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GROWING

DEEPER
in our
CHURCH
COMMUNITIES

50
IDEAS FOR
CONNECTION IN A
DISCONNECTED AGE

C. CHRISTOPHER SMITH
GROWING
DEEPER in our

CHURCH
COMMUNITIES
50 ideas for Connection
in a Disconnected Age

C. Christopher Smith

EnglewoodReview.org
Indianapolis
© 2010, C. Christopher Smith.
All Rights Reserved.

Published in e-book format, January 2010.


This work may not be distributed in any form, electronic
or printed without the written permission of the
publisher.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Cover design and tree painting by Brent Aldrich.


Photos by Brent Aldrich, Chris Smith and Jeni Newswanger Smith.

The Englewood Review of Books is a free weekly review of books along


themes related to Community, Mission and the many-sided wisdom of God.
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Thanks to all who contributed to this book, especially my brothers and sisters
at Englewood Christian Church. This book is rooted in our experience of life
together as a church community. Thanks also to all my friends who on such
short notice read early drafts and provided thorough feedback.
Introduction
Superficiality is the curse of our age. … The desperate need
today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted
people, but for deep people.

-- Richard Foster, Opening lines of Celebration of Discipline

Thanks be to Jesus, who – rejecting the wisdom of this age –


came as the complete expression of the wisdom of God, which
was revealed in the signs He performed and the nature He
displayed. May we embrace this wisdom and may we
participate in His kingdom as we practice the continuing works
and nature of Christ today and every day. Lord, give us
therefore the strength to radically deny ourselves, prayerfully
trust in Your guidance and provision and to deeply love
friends and enemies alike. Your kingdom come, Your will be
done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.

-- from the Englewood Covenant Prayers


Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice, recently lamented on
her blog that while the concern for justice seems to be growing
in certain sectors of the church, she has found that people are
often at a loss when it comes to the practical issues of how we
embody justice in our day-to-day lives. This little blog post
resonated with me because I have had similar experiences in
regard to community; I hear people in all sorts of churches
across North America longing for a deeper experience of
community in their church and neighborhoods, and yet many
are at a loss for practical ideas of how to start moving in this
direction. Indeed, we have been formed by modern Western
culture to live primarily as isolated individuals pursuing our
own personal ends and ambitions. Although modern
individualism has been filtering its way into Western culture
for at least 400 years, its effects of breaking down communities
have been felt most powerfully in recent decades. For over
twenty-five years, prominent sociologists have been
documenting our increasing disconnectedness*; participation in
social groups is waning, and we know fewer and fewer of our
neighbors.

Our age is truly one of disconnectedness, but there are good


theological reasons for the hope that the Holy Spirit, working
through our churches, can begin to reverse this pattern of
isolation. The scriptural story reminds us throughout that
God’s mission in the world is primarily one of reconciliation,
and we as followers of Jesus are called as “ambassadors of
reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5). If we are to be faithful to this calling,
we cannot continue to live disconnected lives. Despite our
calling and despite our deep longing for community, we have
been blinded by the individualism of our culture. We are

*I’m thinking here especially of Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, et al (1985) and
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (2000).

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therefore unable to see the possibilities of connecting daily in
meaningful ways with the sisters and brothers of our church
communities and with our neighbors around us. In order to
regain our sight, we must submit ourselves to the transforming
work of the Holy Spirit in the church, and allow God to move
us from the comforts of individualism toward a deeper and
more joyful life of connection.

The purpose of this little book is to spark our imaginations


with practical ideas of how we can become more deeply
connected first with those that God has gathered in our
churches and then with our neighbors as well. The ideas here
focus on three primary facets of connection that are essential
for our churches: connecting with people, connecting with
place and connecting with God’s mission.

