“An Anabaptist congregation will exhibit an understanding of community that makes possible radical economic sharing, the exercise of loving church discipline, and the development and deployment of a wide range of gifts for the benefit of the church and the world beyond the church.” – Stuart Murray, Anabaptism Today, June, 1996, p. 12.
The Church as “community” is a reality many Christians long for, but it often seems difficult to achieve. Geography, poor transport, architecture, mental habits, traditional churchy culture – these and many other factors militate against the kind of genuine relationships we desire. Worship is an important context for congregations to build community. The following are a few ways in which the worship of a church can establish and nurture community relationships (small churches find these things easier, but even larger ones can do them):
Learn to know each other in community
• Use pictures and names to build relationships. One Sunday during after-service coffee a member of one congregation went around snapping informal photos of all the little clusters of people in conversation. The next week there was a big poster in the hall with everyone’s name next to their photo. It was not an expensive idea, but it helped everyone – especially newcomers – to get to know each other on a personal basis. The children especially were pleased to be known individually.
In another small church the children three years old and younger went out during the sermon for their own activities. When they returned to the main room for the closing songs and blessings, they were carried or escorted in with a special song: “Welcome, welcome Christopher! We are glad you’re here” . . . “Welcome, welcome, Catherine! We are glad you’re here!” The little ones then received a special prayer of blessing by the whole church: “God loves you. God goes with you. God stays with you.”
Another church – a much bigger one – has pledged that every adult will learn the names of all the children and will address them face to face. A tall adult standing to speak to a little child is not an acceptable posture. Adults will either sit down or get down to speak directly to the child. This may sound trivial or drastic, but it embodies an important point: in this church children are valued members of the community. The idea of learning names comes first because it is essential to building community.
• Learn what others do during the week. A new pastor asked permission to “shadow” or visit each member, for at least a few hours, at their place of involvement or employment. He took photos and soon these decorated the entry hallway under the label “our church in mission”. It was funny to see people in unfamiliar-looking clothes because they always came to church casually dressed. Our “churchy selves” are only one part of the picture. We need to learn more about each others’ lives.
• Pray, for specific day-to-day needs of members. Some churches forget to pray for their own members. If we know people’s names and something about their weekly involvements, we can make intercessions practical and specific. One large church has a number of people involved in the health professions, a cluster of school teachers, and a lot of university students. Once a month, in rotation, they hold extended prayers after the evening service around the weekday concerns of these particular groups of people.
Some churches appoint a “prayers group” to function with the same seriousness as the more familiar music groups. In worship meetings the prayers group consistently and systematically lead congregational prayers which include the members’ individual and corporate work concerns. Churches who are only good at praying about medical needs and bereavements can learn to ask for and accept prayers dealing with a wider range of commitment and concerns.
Prayer telephone “hot-lines”, prayer partners, adult-child mentor programmes, service sheet inserts with prayer requests – these and other methods can help a church to pray for its own needs. Prayer is a valuable link between individual and corporate life. We need to pray for one another, both in worship and through the week. Praying together builds community.
• Use notices to strengthen community ties. Perfunctory announcements of dates and times of meetings can give way to sharing news of what those groups of people are actually doing. It is also helpful to have “feedback notices” which remind people what happened in last week’s events. Notices and prayers can converge. Notices might go like this:
“The women’s group convenes on Thursday morning at Betty’s house at 10 Rose Close. This week they will be writing letters concerning prisoners of conscience. They have asked the church to pray as they prepare to write these letters, and especially to intercede for the safety of a particular prisoner (named).”
“Last week our children enjoyed a day out at the nature reserve. Thanks to Sue and Jim and Sally who planned and took care of all the arrangements. One concern arose on that day for which we ask the church to pray. . .”
Notices, prayers and shared projects of mercy and service – bringing these specific concerns of our humanity into worship helps to build community. Do we hear notices like the following one in our worship and prayer meetings? If so, our worship is getting well earthed into the wider community:
“Are there four volunteers for Tuesday to help clear the site of the Jones’ garage, which recently burned down’? We might not know this family personally, but they are neighbours to our church. They are distressed because they lost some valuable equipment in the fire. Let’s pray for them and for the workers who will go to help with this job.”
Encourage economic sharing
As members know more about each other’s weekly work and family circumstances and as they work together in projects of mercy and aid, they can give support of many kinds – including economic. This might be in the form of a “koinonia fund” through which gifts of money are loaned or given according to need. In many churches money is a “hot” issue – an area of secrecy and control, sometimes of misery and isolation.
