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GROWING

DEEPER in our CHURCH COMMUNITIES

50 IDEAS FOR

CONNECTION IN A DISCONNECTED AGE

C. CHRISTOPHER SMITH


GROWING

DEEPER CHURCH COMMUNITIES in our

50 ideas for Connection in a Disconnected Age

C. Christopher Smith

EnglewoodReview.org Indianapolis


Š 2010, C. Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved. Published in e-book format, January 2010. This work may not be distributed in any form, electronic or printed without the written permission of the publisher. Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, Š 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Cover design and tree painting by Brent Aldrich. Photos by Brent Aldrich, Chris Smith and Jeni Newswanger Smith. The Englewood Review of Books is a free weekly review of books along themes related to Community, Mission and the many-sided wisdom of God. Sign up for a free email subscription at: http://englewoodreview.org/ Thanks to all who contributed to this book, especially my brothers and sisters at Englewood Christian Church. This book is rooted in our experience of life together as a church community. Thanks also to all my friends who on such short notice read early drafts and provided thorough feedback.


Introduction


Superficiality is the curse of our age. … The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. -- Richard Foster, Opening lines of Celebration of Discipline

Thanks be to Jesus, who – rejecting the wisdom of this age – came as the complete expression of the wisdom of God, which was revealed in the signs He performed and the nature He displayed. May we embrace this wisdom and may we participate in His kingdom as we practice the continuing works and nature of Christ today and every day. Lord, give us therefore the strength to radically deny ourselves, prayerfully trust in Your guidance and provision and to deeply love friends and enemies alike. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen. -- from the Englewood Covenant Prayers


Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice, recently lamented on her blog that while the concern for justice seems to be growing in certain sectors of the church, she has found that people are often at a loss when it comes to the practical issues of how we embody justice in our day-to-day lives. This little blog post resonated with me because I have had similar experiences in regard to community; I hear people in all sorts of churches across North America longing for a deeper experience of community in their church and neighborhoods, and yet many are at a loss for practical ideas of how to start moving in this direction. Indeed, we have been formed by modern Western culture to live primarily as isolated individuals pursuing our own personal ends and ambitions. Although modern individualism has been filtering its way into Western culture for at least 400 years, its effects of breaking down communities have been felt most powerfully in recent decades. For over twenty-five years, prominent sociologists have been documenting our increasing disconnectedness*; participation in social groups is waning, and we know fewer and fewer of our neighbors. Our age is truly one of disconnectedness, but there are good theological reasons for the hope that the Holy Spirit, working through our churches, can begin to reverse this pattern of isolation. The scriptural story reminds us throughout that God’s mission in the world is primarily one of reconciliation, and we as followers of Jesus are called as “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5). If we are to be faithful to this calling, we cannot continue to live disconnected lives. Despite our calling and despite our deep longing for community, we have been blinded by the individualism of our culture. We are I’m thinking here especially of Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, et al (1985) and Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (2000).

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therefore unable to see the possibilities of connecting daily in meaningful ways with the sisters and brothers of our church communities and with our neighbors around us. In order to regain our sight, we must submit ourselves to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the church, and allow God to move us from the comforts of individualism toward a deeper and more joyful life of connection. The purpose of this little book is to spark our imaginations with practical ideas of how we can become more deeply connected first with those that God has gathered in our churches and then with our neighbors as well. The ideas here focus on three primary facets of connection that are essential for our churches: connecting with people, connecting with place and connecting with God’s mission.

Connecting with People I should not have to make much of a case for our calling to connect with people. The whole of the Gospel of Jesus is rooted in God’s love for humanity (and all creation) and God’s desire for the reconciliation of all creation. We cannot love and seek reconciliation while we remain disconnected. Even the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of the church, who often lived isolated lives in the desert, had a deep sense of connection – i.e., that their isolation was for the sake of all humanity. “Those who do not love a brother or sister – whom they have seen,” says the Apostle John, “cannot love God whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20). And if there is any question about what it means to love, we could explore numerous passages throughout the New Testament in which love is described as the deepest sort of connection: sacrificial,

