For thirty years or more I have talked about the need for community. I have also stated the obvious, i.e., community cannot happen in large church settings, at least not in most ordinary circumstances where we actually live day-in and day-out. I have, therefore, urged churches to seek community life in smaller settings, to pray for it, to cultivate it, to intentionally pursue it. I am convinced now that my emphasis was wrong. Let me explain.

Richard Rohr, the Catholic Franciscan spiritual writer, often provokes me. I disagree with him about a great deal, especially politically. But I read him precisely because he has a lot to say to me that I need to think about and then put into my life in appropriate ways. I am reading his book, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go (Crossroad, revised edition 2003) this week in my morning devotional reading. Understand that Rohr has spent his life building community among lay people, first in Ohio and now in New Mexico. Writing about his own lay movement Rohr says: "We place no special emphasis on community in the formal sense or as an end in itself. It’s a by-product of people heading in the same direction" (page 50). Man, that statement nailed it for me.

Church after church tries to make small group life happen, from the top down, and church after church has a program for formally creating and organizing community life. But rarely does it happen this way. I have noticed this much over the course of my lifetime of church-related ministry. Thus Richard Rohr voices what I have experienced. Real community is a "by-product" of a people who are "heading in the same direction." This means the problem in most settings is that people are not heading in the same direction. Our churches are collections of people heading in many directions and this makes the kind of community people hunger for impossible in most local churches.

What do I suggest practically? You will find community by not looking for it. Make it your purpose to know where you are heading and why. God will give you people (community) to go with you if you do not seek them (it). I will never again organize small groups for community. I may organize people for a special ministry or a study or to meet a particular need but never to create a community. It simply doesn’t happen in this way. Rohr is plainly right. As I have met those few small groups that know anything about community at all they have never started out to be a community. It simply happened.

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  1. Adam S November 15, 2007 at 8:31 am

    Thanks for the words. That is part of what I have been thinking about for a while. I attend a mega-church. They emphasis community groups, but in the past have completely downplayed ministry outside the church. Evangelism is pretty much getting your friends to come to church. So community seems to only happen accidentally or through community as an end methods. There are some changes happening and I am hopeful that community as result of “going in the same direction” will happen. Thanks John.

  2. Ryan November 15, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Excellent! Also for me, this has put lots of loose strings together. It seems like we often try to “recreate” that pattern of the early church by programming what they seemed to be doing naturally.
    While I think this is done in sincerity, it is a tragically mistaken approach. We can not control people into doing things when they really aren’t “going that direction”. Often times their direction is to merely “get by” doing the things they know they are supposed to do for conscience sake, which makes for a pseudo-community of mask-wearing attendees.
    This isn’t entirely their fault I believe, as many of these type of people have never truly been led to an awakening of their soul. They are often insecure or direction-less, and we all know what happens to us all “who lack vision”.
    Oh, how we need leaders in this day who will truly pastor the flock after Jesus’ heart. Awakening them to true love, true meaning, and a true pilgrimage toward Zion! (Psalm 84:5)
    Truly it is this community, formed out of common reality, common journey, and common necessity of each other for that undertaking, that will bring and bear fruit.
    As is recorded in Acts with regard to evangelism “…and God added to THEIR number daily those who were being saved.”
    Let it be! Amen.

  3. Helen November 15, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    John wrote: “Real community is a “by-product” of a people who are “heading in the same direction.” This means the problem in most settings is that people are not heading in the same direction. Our churches are collections of people heading in many directions and this makes the kind of community people hunger for impossible in most local churches.”
    John, I find this fascinating because it raises this question for me:
    If people are following Jesus why aren’t they headed in the same direction?
    Is it because Jesus is going lots of directions at once or is it because many of them aren’t really following him at all?
    I agree with you and Rohr that the reality of our society is – if we don’t have strong common interests with other people we just won’t have/make time to build strong relationships with them. We’re too busy to do that with people who we don’t already have reason to spend time with. And if/when our lives change and that stops being the case, the reality is, we don’t have time to maintain those relationships, as unfortunate as that is.
    However, I think there ARE ways to be intentional about building community. The Doable Evangelism seminars Off The Map runs (see teach people skills/disciplines that help them build relationships.
    I have no idea why churches don’t routinely teach these skills/disciplines.
    Also, I just met a pastor of a church of 400 that he founded 10 years ago (because the church he was part of was tending too much in the prosperity gospel direction). He told me they have an all-church meal after church each Sunday and about 200 people stay for it. I believe such things help people find other people who share their interests – and hence are probably helpful in building community.

  4. Nick Morgan November 15, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    John, I think you hit the nail on the head here! There’s nothing wrong with Churches supporting small groups, but I too have been involved in two churches that really tried to “push” and encourage small groups for “fellowship” and “building community” and they usually either simply become another Bible study or they just fizzle out. I think the example of 12 step groups like A.A. and the many that have spawned off illustrates powerfully what you have written. In those groups people who might have little in common with one another socially find true and lasting fellowship because they ARE heading in the same direction. ie. Sobriety, abstinence, food moderation and so forth. I too really like Richard Rohr. I also reject many of his political views, but the depth of his Christian spirituality always grabs my attention. God bless!

  5. Michael W. Kruse November 16, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Robert Banks in “Paul’s Idea of Community” points out that koinonia in the NT is alwasy used in the context of spirit that emerges from engagment in a common acitivity.
    I also think that we get tripped up by the idea of “the family of God.” Throughout history, until the Industrial Revolution, famalies produced almost everything they consumed. That is to say families were also businesses engaged in a common mission. Family has become a retreat from work and the world and we have projected that view of family on to the mission of the Church. Churches aren’t families or businesses. They’re family businesses.

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