My Concern For Health of Church Community

by Dan Barnes on June 5, 2014 · 22 comments

The local church is changing, just like everything else in this country.  The shift is seen all across our towns and cities.  It began with how we shop.  First, it was the local grocer in a small shop., It then it became the Supermarket which has given way to the Mega, Super-centers which have everything.  The days of the mom and pop local store are fading and they are closing up shop.  What the all in one stores didn’t destroy, the mega specialty chain franchises have causes major problems.  There are a handful of small shops where I live that I use constantly, they are so hard to find these days.  I support them all I can.  What the mega stores didn’t destroy, the internet is sure having a hay day with.  I wouldn’t want to try to have a book store and compete with Amazon, that’s for sure.

The super store was only the beginning.  In our community, the community school houses are going away, and the big monstrous schools are being built in their place.  Our little community school is closed down and the new mega-school opened.  They consolidated 3 schools into one, an getting in and out of the school parking lot is organized (or not so organized) chaos.  Classes are bigger, there are more teachers, it feels more like a middle or high school.  The school is huge, has lockers now which most little community schools never had.  It’s a nice building, but it’s mega, not community.

In the church world (you know where this is going) the small community church is going away, giving way to the mega church.  In some ways, this is practical.  Costs of land and buildings are utilities are going up, more people equal more giving to do more and afford the things the traditional church needs.  Building and parking space, paid staff.  In some ways, however, it has mirrored the culture and we have decided that bigger is better.  In some ways, bigger is better, but it has made community more difficult.  There has been a push for Sunday School and a bigger push for Small Groups to combat this problem.  It’s more difficult, however, to get people connected.  As the church grows, people begin to blend and disappear and we lose track of them.

Most churches have good intentions, they want to connect people.  There have been great attempts with the Small Group concept, trying to get people connected into small groups.  As the church grows, these groups are necessary to get people connected, and there are some who have succeeded.  I wish every church could get people involved in the small groups, but the reality is the percentages of many churches from Sunday morning Worship attendance and small group/ Sunday School is 50% or lower.

I don’t put the blame on the church, but more on the shifting of society and their propensity to withdraw from true community.  Social media, texting and instant messaging has created a false community.  Younger generations are trading real community for MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games).  Games like WoW (World of Warcaft) and Eve online have taken the place of community for so many younger adults.  Church has become optional, and creating a community becomes harder and harder.  If a young person doesn’t grow up as part of a faith community, the opportunity for church to become a primary community is very difficult.

The church has taken ways to try to turn the tide, but it seems that the move to mega has made it more difficult.  Perhaps we need to take initiative on our own to create community, and connect our community and our faith together in home bible studies, mission groups and fellowship communities.  Individual initiative will be required to recreate our missing community.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim Pemberton June 5, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Shopping the big stores are typically wiser economically. You can’t argue with cost where people have limited income.

As for the health of churches, are you saying that churches are generally less healthy than they once were? I can agree with that in terms of the influence of pop philosophy creeping into churches. But I also know that Moralism, or perhaps Therapeutic Moralistic Deism, was once more common. While it’s still prevalent to some degree, more and more churches are correcting the Aesop’s Fables approach to teaching the Bible and are producing greater spiritual growth in their congregations. Many (certainly not all) megachurches came from this movement as hungry spiritual carnivores left their dairy-only churches in favor of churches with plenty of meat on the menu.

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2 Dan Barnes June 5, 2014 at 5:22 pm

The big stores being cheaper isn’t always true. Many of the small family stores I shop beat the big stores significantly. They have convinced us they are cheaper. We have local produce and butchers and other items better quality and better price.

Churches were better connected, my blot was about community, not church health. I didn’t say they were more or less healthy. I wrote about community.

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3 Jim Pemberton June 5, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Okay. In terms of SBC churches, I can’t speak to the change because I wasn’t raised Southern Baptist. As for our local churches, there is some interaction. We came to the aid of our sister church last year when their bus wrecked and several people were killed. I think they would do the same for us. Usually, however, we all do our own thing.

On an interpersonal level, we seem to get along in person just like we get along on Facebook although many things are shared on Facebook that people don’t have occasion to share in person. I think I would miss some things if I didn’t have Facebook.

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4 D. L. Payton June 5, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Jim
You are to be commended for your willingness to aid a sister church. their willingness to reciprocate is likewise commendable. However I am not sure this is “community”. True community does not say “we will help you”. True community says “we will help us”.

