others in similar situations is simply a function of the amount of time you spend in conversation.
Somehow, I get the feeling that church leaders believe that it is sufficient to simply greet new people at the church door and follow up with them if they fill out a card when they visit. Others are so focused on a small group community model that they miss the gap between the first visit and a long commitment to a group. Feeling community is about feeling known. If I can attend church for 3 months and not know more than five or ten people that I didn’t know before my first visit, then community is not a core value of the congregation.
Churches that seek to build deep community within its congregation need to recognize several things:
1) Time spent in conversations is the driver of community.
If you want people to feel a sense of belonging in your community, they need to spend time in conversation with others. Without this purely social component, care and trust cannot develop. People feel like they belong when they sense that someone else cares about them. How can they sense this if they never interact with others?
2) The probability of conversation is an exponential function of interpersonal familiarity.
People generally feel that it is risky to initiate a conversation with someone that they don’t know. It takes a certain amount of courage. It is much easier to start a conversation with someone who I am familiar with, whose name I know. It is even easier to start a conversation with someone who I know about – their job, their family, etc. The greater familiarity, the greater the ease and therefore the probability of conversation.
3) Relational “stickiness” is a precursor to commitment rather than a result of it.
The sense of “belonging” within a community is largely based on this familiarity, and this conversation ability. It is expressed in concern – when we are absent – it is noticed. When we are different (happier or sadder) it is noticed. We sense the fact that we are known, and that we are cared about. It is more likely that we will commit ourselves to the community than if we sense that the community doesn’t care or doesn’t need or want us. While our committing ourselves to getting more involved certainly creates opportunity for conversation, it requires a certain “leap” to do that before an initial familiarity.
4) Communities can become exclusive.
Any community can form cliques or divisions. As early as the first century, we have evidence in 1 Corinthians 11 that the Corinthian church was struggling to maintain a balanced community; that there were divisions between the have’s and that have nots. It is easy for churches to become divided as a community even though there is the appearance of spiritual unity. Is that spiritual unity real, or is it a “mask” covering the fact that we really don’t value each other?
1) Communion is community
Churches that want to form tighter communities, as they grow they must become intentional in the way they support conversation. Churches would do well to remember that in the early church, especially the Acts church – communion was a feast.
"Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts,..." Acts 2:46 NET Bible.
"Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk." 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 NET Bible.
These two verses show me that the early church in both Jerusalem and Corinth had a common practice of eating together. That communion was not only a sacrament but even more a lifestyle. Communion was community. Given that in the Corinthian church there were some problems, Paul recommended that they amend their version of the model. Somewhere along the way, we have kept the sacrament and lost the community.
2) Size Matters
Churches of different sizes have to approach community differently. There isn’t really a recipe for this in scripture. As I have said in other posts, I believe that the reason the Bible says so little about how to “do church” is so that we as The Church will have freedom to adopt/innovate methods that keep us relevant and effective. There are strong admonishments in scripture to “love one another” and to “keep meeting together”. A church that is intentional about making community in which members feel a strong sense of belonging will evolve to figure this out.
3) There is also a generational life cycle that matters
Churches start because of the passion of the founders. The group of people who plant a church spend an amazing amount of time together and bond to form a very tight community. As the new church grows, they must intentionally keep including newcomers so that the founding members don’t become a clique. Over generations, a church’s location can change demographics, this can also affect community as ethnically or racially diverse newcomers can struggle to find community among a largely heterogeneous body of believers. A church must intentionally and continuously seek to engage their locale and to find ways to strengthen the sense of community.
4) Age of parishioners matters
Churches should remember that people who “show up” in their pews are not all the same. I think that this is an especially hard lesson for leaders because we all tend to start from a self=normal perspective. We all tend believe that others experience of the world and the church is pretty much like our own. If a church designs their community around the needs of parents (very common) it may find itself alienating singles and “mature” believers. Even if it doesn’t alienate them, it provides fewer opportunities for them to connect, or to plug in. Likewise, a church with an aging population may not be able to connect with younger believers, in the suburban church, we have seen many churches grow to extinction because of this. As I myself have approached middle age, and an empty nest I have watched my peers and my self go through a series of shifts and changes. Some have moved, retired, burned out – all reasons for finding themselves needing a different community experience. While I have remained committed to regular church attendance, I am less enchanted with “membership”, and with all of the program mechanisms designed to support families and keep the donations coming in. I have watched as some of my friends have abandoned church attendance, have chosen to minister through para church organizations, have formed home churches or other less established worship forms. For those of us whose children have not married within the church – there are often difficult choices to make.
As a church’s community becomes less cohesive, that church will find it more and more difficult to do ministry. The Bible admonishes us not to “give up meeting together” in Hebrews 10. I believe that this admonishment is to remind us that when we feel disconnected, that we are not to “give up” on the corporate church. That is the admonishment to individuals. I want to admonish church leaders – to recognize that different forces tend to break our connections to the body, and not all of them are related to sin. The church has long recognized that there is danger in too close connections with a person in leadership, especially pastors. My take is that a culture of conversation where the congregation intentionally engages in “getting to know and be known” on a regular frequency is an important means of helping people form a strong community.