We can work corporately at defusing the power of money. One of the ways is through worship and prayer, giving thanks for God’s provision, recognising it is not only our brilliance and hard work that builds our bank account. We can study and pray on the basis of Jesus’ and the early Christians’ concerns that we be content rather than greedy. Sharing what we have and giving generously are not instinctive acts. But they can be taught, caught, learned, practised, enjoyed – and all of these may be encouraged in corporate worship.
For example, there is the potent symbol of the offering plate. Sometimes the quiet, solemn music of the “offertory” gives a funereal impression: what a sad thing it is, to part with our own hard-earned money! I recently got many surprised comments after playing a jolly song as the plates came forward. We could learn from African Christians who make the offering a high point of their worship, giving their gifts with festive singing and dancing. Children can fully take part in such an offering, learning and dramatising the importance of freely giving back to God what God has given to us. It’s fun, too – and fun builds community.
The offering plates are sometimes placed onto the communion table. This action is a reminder of early Christians’ generous and responsible care for the needy within and outside their immediate fellowship. Gifts in kind, gifts of service – many offerings could go into the plate and onto the communion table, incorporated into the fellowship of bread and wine. After all, the very name communion derives from the word meaning “sharing”. Community, communion and sharing all tit together.
Foster disciplined relationships
Discipline means learning. Worship leaders should always ask, “How can we, in this service, help people to grow as Jesus’ loved disciples?” It will mean more than going through a series of songs and sermons and then leaving it up to each person to figure out how worship connects with their life. Worship leaders present Jesus, worthy of our adoration – but also Jesus as our winsome teacher, the one who challenges and coaxes us on our disciple way. We are on the way together; common discipleship builds community.
But it is for each one to approach worship with hopeful expectation. ( know a person who says, “When I go to worship, I always listen for at least one thing which will be significant for my daily life.” Whenever Christians meet for prayer and worship, each one should be able to gain an insight, make a resolve, confess a weakness, or determine to take a step forward in their walk of faith. Every worship service needs a point for inner appropriation, for a movement of each person’s will under the leading of the Spirit. There needs to be space, silence, and room for this to happen. We need to face up to our varying degrees of success in taking that step, or remembering the insight.
Corporate worship can easily link with one-to-one relationships within the church, with spiritual friendships in which we are able to be lovingly honest with one another. When relationships are strong, honesty with humility can flourish. We will be able to give and to receive the hard words as well as the approving ones. We need to help each other learn the mind of Christ, and learn to walk in his way. Loving discipline builds community.
Elicit and deploy many gifts
Corporate worship is not the place for practising what we don’t know how to do. The church asks those to serve the group who show the spiritual gift for a particular function. The finest pianist is not necessarily gifted to lead music in worship. The most fluent public speaker isn’t always the best Bible teacher. Church members know these things. Ask them which person most enables them to pray; ask them who most winsomely visits the ill. The church discerns the gifts. The church then sees that the gifts are trained, developed, and accepted into the fabric of worship and service.
A good check on this is to return to a church after a couple of years’ absence. Are you surprised and delighted with the growth and maturity of gifts? Young people may be leading prayers and heading up service projects. People may be serving in ways that they didn’t know they could do. The church is maturing and gifts are growing! Growing the gifts builds community.
But spiritual gifts aren’t only for internal benefit. The spiritual qualities and gifts which a congregation most needs are the same ones that the world out there is crying for: the merciful spirit, humility in careful listening, discerning God’s prophetic word for a particular situation, a heart that mourns for broken lives, a gift of healing prayer. “These we can practise within the church. But they will spill over beyond the Christian fellowship. In significant ways they shape the kind of neighbours and work mates we are throughout the week. In our worship meetings we can hone our peacemaking skills, our disciplined corporate prayer, our thankfulness and ability to discern God at work These expressions will flow out into the mission that is our daily work and walk of life. We need spiritual gifts for the community beyond the church. Gifts of the Spirit expressed in mission build community.
Every Christian congregation values strong community life. But I believe that there is something about Anabaptist definitions and practices which give distinctive shape and impetus to community. Community is not an optional feature; for Anabaptists it is about solidarity as we walk together. It is about survival in the face of testing. Community is about sharing bread for the journey. It is about sharing joy and good times in the life of God’s Kingdom. All of these qualities are expressed in the worship of the church.
Based at Regent’s Park College in Oxford, Eleanor Kreider teaches, writes and speaks in the area of Christian worship. In 1997 she will publish Communion Shapes Character (Herald Press).