How to Build Church Community Organically, Without Rigid Structures

One of the keys to life-giving community is the ability to cultivate community in a natural sense, says a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wash.

Oftentimes churches try to force community through rigid structure in small groups when it should really be about building community in a more organic sense, around "the natural rhythms of life," said Brad House, director of Community for Mars Hill.

In a blog post titled "Having Natural Community without Losing the Bible," House explores different ways to build and foster community that is deep and lasting based on a biblical model.

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At Mars Hill, he said, there is less focus on rigid structure, which leaves room for "times when we gather to simply enjoy one another's company, times when we gather to serve our neighbors, or times we focus on study of the Bible."

He wrote that the goal of any small group should be to "study Scripture, not a schedule. Rigidity can suck the life out of a group fairly quickly. Instead, the goal is to develop community that is restorative and life-giving."

The problem that some churches face with this approach though, is the tendency to throw all structure out the window. But House uses a model of the early church from Acts to show that even they had a format.

House explained that just as the early apostles met together for teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and prayers, so should "the natural rhythms of our lives as Christians be saturated with the Bible, prayer, and worship."

When a community of believers is working to fall more in love with Jesus, House explained, habits like studying Scripture, meals together, prayer, and mission become second nature.

And having a focus on these types of aspects "will get you much further than developing a concise Bible study, because it establishes the Bible as a source of life rather than content to be mastered," House said.

Michael McKinley, a pastor and blogger, also believes this emphasis on building a community is important because "as the church grows, more and more people find that it's difficult to build relationships and get to know people in the congregation."

He wrote separately in a piece for 9 Marks – which focuses on building healthy churches – that for people to get connected, it's not just the responsibility of the church to provide resources, it's also up to the individual to get involved.

"Here's what I've noticed: people who show up a lot usually aren't lonely and disconnected," McKinley explained.

At his church, like most, they provide opportunities ranging from a Sunday morning gathering, a Sunday evening gathering and small groups through the week to a fellowship meal once a month, a one-to-one Bible reading program, and monthly men's and women's meetings.

He said that because of this there are many opportunities for involvement. "And in my observation, people who avail themselves of those opportunities almost always feel connected to others in the congregation."

McKinley admitted that this explanation might seem old-school or obvious, but noted that "there's something to be said for the guy who wins the perfect attendance award. If you're feeling like your church doesn't have enough community, make sure that you're plugging in to the opportunities that are offered."

Similarly, House said involvement is a two-way street. It's up to the church to help provide community, but ultimately the individual and leaders in the church also have to wrestle with spiritual matters in their own lives in order to bring something to the group.

Through that, House stated, "When we are naturally steeped in Scripture, we won't need to wait for a formal 'Bible study' time to discuss the Bible, it will be overflowing over dinner, during football games, while fixing someone's sink, and every other opportunity of life."

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