How do you know beforehand if your neighborhood or town has community?
This question is especially applicable to people who have moved, or may be moving to a new area, and it's something I didn't really think about consciously before we bought our house.
We lived in an apartment in "the nicer area of town" for several months before purchasing our house in a less desirable area of town. We had very few friends in the nicer area of town, and had trouble finding community at any of the various churches we visited, even when we already knew people attending those churches.
We were strongly considering several houses, but they just didn't have the right "feeling" for the neighborhood we wanted to spend the next 6+ years of our life in. Then, in what I had originally scoffed at as my husband's old small-town suburb, we found that different feeling.
We suddenly found a church that had a true community feeling to it. People eat together, laugh together, participate in the service, are led by the Spirit, and serve together. We found a neighborhood that had a true community feeling to it. Neighbors hang out on the cul-de-sac, pick up mail packages, and tend each other's gardens while they are on vacation. We even found a town that has community - people say hello as they drive down the street, there are fundraisers at local restaurants, regular community events with a huge turnout, and local charities that truly care about making a change.
So, if you're moving to a new area, how can you determine whether your neighborhood is truly community oriented, or whether you're going to find yourself in a nice, exclusive neighborhood where you enter your garage and exit your garage, and pick up your mail through your car window and never talk to your neighbors? How can you determine whether your church will truly be a community, or just people talking on Sunday and ignoring each other until the following week? How can your determine if your town, suburb, or area of the city will have true community events?
Find the answers, in this three-part blog series. Let's start with a focus on finding community in your local church.
I'm not a theologian or church history professor, so please keep in mind that this is only my opinion, and some things to look for so that you "might" find community in a church. This is not an exclusive list, and all these things can be checked off a list by a church without forming true community.
- Community or the area of town in the name. Something more specific than Northeast or Southeast, but a church that is truly community focused will either have a very specific area of town (i.e. Stroudwater Christian Church) or the word Community in it's name. Again, this is only an idea that there "may" be community in this church.
- Spirit filled. This may be difficult to tell when you're just visiting, but it's important to determine whether people are participating in the service through God's leading or man's leading. If you're not a Spirit-led Christian yourself, but still looking for this, look at the majority of people's eyes as they worship, and it will quickly become obvious. This is regardless of whether a church claims to be "charismatic" or not. I've been to several charismatic churches where it is very obvious that the majority of the people there are being led by their own desires, and not a true sense of worship, prayer, or community.
- Fellowship time. This may be during the service or before or after, so make sure you find out when all available fellowship times are and check them out. Look for how people greet each other when they already know each other, as well as how people greet you. Look for how people eat together and whether they are open to new faces.
- Church size. Anytime you get above 500 or so people, you are going to be losing a sense of community. It's going to be hard to insert yourself into a church that large. You may get to know 10-15% of the people well, but you won't know them personally unless the church does an extremely good job of placing people into smaller communities (whether geographically, through small groups, or even during the service). Large churches certainly have their benefits, but a sense of community is really not one of them.
- Church above denomination. A church should be a living, growing entity. A church is made of many parts, and those parts are people, not traditions. A church that focuses only on its denomination, rather than on its body parts (the people in the church) will be unhealthy. If all you hear is what the denomination believes and why they are the best denomination right and votes based on tradition rather than love, it's going to be difficult to find community in that church. I'm not saying that denominational churches don't have community, because I grew up in a Lutheran church that was full of community, but it can't be the only focus of the church. Even non-denominational churches can fall into this trap. We visited a church in our new city, that was so focused on church planting, that they were ignoring the need for community in their current church. Even the story that was told in favor of church planting left me thinking they were missing something (the story was about "lighthouses" that saved people and then ended up eventually turning too inward focused into "clubs" so they had to keep building new "lighthouses" - but my thought is why not stop building lighthouses and focus on fixing all the lighthouses already built?)
- Service focus. A church that is in a community and has community will have opportunities to serve both inside and outside the church. If you've never heard of a need to serve inside or outside the church, ask someone. If they don't seem to know what's going on either, you have either found a church that doesn't follow Christ, or doesn't have community.
- Small groups. Whether they call these community groups, cell groups, small groups, or even Bible study, find out whether small groups are offered and join one. You have to meet with people more than a few times a month to truly get to know them.
- Make your own. If you live in an area of town that doesn't have community, or if you have visited every church you would consider and not found community, consider making your own. As mentioned before, churches are made of people, not buildings. While you can "get to heaven" by not going to church, you won't be fulfilling God's plan for you on Earth if you sit at home every week. In light of God's sacrifice for us, we can surely "sacrifice" some of our time in making an imperfect church better through our own presence. You don't have to be a pastor or teacher at a church to build community. Greet people you don't know, whether they are already "members" of the church or not - there's no rule that visitors can't greet people. Start your own service in the community and invite other church members. Set up a time outside church to meet with other members. Love people as Christ loved, and follow the Spirit's leading in your own life.
Again, this is certainly not an exhaustive list, and there are churches that don't do everything perfectly that still have community. What makes your church have that feeling of community? If it doesn't, what can you do to make it better?