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self-denying and preferring the other to oneself. However, it might not be as readily obvious that our call to love and connect with people goes to a deeper level, namely that God is gathering a people whose life together reflects the intimate communion of the three Persons of the Trinity and embodies the love and reconciliation that God desires for all humanity and all creation. This gathering of a people is essential to God’s mission of reconciliation in the world; it began in the Old Testament people of Israel, continued in Jesus’s gathering of a community of disciples and continues to the present in the church. Our churches, then, are local, context-specific manifestations of the one people that God is gathering*. Especially in the disconnectedness of the present age, our churches are the hospitable environment in which we can learn what it means to love and be loved in deeper, more holistic ways, and as we learn to do so, our love will overflow to our neighbors around us.

Connecting with Place I suspect that my emphasis on connection to place might not be as obvious to some readers as the call to be connected with people. Our connection with the place in which we exist is a powerful reminder of the physical nature of God’s work of gathering. We have been gathered, not in some esoteric, spiritual sense, but in a real, tangible fashion within time and space. God gathers us in specific places, and in these places we are called to be the Body of Christ together – the physical, tangible presence of Christ in this place. I, by myself, cannot be For a deeper exploration of these ecclesiological ideas, see Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and Community.

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the Body of Christ; I can only be a part of that body, whose existence is understood only in relation to the Whole. One of the most destructive fruits of our individualism is our transience. Jobs, relationships and other opportunities to nurture our selfish ambitions drive us from one place to the next, and all the while we yearn for deeper relationships. Our proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ must be contextual. We embody Christ together in a place, and the shape of the life together that God has given us proclaims God’s love and reconciliation in ways that can be understood by our neighbors. The monastics have long had a name for this connection to place: stability. We primarily need deeper connection to other people, but in our age of overwhelming transience, we need stability – connection not only to people, but to people in a specific place.

Connecting with the Mission of God Finally, we need connection to the mission of God. Once we recognize the need for connection to people and place, there is a great temptation to swap our individualism for tribalism, in which our end is to be concerned only with what benefits us as a community. Our connection with people and place must be coupled with faithfulness to God’s story of reconciling all creation. We are called to be faithful together in a place, but all places are connected with other places, and we need to begin to understand these connections and how our life together affects people across town and around the world. Although to paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, we are called to seek the shalom (peace/reconciliation) of the place in which we have been called, we must understand that shalom as deeply interconnected with the shalom of other places and indeed the

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shalom that God desires for all creation. For instance, it might be beneficial for our church community to run a business that roasts and sells coffee, but if the farmers in the southern hemisphere who grow the coffee we sell are not being paid fair, livable wages, then we are forgetting the mission of God through which we have been gathered together. Scripture as the recorded story of God’s work in history is essential to our connection with the Mission of God, as is our remembrance of the faithfulness of brothers and sisters throughout history who have gone before us.

Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities A significant part of our connection to people, place and mission is the realization that the life together of our church community must flow through every hour of every day throughout the week, whether we are physically gathered together or not. As a result of the individualism of our age, there is a great temptation to see our churches as religious communities, whose work is primarily concerned with spiritual matters, and is in contrast to the physical world in which we work and feed and cover ourselves. This dualistic temptation is one that we must resist with every fiber of our being! Part of our growing deeper together as church communities is the task of finding ways to embody the wisdom of God as the church in all facets of life. Thus, a church should care about how its members and neighbors are fed and housed and employed. I believe that these fundamental economic realities are the soil in which deeper connections with people, place and mission start to take root, and the ideas that follow are aimed at spurring our imaginations in this direction.