Connecting with People

I should not have to make much of a case for our calling to


connect with people. The whole of the Gospel of Jesus is
rooted in God’s love for humanity (and all creation) and God’s
desire for the reconciliation of all creation. We cannot love and
seek reconciliation while we remain disconnected. Even the
desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of the church,
who often lived isolated lives in the desert, had a deep sense of
connection – i.e., that their isolation was for the sake of all
humanity. “Those who do not love a brother or sister – whom
they have seen,” says the Apostle John, “cannot love God
whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20). And if there is any
question about what it means to love, we could explore
numerous passages throughout the New Testament in which
love is described as the deepest sort of connection: sacrificial,

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self-denying and preferring the other to oneself. However, it
might not be as readily obvious that our call to love and
connect with people goes to a deeper level, namely that God is
gathering a people whose life together reflects the intimate
communion of the three Persons of the Trinity and embodies
the love and reconciliation that God desires for all humanity
and all creation. This gathering of a people is essential to
God’s mission of reconciliation in the world; it began in the Old
Testament people of Israel, continued in Jesus’s gathering of a
community of disciples and continues to the present in the
church. Our churches, then, are local, context-specific
manifestations of the one people that God is gathering*.
Especially in the disconnectedness of the present age, our
churches are the hospitable environment in which we can learn
what it means to love and be loved in deeper, more holistic
ways, and as we learn to do so, our love will overflow to our
neighbors around us.

Connecting with Place

I suspect that my emphasis on connection to place might not be


as obvious to some readers as the call to be connected with
people. Our connection with the place in which we exist is a
powerful reminder of the physical nature of God’s work of
gathering. We have been gathered, not in some esoteric,
spiritual sense, but in a real, tangible fashion within time and
space. God gathers us in specific places, and in these places we
are called to be the Body of Christ together – the physical,
tangible presence of Christ in this place. I, by myself, cannot be

*For a deeper exploration of these ecclesiological ideas, see Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and
Community.

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the Body of Christ; I can only be a part of that body, whose
existence is understood only in relation to the Whole. One of
the most destructive fruits of our individualism is our
transience. Jobs, relationships and other opportunities to
nurture our selfish ambitions drive us from one place to the
next, and all the while we yearn for deeper relationships. Our
proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ must be
contextual. We embody Christ together in a place, and the
shape of the life together that God has given us proclaims
God’s love and reconciliation in ways that can be understood
by our neighbors. The monastics have long had a name for
this connection to place: stability. We primarily need deeper
connection to other people, but in our age of overwhelming
transience, we need stability – connection not only to people,
but to people in a specific place.

Connecting with the Mission of God

Finally, we need connection to the mission of God. Once we


recognize the need for connection to people and place, there is
a great temptation to swap our individualism for tribalism, in
which our end is to be concerned only with what benefits us as
a community. Our connection with people and place must be
coupled with faithfulness to God’s story of reconciling all
creation. We are called to be faithful together in a place, but all
places are connected with other places, and we need to begin to
understand these connections and how our life together affects
people across town and around the world. Although to
paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, we are called to seek the
shalom (peace/reconciliation) of the place in which we have
been called, we must understand that shalom as deeply
interconnected with the shalom of other places and indeed the

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shalom that God desires for all creation. For instance, it might
be beneficial for our church community to run a business that
roasts and sells coffee, but if the farmers in the southern
hemisphere who grow the coffee we sell are not being paid fair,
livable wages, then we are forgetting the mission of God
through which we have been gathered together. Scripture as
the recorded story of God’s work in history is essential to our
connection with the Mission of God, as is our remembrance of
the faithfulness of brothers and sisters throughout history who
have gone before us.

Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities

A significant part of our connection to people, place and


mission is the realization that the life together of our church
community must flow through every hour of every day
throughout the week, whether we are physically gathered
together or not. As a result of the individualism of our age,
there is a great temptation to see our churches as religious
communities, whose work is primarily concerned with
spiritual matters, and is in contrast to the physical world in
which we work and feed and cover ourselves. This dualistic
temptation is one that we must resist with every fiber of our
being! Part of our growing deeper together as church
communities is the task of finding ways to embody the wisdom
of God as the church in all facets of life. Thus, a church should
care about how its members and neighbors are fed and housed
and employed. I believe that these fundamental economic
realities are the soil in which deeper connections with people,
place and mission start to take root, and the ideas that follow
are aimed at spurring our imaginations in this direction.