Community by definition says that an entity can stand alone. In Norman Rockwell’s America a community had all it needed ( a doctor, fireman, butcher, baker etc.) to survive. However in community each person must do his part (again butcher, baker etc) if the entity is to function. Paul’s words to Corinth comes to mind when he talks about a body fitly joined together.

Community is not a state of DOING for each other, it is a state of BEING, united and dependent upon each other.

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5 Jim Pemberton June 6, 2014 at 12:10 am

I’m sure I lack a good understanding of community, and I’m not being coy by saying that. It’s an area where I’m admittedly weak. So I’m not trying to point out a logical inconsistency by asking this, only seek better understanding, but what does “a state of being, united and dependent” mean if it doesn’t result in “doing” something about it? The way you phrased it seems like you are implying mutual exclusivity between the two terms. I guess I’m trying to understand where you are coming from in your assessment of the health of church community over and against other kinds of church health and apply it to my limited experience.

6 D. L. Payton June 6, 2014 at 12:35 am

Jim
Sorry for not being as clear as I should have been. I was going thru that rather quickly. The problem with a word like “community” is that it becomes a buzz word and as such tends to mean different things to different people.

As I understand community it is a state of being. It is what you are not what you do. An entity can DO many things and not be true community. Applied to the church….we see many churches doing much, programs, meetings etc….very busy…. but they are not a true community which is why they are unhealthy.

You are absolutely correct, the two are not exclusive. A church which is blessed with true community WILL DO. It does not follow, however, that a church which does is marked by true community.

Is this any more clear or just more muddy?

7 D. L. Payton June 6, 2014 at 1:11 am

Jim

I am not really satisfied with the answer I gave to your inquiry, let me try again.

The Biblical expression of community would be in the Pauline Epistles where he talks about Spiritual gifts be applied in the church. Some are hands, feet etc. The hand cannot say to the foot we do not need you. The hand cannot say to the body I am not needed. All parts are needed in the physical body for it to function as it was designed. When physical body parts are injured or non functional we say the body is unhealthy.

The same is true with the church. Community in the church happens when folks act in concert realizing their own value but also realizing the need to depend upon the other or for the other to be able to depend upon them. It s a state of being from which doing will result.

Some people talk about community in the sense of that which people choose to revolve around in their lives. We hear people say community happens at the school. By this they mean the school is that entity in which people tend to commune and invest their lives.
While this is a part of the equation it is only a part of what community is. One can commune around an entity and yet not be community i.e. depending and being able to be depended upon.

8 Jim Pemberton June 6, 2014 at 8:26 am

That makes sense, D. L. To put in terms I would typically think in: Community is essentially an ontological category. Since people are ontological entities that comprise the community, on what basis are they a subset of the community?

As I work this out in my head, the question seems to indicate that while people are fixed and interminal, communities are fluid and terminal. That is to say that I am who I always was (since my conception) and always will be, but my church as an example of a community to which I belong will change even as I could change churches. So the ontology of a person and the ontology of a community are different types of ontologies. So how should I use this understanding to appropriate the message of Dan’s article? In other words, do I respond with an action of some kind, refine my beliefs in some way, or both so that my church community is healthier?

The reason I ask is that some of the things Dan seems to have a concern about are the tools that I personally use to stay connected. If I stop using those tools, I will be less connected. Or is there a better way that I have at my disposal that I simply don’t know about?

9 D. L. Payton June 6, 2014 at 10:18 am

Jim

I am enjoying this interaction very much. Let me give a rather short response now, I have commitments until this afternoon and I will get back to you if that is Ok. That is unless Dave nails me for hi-jacking the post :-)

Briefly, framing this in terms of the ontological argument does give it clarity and a does have a great deal of pragmatic value. When the final word is said that pragmatism is the most important value, otherwise we would not know how to fix the problem of the unhealthy church.

I would add, however, that the relationship between people and community is by definition somewhat existential. That is community is only community as one is interacting with and involved in that entity. To put this in terms of church health community will only develop as the constituency can relate and become involved in the various ministries. IMO the basic reason for unhealthy churches is that the members are more like spectators than players. We often treat church like a sporting event where we sit an watch rather than get on the field and participate.

Regarding your last paragraph, IF I AM UNDERSTANDING what you say, it would seem to me that, if those tools work for you then stay with it. In your ontological framework, these would be the principles that you fine helpful in explaining and accepting that particular nature of being. Again, if I am understanding you correctly. I say this partly because the assumption that the Mega is swallowing up the smaller churches could be environmental. When we look in certain areas this may be true. However in my area such is not the case. Were it is the case Dan is spot on.