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Additionally, as we seek to become deeper church communities, we must grow deeper in our understanding of the gifts that God pours out on the people of God. The gifts that the Apostle Paul describes in I Corinthians 12 are not an exhaustive list! You will see in the following pages ideas about how the gifts of entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and even real estate agents (again, this too is not an exhaustive list; God gives all sorts of gifts to the church) can be essential to the work of God in the church, if their gifts are understood in connection with the redemptive mission of God and submitted to a particular church community in a specific place. This book has its roots in the experience of our church community, Englewood Christian Church, on the urban neareastside of Indianapolis, and in a little essay on celebrating “Inter-dependence Day” that my fellow Englewood member Brent Aldrich and I wrote with our friend Ragan Sutterfield (which was ultimately introduced by Shane Claiborne in the web version of SOJOURNERS magazine). Readers who read that piece will see many vestiges of that work here. Many of these ideas were stirred up again in my mind at the recent Missional Learning Commons – a brainchild of David Fitch – the theme of which was “Deeper Churches: Churches as Whole Communities.” As I have reiterated above, the goal of this project is to stir all of our imaginations about what we could become as church communities. Thus, I have been hesitant to flesh out any of these ideas in too much detail. I pray that you will hear them and reflect on them with others in your church communities, and that maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit might inspire us all to deeper connections within our church communities and with our neighbors. No church community should try to pursue all of these ideas – not even Englewood Christian Church, in

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whose experience many of them are rooted – but maybe there are a handful of ideas, or even one, that spark relevant possibilities with which you might be prayerfully led to experiment. And we need to feel free to experiment, to not fear failure, to learn and grow from the mistakes that we make together. If we allow fear to dominate our life together, we have already lost sight of our mission, the embodying of the love and reconciliation of God, which, we are told, casts out all fear. I imagine that this work will be of interest to pastors, particularly ones who have felt frustrated by the disconnection in their congregations, but I should emphasize that it is not intended as a work on pastoral leadership, but as one for the whole of the church. Pastors, I hope you read this, but I also hope you share it broadly within your congregations, personally encouraging people to read it and reflect upon it.

Lord, give us ears to hear, and imaginations to envision the possibilities of your reconciling and transforming work in our specific locations, and may your Holy Spirit shape us more fully as a community into the image of your Son Jesus Christ!

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50 Ideas for Connection in a Disconnected Age


1.

Create spaces for conversation. For us at

open

Englewood Christian Church, about fifteen years ago, we eliminated our Sunday night service (which was a “lite” version of the Sunday morning service) and circled up chairs in a multi-purpose room. The conversation that began then has essentially continued every Sunday night to the present. Once you gather people, there are thousands of things that could be discussed: How could we be more faithful together? Are there people in our congregation who aren’t being taken care of? Perhaps there is a book that could be read and discussed. For us, the initial conversation went in the direction of “What is scripture and how should we read it?” We learned quickly that we did not know how to talk to each other and had to re-learn that skill, but as we did, we found that conversation was essential to our identity as a church community.

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2.

Connect church members who live in close proximity. Designate a time when members can gather in homes with other members who live close to them, perhaps canceling your church services on a Sunday evening. Find people who live near other church members and who would be willing to open their homes, and have people gather at the home closest to them. Have a conversation in each home about something that group of people could work on together that would help connect them to – and benefit – their neighbors. Find ways to encourage members to share life on a deeper level with others in your church who live close to them, perhaps even exploring the possibilities of moving to be closer to other sisters and brothers.

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3.

Meet together throughout the week in people’s homes. Find ways to encourage diversity in these groups. Be intentional about including children as much as possible in the activities of these groups. Many small groups in churches tend to be homogeneous by age or economics. These groups can also be an excellent way to distribute the various sorts of missional opportunities that are described throughout this list. For instance, one church that I belonged to a number of years ago, had a rotation in which all of its home groups took a turn doing the basic weekly cleaning of the church building.

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4.

Talk about money.

How much do people make? How much is enough? Noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas has observed that such conversation about money is one of the most radical things a church community can do. It is also one of the most powerful things that can be done to strengthen the relational bonds of trust within your church community. This discussion needs to done delicately in a smaller group setting. Perhaps one goal of conversations of this sort is a greater sense of one-mindedness about what standard of living we are going to have together as a community of Christ’s followers.

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5.

