Every great movement starts with a group of like-minded visionaries and actors. Think of women’s suffrage, Hull House, the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. Even Martin Luther King wouldn’t have accomplished much on his own. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken,” writes the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.
The same is true of growing community in church land. I must have heard it a hundred times in seminary: attractional models of church don’t work anymore; we have to be “missional,” going to where the people are. How many times over the centuries have clerics presumed to know what is best for the people, perhaps even ignoring the ideas and warnings of the laity? How often have we put up new buildings, hung out a sign that reads, “Worship: 10:30” and waited for people to show up?
To be fair, there might have been a time when people knew what this sign meant and it was what they were looking for. In seminary we were told this doesn’t work anymore because Christendom is dead. But I think there is another reason: postmodern culture. We’re all so busy and multi-tasked out that we’re no longer prepared to just do what the priest says. In order to build something new, we want to be part of the process and catch the vision for ourselves.
I aced the test on “missional church” in seminary, but I didn’t really understand it until I began working in university chaplaincy. Students are stressed, depressed, busy, and often disorganized. They are not going to show up at something unless it’s something they’re really interested in, an event they truly need.
Admittedly, it’s a heck of a lot more work to build relationships with students and THEN create a community. It’s much easier to plan my own community and invite them to join. But it doesn’t work that way. In fact, I would submit that the kingdom of God doesn’t work that way either. Do you remember how frustrated Jesus’ disciples got with him when he just kept hanging around building relationships rather than taking real action? But the man knew what he was up to.
When we start community-building with programs, we do not empower people. We do not inspire them to take hold of their faith. We do not build new leaders or a sustainable project with deep roots. There are many popular programs which worked well in their initial context, but if the local community doesn’t catch the vision for creating something unique to their context, it will never take root. After all, programs, priests, services- all are intended to serve the people and to connect them with God.
In my own context, I struggle to have the patience required to allow relationships to flourish. My particular chaplaincy placement is like church-planting, slowly waiting for a new community to emerge. Some days I want to pre-package programs and create community single-handedly. I presume to know what students need and wonder why they aren’t showing up.
But thank goodness the students will have none of it.
If there is any generation with a sixth sense for the inauthentic, it is the Millennials. This generation has no interest in joining something that is not “for real.” If it doesn’t connect with real needs, it is of no interest to them. There’s a lesson here for us program-lovers: slow down. Be. Do life together. Because, in the end, discipleship isn’t about numbers or successes; it’s about relationship. (Ask the guy who laid down his life for his friends!)