Am I making any sense? Am I speaking to the issue?

P.S. this turned pout to be not so short after all :-)

10 Jim Pemberton June 6, 2014 at 11:53 am

D.L.
I don’t think Dave would nail you for hijacking the post as much as he would for using a smiley. I’m enjoying the interaction as well. It’s helping to clarify some things for me and I hope also helping to develop Dan’s article in a positive way.

You wrote: “IMO the basic reason for unhealthy churches is that the members are more like spectators than players. We often treat church like a sporting event where we sit an watch rather than get on the field and participate.”

I couldn’t agree more. That’s been a consistent theme for me. My church is pretty healthy by comparison, but still has plenty of people who come on Sunday morning and aren’t involved with the church otherwise. There’s a couple of directions I’d like to go with this:

First is the observation that just telling people they need to be involved seems to be only marginally helpful. Prayer is indicated as necessary because the work of the Holy Spirit in developing mature Christians is ultimately the key. However, in investigating secondary means that the Holy Spirit uses, what are the most effective things we can do to foster a more healthy community where people participate directly and joyfully in the life of the Church and willingly submit to the refining nature of accountability in the Body?

Second, on a more personal level, in taking the message to heart to be more involved in the ministry of the church, one might find a number of frustrations. A couple off the top of my head:

1) With regard to the megachurch question, I know some people who leave megachurches because they find a greater opportunity to minister in smaller congregations. Oddly, the same is true of people who join megachurches in that they find more opportunities to minister there. There may be something where different gifts are needed in different settings. How many “worship leaders” are going to be in a megachurch per capita where there are plenty of small churches who don’t have a skilled worship leader? But how much opportunity is there to be involved directly in mission in small churches where many megachurches are busting at the seams with opportunities to take the gospel out?

2) There are church members who get into leadership positions who are overly controlling or paranoid and guard against people who want to come and help. You can submit to their leadership, but if you think about doing anything better than they do it, they perceive you as a threat and seek to stifle your effectiveness.

So my question here is if you run into barriers trying to be more active while the call is continually made to be more effective, should one assume that the message isn’t intended for them and just be content not doing much? Is there an element of church community where we should seek to make each other more effective rather than trying to secure our own effectiveness? I have to admit that I don’t have a clue how that is supposed to work.

It looks like I’m up there with you on long comments. Sorry.

11 D. L. Payton June 6, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Jim
You are right about the smiley face. I forgot about Dave’s illogical distain of such. Concerning long comments, I don’t mind if you don’t. If others mind they don’ have to read them. :-) oop’s sorry Dave.

You have delineated some very difficult issues. If we could rectify these many if not most of our problems would vanish. The key is to deal with them as you are. Many people just accept these issues as part of the package and nothing is done to help the situation. That of course leads to a more unhealthy church.

Some observations:

(1) You are correct, telling people is only marginally helpful
(2) With regard to the mega church issue, IMO this is overplayed. First of all I think a good case could be made for the desire of people to be a part of a smaller fellowship. To me this is a “wash out”.
The second reason is that people changing to a mega church for more opportunity is simply trading fish in the fish bowl. You correctly pointed out in another comment that our emphasis should be on the unchurched and lost. To this group I think both mega and smaller have equal things to offer because of the different desires of people.

(3) Prayer is the most neglected part of church life and the most needed. True community would enhance the prayer life of the church, and a church’s prayer life will enhance community. This is a win-win situation.

(4) You asked “what are the things we can do to foster a more healthy community” This of course is the main issue and the most perplexing. I think this is answered by asking and answering the question “how can we foster better relationships”? It seems to me that there is a line….relationships build community, community produces a healthy church. Then of course the question becomes, “how do we develop relationships”? I say all of that to say, yes, as you stated, it is better to nurture the effectiveness of others, because that is a powerful relationship builder.

I am rambling somewhat, does any of this make sense?

At the risk of sounding condescending, you have a keen mind, it is good to see you using it to the glory of God, my brother.

12 Jim Pemberton June 7, 2014 at 12:11 am

D. L., you make very good sense, and leave me with plenty to think about, and I hope many others will read what we’ve come to here and think about how they can contribute toward improving Christian community in their congregation and local congregations.