Find opportunities to work together (for fun, profit or both). This is one of the biggest shifts a church can make from being a religious community that assembles once or twice a week to a real, holistic community, whose life flows throughout the whole week. For us, we started small businesses as people with gifts came forward wanting to work with the church. We had a CPA who wanted out of the business world, and we were able to find sufficient work for her doing bookkeeping for churches and other non-profits. I have long had side jobs doing publishing and bookselling, and eventually an opportunity opened up for me to do this work for the church, first in a part-time role and then in a full-time one. Find good work that needs to be done and for which people will pay; match that work with people from your congregation that are gifted accordingly. As our friends in the communities formerly known as Bruderhof have found as they recently started mini-communities in a number of cities, there is often a market for home and office cleaning or childcare.

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6.

Have a time for "family sharing" in your church service. Use this time for people to share needs, blessings and struggles, to confess sins and be reconciled, and to ask for prayer. There are some significant risks of abuse (e.g., attention hogs) but expectations for this time should be clearly stated and problems can be addressed as they arise. This sort of sharing time probably works better in small or medium-sized churches. In larger churches, however, there should be a time for sharing in smaller group settings (see #3 above), and perhaps a similar time in the larger service could be used for a representative of a home group to share – on an occasional basis – extraordinarily pressing needs.

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7.

Spread the “pastoral” work around among your church members. Find gifted people who are not on your church staff and who can share in the “pastoral” work of the church – counseling, teaching, visiting the sick, etc. Far too often, our church congregations relegate our pastors to the role of religious professionals. Certainly, they should be leaders, but they should not be shouldering all the work (or the bulk of it) themselves. As others come forward and share in this work, pastors are freed to imagine and lay the groundwork for connecting activities like those described here.

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8.

Take a camping trip.

Spend time relaxing together and enjoying God’s creation. Camping can push us out of our comfort zones. (What do we do when storms roll through? What about bugs?) There is a fairly large group from our church that camps together a couple of times each summer at a nearby state park. The kids love it and most of the adults look forward to hanging out, talking and enjoying the outdoors.

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9.

Make friends church’s money.

with

your

Commit an increasing percentage of your church budget to missional activities beyond staffing and facilities. If you now use 10% of your budget for missional activities, aim to use 12% next year and more the year after that. These activities can be traditional global missions work or groups that do redemptive work in your neighborhood or it could be supporting the theological education of younger (or older) people in the congregation. It could also include a benevolence fund that would help members or neighbors in need.

There are a host of possibilities here if we put our God-given imaginations to work. The keys are: - To put our shared resources to use in redemptive ways that go beyond the boundaries of our congregation - To have meaningful conversations among ourselves in which we discern where we should put our shared energy and resources.

Another way of increasing the percentage of our missional spending is to reduce the amount we spend on staff and facilities (see #48 below on energy use).

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10. Imagine

Local

Investing.

Models

of

Explore ways to have members with financial investments invest their resources in ways that benefit the church, its members or the neighborhood. Interest rates are so low on investments these days that people could make just as much money as they do on stock-marketbased investments (or even more) by making loans of modest interest that could help the small businesses of the church (see #5 above), its members or those of neighbors. Many larger churches also have investments or endowments that could similarly be redirected for Kingdom work.

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11. Help

members reduce, eliminate and steer clear of credit card debt. This could be done in conjunction with #10 above. People with money to invest could make lower interest loans to help people pay off their credit card debt. Of course, there would need to be education about the deeper issues of consumerism, and cooperation on the part of the Body to assure that members do not go back into consumer debt.

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12. Build

relationships with the missionaries around the world that your church supports. Send people to visit them and see firsthand the work that they are doing. Find ways that the church community can regularly encourage and participate in the work of these missionaries. Naturally, some people in the congregation will keep closer relationships and those that do should share with the whole church what is going on with missionaries and their churches.

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13. Utilize

the skills of professionals (nurses, doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc.) in your congregation in ways that benefit the church and neighborhood. For instance, our congregation has a church nurse who administers medicine and checks out minor injuries to see if further treatment is necessary. We also have a dentist who sometimes gives significant discounts to people in need, who might not otherwise be able to afford dental care. Money can be a tricky issue here, but as it is with most things, these difficult matters can be navigated with honest conversation. It is good for professionals sometimes to donate their skills for free or drastically-reduced rates. However, it is also good for people who are capable of paying a fair market rate to do so in most normal situations, and thereby helping to support these professionals.