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Additionally, as we seek to become deeper church
communities, we must grow deeper in our understanding of
the gifts that God pours out on the people of God. The gifts
that the Apostle Paul describes in I Corinthians 12 are not an
exhaustive list! You will see in the following pages ideas about
how the gifts of entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and even real
estate agents (again, this too is not an exhaustive list; God gives
all sorts of gifts to the church) can be essential to the work of
God in the church, if their gifts are understood in connection
with the redemptive mission of God and submitted to a
particular church community in a specific place.

This book has its roots in the experience of our church


community, Englewood Christian Church, on the urban near-
eastside of Indianapolis, and in a little essay on celebrating
“Inter-dependence Day” that my fellow Englewood member
Brent Aldrich and I wrote with our friend Ragan Sutterfield
(which was ultimately introduced by Shane Claiborne in the
web version of SOJOURNERS magazine). Readers who read
that piece will see many vestiges of that work here. Many of
these ideas were stirred up again in my mind at the recent
Missional Learning Commons – a brainchild of David Fitch –
the theme of which was “Deeper Churches: Churches as Whole
Communities.”

As I have reiterated above, the goal of this project is to stir all of


our imaginations about what we could become as church
communities. Thus, I have been hesitant to flesh out any of
these ideas in too much detail. I pray that you will hear them
and reflect on them with others in your church communities,
and that maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit might inspire us all
to deeper connections within our church communities and with
our neighbors. No church community should try to pursue all
of these ideas – not even Englewood Christian Church, in

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whose experience many of them are rooted – but maybe there
are a handful of ideas, or even one, that spark relevant
possibilities with which you might be prayerfully led to
experiment. And we need to feel free to experiment, to not fear
failure, to learn and grow from the mistakes that we make
together. If we allow fear to dominate our life together, we
have already lost sight of our mission, the embodying of the
love and reconciliation of God, which, we are told, casts out all
fear. I imagine that this work will be of interest to pastors,
particularly ones who have felt frustrated by the disconnection
in their congregations, but I should emphasize that it is not
intended as a work on pastoral leadership, but as one for the
whole of the church. Pastors, I hope you read this, but I also
hope you share it broadly within your congregations,
personally encouraging people to read it and reflect upon it.

Lord, give us ears to hear, and imaginations to envision the


possibilities of your reconciling and transforming work in our specific
locations, and may your Holy Spirit shape us more fully as a
community into the image of your Son Jesus Christ!

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50
Ideas
for Connection in a
Disconnected Age
1. Create spaces for open
conversation. For us at Englewood
Christian Church, about fifteen years ago, we
eliminated our Sunday night service (which was
a “lite” version of the Sunday morning service)
and circled up chairs in a multi-purpose room.
The conversation that began then has essentially
continued every Sunday night to the present.
Once you gather people, there are thousands of
things that could be discussed: How could we
be more faithful together? Are there people in
our congregation who aren’t being taken care
of? Perhaps there is a book that could be read
and discussed. For us, the initial conversation
went in the direction of “What is scripture and
how should we read it?” We learned quickly
that we did not know how to talk to each other
and had to re-learn that skill, but as we did, we
found that conversation was essential to our
identity as a church community.

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Chris Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian
Church community on the near-eastside of Indianapolis. He is
also the editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He
regularly writes and speaks on topics related to church,
community and God’s reconciliation of all things.

His previous books include:

• Water, Faith and Wood: Stories of the Early Church’s


Witness for Today. Doulos Christou Press, 2003.
(Get a free e-book version of this work from the ERB.)

• Introductory Bibliography of the New Monasticism.


Doulos Christou Press, 2007.

Contact Chris:

editor @ englewoodreview . org

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