Leading churches

Advice From the Trenches

Building a foundation for family

Few parents would dare to say they’re experts on the family. Likewise, no church leaders. But most would undoubtedly agree: If you aren’t intentional about it, it’s in danger of not happening at all, so get started.

A healthy sense of community can permeate even the largest church, and here are a few tips:

Act like family, even at the top

Even the best intentions to nurture community church-wide can be hampered if you have a church staff and elders who don’t also operate in committed communities. Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo, Calif., practices plurality of leadership—with a team of seven pastor-elders. The full-time pastor, Brandon Cash, delivers 60 percent of the sermons, but every pastor-elder shares in spiritual leadership, preaching and counseling.

Apart from official elder meetings, the seven also meet weekly simply to pray for the congregation and for one another. After more than 10 years together, that makes for a strong team. Brandon is clear about it: “We don’t move forward until the group agrees. It’s not ‘What Brandon says, goes.’”

They’re also not shy about using a disagreement later as an illustration, after they’re all on the same page. “People say, ‘Oh, that’s what healthy community looks like. They love and respect each other enough to work it through.’”

Think small groups, small groups, small groups

Whatever the size of a church, the key is to encourage small communities within the larger “tribe.” But creating a healthy, vibrant community is harder than it looks.

Healthy small groups require application of the Word plus relational connections plus outward focus. Which means time. In an American culture forever bemoaning the lack of time, this ingredient stands out.

At North Coast Church in Vista, Calif., more than 80 percent of attendees are in “growth groups”—small groups whose leaders receive ongoing training and coaching. “We have purposely limited the evening programs we could offer, because they compete with growth groups,” says Jennifer Groth, pastor of growth and development. “They are the key to ‘velcroing’ people to one another and creating a family within a large church.”

“But if there’s no common mission the small group carries, they’re a bunch of navel-gazers,” adds Brad Brinson, pastor of Two Rivers Church in Lenoir City, Tenn.

Emphasize your values from the pulpit

Whatever you talk about most from up front will be seen by members as a priority. No wonder North Coast Church sees such a high percentage of its people involved in small groups: They are mentioned in almost every sermon.

At Oceanside Christian Fellowship, the pastor-elders also emphasize honesty and transparency. And sometimes that means speaking from the pulpit about sticky issues. One time, a theological “wolf among the sheep” was spreading contrary doctrine; another time, a spate of anonymous complaints was encouraging discord. “There are some people who feel you have to avoid tough issues,” Brandon Cash says, “but show me a healthy family that works that way.”

Set everyone's expectations

“There are some people who want too much community,” Brandon admits. “Some others think they can get all the benefits of family without sacrificing and contributing. So church leaders have to articulate a realistic picture of what biblical family is and how that plays out in their particular church culture.”

Sometimes, the issues that surface are simply too large or too deep to be addressed only within the context of a small group. So Two Rivers Church equips specific lay people with training through its Stephen’s Ministry.

No two families are alike, whether nuclear families or church families. And the very desire to pull people together—to slow down, to connect—at times completely runs counter to our American culture. But it’s worth it to mine the riches of God’s teachings on this topic1, to uncover how even today, even in this country, we might live in committed, spiritually deep relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Diane J. McDougall

Diane J. McDougall has served as editor of EFCA publications, both in print and online, since 1997.

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