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14. Help

people in the church who are unemployed find work, especially work that benefits the neighborhood. Find people in your congregation who have as part of their job responsibilities the capacity to hire; when someone is looking for a job, seek out these people and see if there might be a fit anywhere for the unemployed person. We can see here another advantage of having small businesses that the church runs (see #5), especially if there are some roles that a person could step into with little or no training.

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15. Explore

the housing needs of your members. Help church members who are in bad housing situations (rental or ownership) get into better and more stable housing. This may take some creativity. Explore the possibility of short- or long-term co-housing solutions, where one person or family shares their home with another. If costs are shared, cohousing is a great way to cut down on expenses for both parties. A real estate agent or some other person whose work requires them to know the housing markets can be an invaluable resource in this endeavor. If people need to move to new homes it is best to consider possibilities that would put them in closer proximity with other brothers and sisters from the church community (see #2 above).

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16. Find

people in your congregation who enjoy and are skilled at fixing things. Have them share their knowledge (perhaps in a neighborhood seminar, see #37 below), especially for easy-to-fix things like mending clothes or changing a car’s oil. For more complicated fixes, find ways to spread word throughout your congregation of their skills and willingness to fix things for free, for barter or for a modest and fair fee.

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17. Create

an "Unwanted Stuff Exchange" where members who are replacing furniture, appliances or vehicles can give their old ones to other members in the church. This exchange could be an email distribution list or an actual bulletin board in the church building. One word of advice here: it is better simply to connect donors with people who could use their things, rather than to accept donations and then try to find recipients, as items that nobody wants tend to accrue over time. Accepting and briefly storing donations might work if you have some space for it, and if you arranged for Goodwill or the Salvation Army to have a monthly pick up of unclaimed items. There would also need to be some clear rules about what is acceptable as a donation (e.g., clean, functional items).

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18. Visit the sick. Find ways to encourage them and make sure their needs, especially financial ones, are being met. In our very broken healthcare system, the costs of health services can be overwhelming; even simply meeting deductibles may be an insurmountable challenge for people in your community. Find compassionate ways to talk with families (not necessarily the ill person him/herself) about the cost of illnesses. As health-related needs arise, find creative ways in the church community to meet them.

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19. Find

ways to connect and collaborate with other churches in your neighborhood. Often pastors will have pastoral groups in which they can connect with other local pastors, but there can be great benefits to bringing whole congregations together to worship and serve in relevant ways. Find creative and unifying ways of continuing conversations with these churches over time.

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20. Connect

with churches in other places and other times, perhaps beginning with those in your own church tradition or denomination. Plan an educational gathering, such as a workshop with a noted speaker, or a service opportunity and invite other churches from your district, region or state to join with you in this event. Global missions offers another excellent opportunity to connect with churches in other places (see #12 above). Explore how you can use prayers that have long been engrained in the hearts and minds of the church – for instance from the Book of Common Prayer or a Roman Catholic Breviary – can be used in the various gatherings of your church.

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21. Utilize

the gifts of the church’s retired people in creative ways that support the mission of the church. Your congregation probably has older people who are skilled at fixing broken things, helping neighbors in need, helping with childcare or schooling, etc. At Englewood, we have a group of retired men who come to the church building every weekday morning and do whatever work needs to be done – whether that is taking people who cannot drive to doctor's appointments, painting or doing fix-it type jobs.

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22. Honor

the elderly in your

church.

Encourage members of your church to pick an elderly church member or neighbor and make a regular habit of paying them a visit. Have them tell you stories about years past in the church or the neighborhood. Listen attentively to whatever they want to talk about.

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23. Find

creative ways to care daily for the elderly members of your congregation. Have a single person or a couple without children move in with an elderly member (or vice versa). Many elderly people who are unable to live by themselves do not have constant medical needs that would mandate that they live in a nursing home. Such people often just need someone to keep tabs on them and occasionally offer assistance. This is another way to begin nurturing deeper cross-generational friendships.

