We have suggested a simple way of thinking about how fresh expressions develop. We've called it A fresh expressions journey and it is summarised in this diagram:
This page looks in more detail at 'building community':
- Why is it so important?
- What forms can it take?
- Does 'building community' always follow 'loving and serving'?
Why is community so important?
Building community is a crucial step in 'A fresh expressions journey'. It means allowing members of a group of homeless people, a spirituality evening class, an environmental campaigning group or a discussion group that meets over a curry to get to know each other, trust one another and create a sense of belonging.
Building community is vital for several reasons:
It is what Jesus did with his disciples
It was one of the marks of the first Christians (Acts 2.42ff).
It can be an act of love in itself
For example, some UK research in the early 2000s attempted to discover the values of younger people outside the church. Derek Hughes was struck by the extent to which young people longed to be loved, to have authentic relationships, to experience meaningful community.
In fact they tended to describe their longings in precisely the terms that the New Testament describes the true nature of the church.
Significantly, when asked, 'What would you give to be part of such a community?' they responded, 'Almost anything' (cited by Martin Robinson & Dwight Smith, Invading Secular Space, Monarch, 2003, p36).
Community can be an incubator for faith
One of the strengths of the Alpha course is that people love the meal, the opportunity to make friends and the chance to discuss and ask questions. Many people keep coming back because of the sense of community.
Spiritual journeys are hard to walk alone. Individuals need encouragement, the example of other people, others' responses to their questions and, not least, prayer support. Most people are loved into faith, and this love is best experienced within a caring community.
Building community can take different forms
Community emerges out of the team that serves a neighbourhood or network. The team may have only two members or be larger. But as members develop open, honest and trusting relationships, they lay foundations for the formation of community among people they serve.
Some ventures may require a person who is gifted in helping community to form - who is welcoming, puts people at their ease, draws them out, remembers details about them, and so on. If you are planning a fresh expression, would your project need someone like that?
You might contribute to a community that already exists
A youth worker hanging out with a couple of teenagers might get to know their mates, become an influential member of their network and contribute to the life of that community. In time, the youth worker might use their influence to encourage individuals in the group to begin a journey into faith.
Another person might be a key member of a group of friends and help to strengthen the ties of friendship. Perhaps the person suggests that the group meets regularly in a wine bar to discuss some of the big questions of life.
Community can be built around acts of love
A couple of Christians might start a 'spirituality at work' group to respond to a perceived need among their colleagues. The group might meet over lunch so that members can get to know each other and develop friendships. Maybe they occasionally go to the cinema together.
Three women - one a minister - linked together to provide a relaxed environment where unchurched residents of an Urban Priority Area estate could feel welcome. By gathering in the minister's home, they created the Hartcliffe and Withywood Lighthouse, a safe space in which anyone could come once a week to eat, talk about their lives and experience Christian love.
Sometimes it is both - a community within a community
You contribute to a community that already exists, and then within that wider community you build a further community.
For example, American church planter Neil Cole, who has seen hundreds of small churches start in a few years, has described how their original plan was to launch a coffeehouse. But then they had a better idea. Instead of persuading people to come to their coffeehouse, why not visit the coffeehouses people already went to?
Several teammates began to hang out in one particular coffeehouse, playing chess and other games with the regulars. They became part of the crowd, joining a loose-knit community that already existed. People were so attracted by the team members' lives that they began to talk about their spiritual concerns.
The team 'loved and served' by being good friends to people in the coffeehouse and gently encouraging discussion about issues that mattered. Before long Neil's sitting room was filled with people who wanted to know more about Christ. A community of enquirers was forming, and it eventually became a small church. (See Neil Cole, Organic Church, Jossey-Bass, 2005, pp24-26.)
Does 'building community' always follow 'loving and serving'?
It is too early to be sure, but we suspect that for fresh expressions to be fruitful this is the normal sequence, though there may be some exceptions.
On close inspection, however, some exceptions may prove not to be exceptions. In the Neil Cole example, for instance, at first sight it would seem that the process started with community. The team joined a pre-existing community in the coffeehouse.
But the team only became accepted by the coffeehouse regulars after they had joined in their games. The team loved and listened to the regulars first before they became part of the community.
The team then contributed to the community through their conversations and sharing their lives. This created an opportunity to form a new community of people who wanted to explore Jesus.
The team loved and listened, which drew them into a pre-existing community. As the team contributed to this community, they were able to form a further, smaller community of people who were interested in Jesus.