man and woman sitting on yoga mats on a wooden floor, stretching while leaning toward one side

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges: Communities

Discipleship is not just for individuals and ministry teams – your church or ministry community needs to be growing, together. The same practices that you use in your individual lives and ministry teams can be engaged by the entire community. However, a whole community tends to have an even wider range of ages, interests and experience with Christianity and Christian practices than you or a smaller ministry team might have. How can you engage and grow together, not just as individuals or small groups?

First, it is important to see your community as one body – not a bunch of individuals or age groups with separate but equal missions. Whoever you are and whatever your mission, it shouldn’t exclude a particular subsection of your community. For example, if your church is all about being out in your neighborhood, don’t just practice what you preach with able-bodied adults alone, but find ways that small children and older or those with differing skills and abilities can be fully part of that mission. That is how we all learn how to be who we say we are, by doing it.

When churches were full of people, all busy in their little corners, it can seem like we are doing good work. The truth is, creating individual programs for particular groups has never been a very healthy model for building community, but the flaws were hidden by the numbers of people in our churches. As church became less about “what was expected” than a faithful choice, we could see the deep cracks in our communities. We have small groups doing great work near each other, but not with each other. So how do we bring them together?

There are several church-based intergenerational initiatives with the goal of creating holistic mission and ministry for congregations, instead of the program-driven model that we have been operating under for too long. The specific language and activities of these initiatives may be different, but the basics are the same – congregations need to be spending time together sharing about their lives, praying, reading and discussing Scripture, and talking about how to apply what they are learning in their everyday lives. Not just the youth group talking to each other, or the 3rdgrade class, or the adult lectionary class, or the Presbyterian Women circle, but all together. The third graders need to be talking to the retirees and the teenagers need to be talking to the preschoolers and the young parents need to be talking to the grandparents.

How different churches create space for that to happen depends on the congregation. It could be during worship, or the Sunday School hour, or on Wednesday nights. Figure out where and when those intersections can happen best. Evaluate what you are doing currently and decide if you still need to be doing it. You may need to say goodbye to a beloved, but worn out, program.

Let’s Kill Sunday School (Before it Kills the Church), from Faith Inkubators, has some great case studies of churches doing this work in a multitude of ways. The provocative title speaks to the pain that might be felt initially upon giving up some of the things we’ve “always done.” But, ultimately, these congregations found that the pain was worth the transformation in their congregational life. Discipleship is not easy and involves tough choices about what is good for us versus what is easy and satisfying for the moment, but not for the long-run.

Who do you say you are as a community? Are all parts of your community participating in that mission? Are they participating in that mission together? Are you praying together and eating together and talking and laughing together? Do your 80-year-old members know the name of the 15-year-old members and vice versa? Do they talk to each other?

If your church feels like a collection of hit songs that don’t fit on the same album, your work will not be sustainable. Figure out how to be together and grow together, even if it means stretching beyond comfort zones and taking a few risks along the way. The journey and the destination are both worth it.