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24. Nurture

inter-generational relationships in the family of God. Encourage older members in the congregation who do not have grandchildren (or don’t have grandchildren who live close) to “adopt” children in the congregation – especially ones who do not have grandparents nearby. I have had this experience. I grew up on the East Coast, hundreds of miles away from my grandparents in the Midwest. But two older couples in our church got to know our family, looking after us and becoming like grandparents to my sister and me. Even today, I still call these older friends “Grandpa” and “Grandma,” and fondly recall the love they poured out on our family.

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25. Babysit

someone

children

else’s

– particularly if you don’t have any children that live in your home. This is a wonderful way to start building intergenerational relationships. Most parents that I know, and especially ones with younger children, would love to have an occasional night out by themselves.

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26. Engage

children and teens in regular, meaningful activities in the life of the church. There are many things that children, and especially teenagers, can do to help care for the church building and grounds (taking out trash, sweeping, mopping, dusting, mowing, etc.) Take one or two children along to visit the sick or the elderly. Encourage their participation in the teams or committees that do the work of the church such as coordinating missions, facilities, or worship planning.

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27. Host

a homeschooling co-op or an after-school study group in your church building. Find gifted people (perhaps retired teachers) who can participate with parents in the education process. This is another wonderful way to extend the shared life of the church throughout the week. Encourage parents to reflect on how the children’s formation as part of the church can be inter-woven with their schooling (and vice versa), particularly if there are tasks of the church that the students could participate in as part of their educational experience (see #26 above).

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28. Share

with

your church building another congregation,

perhaps one of a different ethnicity, denomination, or age demographic. Use the opportunity of sharing space together to lead to other opportunities for working and sharing together. Have a monthly meal together. As opportunities arise for connection and collaboration, start to work through the “messiness� of cultural differences, remembering always the mind of Christ that prefers others to oneself. We have been traveling down this road with a Spanishspeaking congregation, who has recently been united with our church. It is fair to say that this has not always been easy work, but it is an essential and beautiful work of reconciliation.

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29. Find

opportunities for your church building to be used throughout all the week. Host neighborhood organizations, arts programs, etc. Understand that there will be costs involved. Even if groups clean up meticulously after themselves, there is still the cost of the utilities used in the meeting space for heat, cooling, lighting and water. Discuss how your church wants to handle these costs – are they paid by the church as a gift or service to the neighborhood (see #9)? Will the group be asked to pay part or all of the cost of the utilities? Or, more creatively, perhaps you could find something the neighborhood group could do that would benefit the church and offset the energy cost (e.g., painting, mowing, etc.).

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30. Encourage

church members to get involved in neighborhood organizations (especially if they live in close proximity to the church building). Help them to think of themselves as the church’s representatives to these groups. Have them periodically share with the church what the group is doing and especially when there are projects going on in which others from the church could be involved.

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31. Walk,

bike or drive around your neighborhood and do asset-mapping, noting key places in the local economy: local businesses (see #34 below), restaurants, parks, community gardens. Observe where people gather at various times throughout the day. Make a map that highlights these assets and distribute it freely in your neighborhood. There are some excellent online resources (such as this one) that can help you explore the possibilities of asset-mapping.

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32.

Do “Field Recordings� in your neighborhood. Take a digital recorder out into the neighborhood around your church building and record neighbors showing off their talents (singing, playing instruments, telling jokes/stories). Make a cd of these recordings and distribute it freely in your neighborhood. This is a fun and disarming way to get to know your neighbors, regardless of the type of neighborhood. Our church did this with our youth group as part of a summer art program. You can find the story of this adventure and audio clips of our recordings on our church blog. [Be sure to get people’s permission to distribute the recordings.]

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33. Host a farmers’ market, where nearby farmers can sell their produce or local craftsmen/women can display their homemade wares. One local church in another urban neighborhood of Indianapolis hosts a weekly farmers’ market through the summer months in which I have participated as a vendor. They have even made arrangements so that poorer neighbors can pick up and use government food vouchers there. Alternatively, you could host a neighborhood produce exchange in the summer where gardeners could swap their surplus produce with one another.