You’re not being condescending in the least, and I appreciate your comment. Reading comments in a recent post here about people past a certain age being accepted to seminaries has me thinking about a course of education here as I begin to enter into my later years (I’m 47), after a lifetime of being an autodidact, that it may be possible for me to pursue an M-Div. I have a heart for missions, particularly in teaching pastors who don’t have the benefit of formal education how to understand the Bible, develop what they read into sermons that will feed their congregations, develop a culture of discipleship in their congregations, and develop a heart in their church for spreading the gospel. I’ve been involved in some of that already and would like to improve my ability to do this. If I can learn to do things like participate in a healthy community in my church, things where I have a particular weakness, I can surely teach other people to do it.

Thanks for a great discussion, D. L., and I look forward to more in the future.

13 D. L. Payton June 7, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Jim

As will I

14 D. L. Payton June 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Dan
Yes. Community and church health are not the same. I do think it is true to say, without true community one cannot have a healthy church.

What say ye?

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15 Dan Barnes June 5, 2014 at 8:48 pm

I agree, without community we are not the church that Christ commanded us to be. Without being right in this basic area, it’s hard to do much else right.

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16 D. L. Payton June 5, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Dan

Last sentence June 5 @ 8:48 is a salient observation and exactly right. It also should be noted that the development of community is totally in the hands of the local church, as it should be. There is no national program or initiative that can be undertaken to build community in the local church. It is the responsibility of the church which is, again, as it should be.

We have looked to programs, models etc for decades to fix our unhealthy churches. This is not going to happen. True community is the foundation on which every facet of the church rests. When a local church develops true community the rest will fall into place de facto.

17 Max June 5, 2014 at 2:55 pm

While mega vs. micro has certainly had an impact, the Willowcreek “easy church” model hasn’t helped us any. The doing church approach of “Show me which way you want to go and I’ll get out in front to lead” has not taken the Body of Christ to a deeper walk. Redirecting the masses to authentic Biblical communities, whether they be large or small gatherings, will be a difficult row to hoe in the days ahead … but not impossible. If My People … Then Will I.

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18 Dan Barnes June 5, 2014 at 5:24 pm

I agree Max, but my focus was on building authentic community. I have written previously on discipleship.

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19 Lee June 5, 2014 at 3:52 pm

You’re right on target. I think a dose of consumerism is also a contributing factor. The focus in a mega church is on the quality of the sound system, the lighting, the “stage setting”, the trappings that go with I (theme t-shirts for sale with the pastor’s sermon series logo, etc.), and what it takes to provide comfort and entertainment. As a result, evangelism is not really happening, except among the kids who come with their parents. Mega churches are built around attracting people, and they do, right out of the smaller churches. The larger problem that is developing is that while Christians are gathering in larger groups, the number of Christians in this country that are gathering is in a relatively steep decline. Mega churches keep us from seeing this, as Barna once wrote in his book, “The Frog in the Kettle.”

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20 Bennett Willis June 6, 2014 at 9:01 am

One interesting thing about “mega churches” is that they often try to establish the sense of community and caring for each other that was (sometimes) common in smaller churches.

Another thing about many of the “mega churches” is that they were established in an area that was relatively free from churches and which was growing rapidly. They have a pastor who understands both the spiritual needs of people and how to organize a “business.” They were both “quality” organizations and relatively free of competition.

Unhealthy churches are often occupied/dominated/influenced (or ever how you want to say it) by a group of “unhealthy Christians.” This is sad but so true. It does not have to be a large fraction of the congregation either.

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21 Jess June 6, 2014 at 11:28 am

Bennett Willis,

So very true. I believe you have been there.

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22 Jess June 6, 2014 at 10:15 am

My thoughts on this subject may be a lot different than most. I believe the heartbeat of the community is the local church. Show me a sick local church, and I will show you a sick community. Show me a healthy local church, and I will show you a healthy community.

A healthy local church will have influence in the community that it is in charge of evangelizing. Here is a sure sign of a sick local church. When a church bus travels twenty miles to your community to pick up members or children that should be filling the pews of the community’s local church, my friend something is wrong. The local church needs some medication from Great Physician.

When there is no difference in the lifestyles of the local church members and the lost community, my friend something is wrong. When the local church don’t care about people in the community enough to visit them, my friend something is wrong.

The heartbeat of America is the local church. When the local church disappears, we have lost the nation. Some say we have already lost the nation as if it had been won at an earlier time, but I believe the nation can still be won if members of the local church will humble themselves and pray. (Remember, prayers must have feet).

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