I lived in a community of believers for 10 years. In the end we failed, but we learned an awful lot along the way. This post is part tested and true, part correction to our failures, and part guess. I cannot point you to any church where this is working. It may exist, but I have never seen it. I am also in debt to Weekend Fisher for most of the actual, "rubber meets the road" ideas listed in this post.
The risk of jumping into new things is daunting to some, and enticing to others. We need both types of people for this idea to succeed. The watchers keep the jumpers real, and the jumpers keep the watchers moving. Like pioneering in the old West, if we are going to break new ground we need both careful preparation and an ability to adjust our plans boldly as we learn more about the frontier.
Confronting risk can be its own reward, but this is no attempt to manufacture risk for risk's sake. Only a community can love God all week long. Only a community can bring the Love of God to earth. Only a community can show the Love of God to a neighborhood in need. This is a new thing, and it might not succeed, but we attempt it because the Lord has commanded it and for the joy He has set before us. We have been given many talents, and we must risk investing them if we are to return them to our Lord with increase.
Here's how to start.
Take out your church directory, and a map of your city. Put a pin in the map everywhere that a member lives. Step back, and look for clusters. You are hoping to see two, three, or maybe four clusterings. Ideally, each cluster will have an elder or two. (If there are no clusters, you may have an opportunity here to completely repurpose your church!) These are the neighborhoods for which your church will take responsibility.
Usually, there will be some solid clusters centered around people who are naturally gifted at inviting their neighbors to church. If you can identify a person around whom a cluster is formed, you have probably found the hub for that group.
Announce to the church the formation of groups for long-term ministry to local neighborhoods. These groups will each take responsibility - complete responsibility - for the care of their own neighborhood. Announce that these groups will have the support of the church as a whole, but that they will be in charge of coming up with plans, figuring out how to make them happen, and seeing them through.
Everyone who signs up should understand that they are making a commitment of at least 2 hours a month for the rest of their lives. This is not a "spring drive" for membership; this is the way the church lives.
Schedule initial meetings for each of the cluster groups. The pastor should not attend these meetings. His presence will make it too easy for the group to defer on all decisions. In order for these groups to become self-supporting, they need to begin by finding their own legs and leadership. The pastor will play key roles in this process, but his first role will be to step back.
The goal of the first meeting is to 1) establish prayer, and 2) come up with practical ways that the cluster can find people in their neighborhood with needs.
- There is a gravity to taking on the work of the Lord. We pray within the revealed will of God when we pray to grow in maturity and breadth. The Lord blesses the work to which He has called us. These community clusters will live on prayer.
- Practically, identify some skills that will be of help to their neighbors, and the people who have these skills. Babysitting, home repair, auto repair, heavy lifting, cooking, yard maintenance, painting, shopping, driving.
- Think of some ways that the group can get to know people in need of the help the group can offer. Just walking the neighborhood and noticing occupied homes in disrepair might be a start. Noticing lawns that always need mowing, cars on blocks, single parents, widows, bus riders. Maybe there is a retirement home in the neighborhood.
- Think of ways to get the word out that a Christian neighborhood care group is starting. The best way is always through existing trust relationships, but other ways are helpful too. Barbecues, going door to door with cookies, telling 5 neighbors, posting fliers. Make it clear that you welcome any Christian who would like to contribute their efforts, too. There may be a number of unchurched believers in your neighborhood who would love to fellowship in a practical way.
The objective is to allow the cluster to come up with their own ideas, and their own plans. The pastor and elders may not like all of the ideas. That's alright! The group owns them. Let them try them out. Failure is an option - in fact it is de riguer! We learn from our failures. It's micromanagement that's not an option. Over time, and with encouragement, each member of the cluster will find a niche in the group, and the group will find its own way to function.
It doesn't all have to be right from day one. This is a long-haul proposition.
The pastor will equip the groups from the pulpit. The groups will need a lot of support over the coming months. They will need support in prevailing prayer, in ministering to each other, and in conflict resolution. Sermons on the priesthood of believers, the growth of the church, the work of the Spirit, and the kingdom of God all will tend to encourage the groups.
Whenever a new group of any type is started, there are distinct phases through which it passes before it begins to work well together. During some of the "storming" phases, the skill of the pastor and the elders will make the difference. Wise leadership will help the group members to maintain respect for each other. From those early conflicts, from the guidance of the leaders, and from the patient endurance of each of the struggles, love will grow.
Love will grow.
God entrusts real work on earth to the church at least partly because we need a good reason to put up with each other! If the job is small enough that I can do it alone, I probably will. It's just easier that way. When I do the job myself, I know it is done "right," and I don't have to waste time convincing everyone that I'm right. Unfortunately, I am the loser when I make that choice. When the job is too big for me, and when it is too important to leave undone, I get the double benefit. I get to be a part of a worthwhile job, and I get to grow in love.
The groups should meet regularly. They will each have to come up with a schedule that makes sense to them. The meetings should be a balance of reporting progress in reaching out to the neighborhood, prayer of thanks, supplication, and worship, and planning future efforts. At some point, brothers and sisters may start bringing encouragement and exhortation from scripture. Praise the Lord, if this happens. Sharing meals and game nights will also help to draw the groups together. Coffee anyone?
The productive life of the group will not really start until bonds of love and trust have begun to form between its members. The group must work together for some time, often without signs of real fruit, in order for those bonds to form. Given time and nurturing, those bonds will form, and they will make the whole endeavor worthwhile. Months after the groups have started, it is those bonds that will begin to show their influence in the community.
When we begin to take the commandments of God to heart, and when we begin to care for those around us in need, the Love of Christ will exert its glorious strength on those who can see and hear. Love will overcome.
1 Tim 1:5 Now the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart, and [of] a good conscience, and [of] faith unfeigned:
1 Cor 13:4-8 Love suffers long, [and] is kind; love envies not; love vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails: