We all long to belong. It’s in our nature to be a part of a family. And life offers various opportunities for belonging. When our children are toddlers, we form playgroups so they can be around other children and learn how to play well. As they get older, we register them for scouting, recreational athletics, dancing, music, camps. Then in Jr and Sr high we get them involved in band, school athletics, and clubs. Even as adults, though, we look for groups where we fit in and where there are people like ourselves.
Being around people who like the same things we like and do the same things we do are where we are most comfortable. Those are the people we enjoy being with. It could be because we share the same ethnicity or the same culture. It could be because we’re in the same line of work or enjoy the same hobbies. It could be because we’re in the same stage of life or are the same age. It could be a thousand different reasons that we like “these” people and find it easy to hang out with “them.” It just seems, well, natural. And because it’s natural, it’s easy to build these relationships.
So strong is the power of commonality to draw us together that churches have adopted this same strategy as a way to reach unbelievers. A church may offer a singles’ ministry to attract all those who are in that stage of life. A church may begin a college ministry because the only way to reach college students is if there are other college students already there. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a singles or a college ministry. But the point is that even in church, if we’re not careful, we will continue to group ourselves naturally, isolating ourselves from others who are different than we are.
Ask yourself, should the church be marked by what attracts people naturally? Or should the church be marked by what attracts people supernaturally? In their book, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop argue that there is a difference between community that is built around what is merely natural and community that grows out of what is supernatural. To be sure, we will always be attracted to people like ourselves, and in many ways, there is nothing wrong with having friends that like the same things we do. But what do you think is a more powerful witness to the gospel–a bunch of college students getting together just because they have much in common, like each other and cheer for the same football team, or college students hanging out with senior adults because the gospel has drawn them together? I think you know the answer.
The gospel brings together both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2) into one new man (the church). Together, this unified diversity displays the power of the gospel and the wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:9-10). For this reason, Paul calls the church to fight to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-6). This is precisely what we should be seeking in our churches.
We acknowledge that we, ourselves, cannot create or build community. The Spirit of God creates community, but it is our responsibility to maintain it, to fight for it (Ephesians 4:3). So, pastor, will you encourage your church to cultivate supernatural, Christ-rooted, gospel-shaped community? Will you encourage your members to work at getting to know the other members of the church, especially those who are of a different age, stage, ethnicity than they are?
If you don’t know how to begin, let me give you some encouragement. Begin by encouraging your members to gather weekly with the church and greet people before and after the Sunday gatherings. We encourage our members to come early and stay late and introduce themselves to people they presently don’t know. But also encourage your members to be hospitable. They can go out for coffee or a meal together after the service or during the week. Encourage them to invite people over to their home.
Though there are many other suggestions I can offer, let me leave you with just one more: use a church directory. We print a new church directory after receiving new members in our members’ meetings. That means the directory is up to date. Then, we ask each member to use the directory as a prayer guide, and pray through one page of the membership per day. By doing this, the other members will be continually before us, and we are always being reminded about those we may not know personally.
Recently, we had a church-wide Memorial Day picnic. We were encouraged to learn that one of our newer members took our counsel to heart. She carries her directory every time she comes to church and makes a point of meeting one new person each Sunday. Oh, that all of us would be so deliberate! I pray that the Lord may grant that your church be an attractive, gospel-shaped community that pictures the gospel to all those around you who presently do not know Christ.