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34. Buy

as many supplies as possible from locally-owned merchants. It is wonderful for churches to reduce the amount of resources that we use, but inevitably there will be supplies that will need to be bought – perhaps paper, toner, office supplies, coffee, etc. Find ways to purchase these supplies from locally-owned merchants, even if the cost is greater. Become regular customers with the merchants you use; this is an excellent way to develop relationships with them. Find creative ways to promote these merchants. For instance, if you have a brochure to be printed, you could include a small line of print in a margin that says printed by [Printer Name] with a phone number or web address.

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35. Create

a piece of art in your neighborhood that reflects some significant part of the story of that place. Get neighbors involved in the planning, designing and creating of this artwork. Paint a mural on a retaining wall or the side of a building. Or, build a sculpture on a visible spot on the church property, in a public park or elsewhere. A big part of the planning process will be knowing the neighborhood’s history well enough to discern the best way to honor it (See #38 below on neighborhood history). SOJOURNERS magazine recently featured a project of this sort, though I should clarify that a project wouldn’t have to be on as large a scale as the project they featured in Toronto.

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36. Eat together. Have a weekly (or bi-weekly or monthly) meal that is open to church members and neighbors. Discuss how the work needed for that meal will be taken care of (preparing food, serving it, cleaning up). Our church has a weekly dinner on Wednesday nights. We charge a nominal fee ($2/adult, $1/young child) to cover the cost of the food and we have rotations of teams that do the work of cooking and cleaning up. Oftentimes, families who have children in our daycare will stay for dinner after picking up their kids. Even if you don't have a shared meal for the whole church, it is a good idea to find ways to encourage people in your church to share meals together throughout the week.

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37. Host

occasional educational seminars for your neighborhood at your church building. Find members who can share their knowledge of useful skills like changing a car’s oil, navigating tax laws, planting a garden or making rainbarrels to recycle rain water. At the end of the seminar ask the participants for ideas of related topics about which they would like to learn more.

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38. Throw

a neighborhood history

party.

Record neighbors telling their most memorable stories about the neighborhood and assemble these stories into a DVD, CD or book. Make sure elderly neighbors get involved, as they are a rich source of stories for this sort of project. If there is a nursing home nearby, you could host the party there. Invite neighbors to bring photos or historical documents and have a scanner on hand to digitally scan these items, making sure they are returned to the proper owners before they leave the party. Libraries are also excellent sources of historical records that would benefit this type of project.

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39. Plan

a neighborhood cleanup

day

– picking up and recycling litter, sweeping sidewalks, etc. Get kids from the church and neighborhood involved. Even the smallest toddlers can help pick up pieces of trash; just be sure that they don’t put it in their mouths, and make sure their hands get washed well afterwards! This sort of cleanup would be a great opportunity to talk together about waste, recycling and our use and abuse of stuff. It is also an excellent way to be out and about in the neighborhood, meeting neighbors and being attentive to the details of the natural and built environments.

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40. Plan

regular workdays in your community garden, or if you don’t have a community garden, gather church members and neighbors to brainstorm how you might start one. Winter is an ideal time to start planning a community garden. Our church’s experience running a community garden has taught us that it is best to start small and to make sure a coordinator is assigned who is responsible for planning and organizing the work that will need to be done – planting weeding, tending and harvesting.

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41. Throw a neighborhood party. Engage neighbors who aren’t church members involved in the planning and work of the party. The party should be thrown with the neighbors and not for them (as some sort of means to evangelize them, or some other religious end). Be sure to have food (it could be a potluck) and fun activities for the kids.

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42. Provide

extra-curricular activities such as sports or arts for children in the church and neighborhood. Find gifted people in your congregation who can coordinate these activities. These programs could also be funded as missional opportunities of your church (see #9 above) or through modest participation fees that would offset any costs incurred – possibly with the opportunity for scholarships. If you do sports programs, find ways to promote cooperation and teamwork and to minimize competitiveness. If you do art programs, find creative ways to showcase the students’ progress within the church community as well as the neighborhood.

