BY BRYAN TENER
Find the original post at: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/evangelism-and-community-3-key-steps-for-creating-a-community
In today's world in which people feel isolated or disconnected, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and the opportunity for a relationship within the faith community can be life-giving. Sharing the good news of transformation that has happened through loving relationships, the discovery of purpose and vocation, and being empowered to live out that purpose through the faith community can lead to a vibrant life-giving church. This last Sunday, as I sat in worship listening to the sermon, the pastor quoted Ruth Haley Barton, who said, “Community is the most overpromised and underdelivered aspect of the church today.” This quote made me reflect on the ways people in the church act that fracture community. We chase our own agendas, live overly individualistic lives, and expect people to be like us instead of seeking what is best for the community and being willing to give up some of our selfishness.
My pastor quoted Elaine A. Heath, “We have to give up—day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment—our little fiefdoms, our petty preferences, our exaggerations, our bigotry, our resistance to mercy, our vindictiveness, our craving for attention, our hiding from our own gifts and call.” To share the good news of what Jesus has done in our lives and through the life of the church is to understand that even as the church seeks to transform, we must be open to being transformed as well, as new people with different experiences and different views are invited in and offered a place at the table. If we are going to invite people into the church, we must be willing to examine what kind of community people are being invited to enter, how people identify their gifts and purpose, and the ways that growth and transformation occur within the community of faith.
One of the first things a church can do to identify what kind of community it has is assess how transformation and growth occur and what follows. One of my favourite hobbies is CrossFit. One thing I like about the gym I belong to is the programming. There is value placed on progression. Each workout is scalable to a particular athlete’s level of strength and capacity, and each workout builds toward something more, a particular area of growth, whether it’s a gymnastics movement, an Olympic lift, or gaining physical strength. In inviting and sharing the good news, does our congregation have a system that meets people where they are and that leads to growth and the opportunity for change? A well-designed discipleship program is crucial for equipping believers to grow in their faith and confidently share faith with others. Junius B. Dotson, in Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide for Congregations, writes:
Whether you know it or not, you already have a discipleship system in place in your church. Your current system produces exactly what it is designed to produce. Once we begin to think about our church as a system, we can start to think intentionally about what our system is producing. Intentional discipleship means we know and have planned out the many ways that people new to the faith enter into our church’s discipleship system and move through it on their way to growth and maturity. We then clearly communicate the opportunities that disciples have through the church and offer ways to self-assess and reflect upon the next steps for their spiritual journey. Our hope is that as churches and conferences think intentionally, we will begin to chip away at discipleship by osmosis – “We don’t really know: People show up, things happen, and somehow, disciples are formed.”
To create a thriving community, it is essential to empower individuals to discover and use their spiritual gifts so that they can discern the most effective and life-giving ways of living and sharing their gifts with others. This also allows leaders to place members in roles that align with their strengths, fostering a more effective and fulfilling place within the church. The church, once it begins to use the spiritual gifts assessment, can help nurture and equip people to use their gifts to serve the community. The church can offer training sessions, workshops, and mentorship programs to strengthen individuals and the entire church as gifts are combined for collaborative ministry where all feel supported and encouraged in unity and love.
Authentic community fosters an environment of love, acceptance, and vulnerability, where individuals can grow in their faith and experience and offer support and care as the community journeys together through life. As the church shares the good news and offers invitations, is it overpromising and underdelivering the promise of community? If someone shows up and doesn’t feel welcome or someone drops out for a few weeks, does anyone notice or follow up? Are connections being made between newcomers and long-time members who may have something in common so that relationships can begin to form? A few things to consider as you reflect on your congregation and how authentic community is being formed:
a) Practice Radical Hospitality. Welcoming newcomers and visitors with open arms is fundamental to authentic community. Conduct a hospitality audit within the church to assess how effectively it embraces newcomers and makes them feel at home.
b) Offer Small Groups. Small groups centered around shared interests or life stages can create space for deep relationships within the community while also creating the opportunity for growth in discipleship. Small groups are a principal place for care and support as people journey and navigate life together.
Reaching out and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others can make all the difference for someone who feels disconnected or isolated or is just looking for something more. The church community can be that place where vital relationships are formed, transformation is made possible, and people find and discern their purpose and calling. For people to experience community in this way, the church must pay attention to how disciples are formed and into what they are formed, how people are welcomed and included in the community, and how space is provided for authentic community to happen. For a church to share and invite, we too must be willing to examine where we are now and open ourselves to the kinds of changes that must be undertaken so that each of our faith communities is a place where others find deeper belonging than what is often overpromised and underdelivered.
 Dotson, Junius B. Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide For Congregations (Discipleship Ministries, Nashville, TN 2017), 24-25.