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43. Resist ready-made programs, especially ones that are imported from churches in other places. Every context is different and programs can become shortcuts around really engaging with one another and our neighbors. They also can create the illusion that we are "doing something" on a much larger scale than that of which we are capable.

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44. Give

language to the shape of your life together as a church. Write a mission statement or covenant that gives specific language to commitments that your church community is making as you strive together to be faithful to God and one another in your particular place. Talk with other churches about the commitments that their members make. Our church spent almost two years in conversation and discernment, as we hammered out the language of our covenant. An important part of this process, and one that we are still working on, is discerning how our faithfulness to these commitments will be assessed, so that they do not get relegated over time to mere words on a page. The end product is not as important as the process of conversationally discerning the commitments that will give shape to your life together.

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45. Write

your own specific songs or liturgical prayers that reflect the worship of your church community in the place to which you are called. One place to start would be with the previous idea. Take the commitments you have made and turn them into songs or prayers that can be used daily and in the congregation’s weekly services.

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46. Find

creative ways to remember the seasons of the church year (Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent) together. Establish traditions of celebration that fit with your broader church tradition, the people of your congregation and the place in which you worship. If there is one of the major seasons of the church year that your church does not celebrate, learn more about it and explore fitting ways in which your church could begin to celebrate it together.

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47. Celebrate All Saints Day, remembering the faithfulness of saints from the whole of church history, from the history of your church tradition and from your local congregation. We recently did this at our church and it was immensely fun! The teens and children picked characters from the Bible, from church history and from our congregation, dressed up as them and acted out scenes from their lives.

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48. Examine

the use of energy in your church building. Have a conversation about how you can use less energy and perhaps acquire some energy from alternative sources. There are many opportunities right now to get grants or rebates for switching to more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. Have a conversation about what temperature the thermostat needs to be set at during various seasons (to not be inhospitable to guests, but yet conserving energy). Are there times when portions of your church building are not being used? Do you heat or cool these spaces, even when they are not in use?

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49. Start a daycare, or if you have one already find ways to expand and improve the quality of it. Find ways to extend its services to neighbors who have a need for good, affordable childcare. In most urban neighborhoods, and increasingly in suburban ones, childcare is a crucial need and a daycare and or pre-school is a great way to build relationships with and engage our neighbors.

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50. Purchase

and maintain a hospitality house. Buy a house as close as possible to the church building that can be used as a hospitality house for missionaries, emergency housing situations, etc. Work out how the house will be cared for on an on-going basis. Maybe the cost of utilities, taxes and insurance could be funded as a missional activity of the church (see #9 above) or in some other creative way. Teams of people can be assembled to ensure that it stays clean and hospitable.

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A Final Word of Encouragement


Connection is necessary part of our calling as followers of Jesus; we simply cannot continue to live according to the isolation brought on by the individualism of Western culture. We have been made in the image of the triune God, whose persons exist in loving community with each other. We will need to be patient and diligent for there will inevitably be challenges, but we will find joy and fulfillment in the community of our brothers and sisters, the joy that comes from living in harmony with our created purpose. God loves us and has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell in our midst and to guide us toward the fulfillment of our calling to be the people of God. In the book of Isaiah, God comforts Israel and his message of is still relevant for us today: Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. (41:10) May we hear the word of Lord and may we submit the whole of our lives to the gentle, transforming power of our Creator. Lord, give us ears to hear, and imaginations to envision the possibilities of your reconciling and transforming work in our specific locations, and may your Holy Spirit shape us more fully as a community into the image of your Son Jesus Christ!

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Chris Smith

is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the near-eastside of Indianapolis. He is also the editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He regularly writes and speaks on topics related to church, community and God’s reconciliation of all things. His previous books include: •

Water, Faith and Wood: Stories of the Early Church’s Witness for Today. Doulos Christou Press, 2003. (Get a free e-book version of this work from the ERB.)

Introductory Bibliography of the New Monasticism. Doulos Christou Press, 2007.

Contact Chris:

editor @ englewoodreview . org

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Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities  
Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities  

Fifty ideas for connection in a disconnected age by Chris Smith

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