Building Vibrant and Unforced Community

About a year ago we were preaching a series all about the overlaps (and yes, some tensions) between ancient wisdom and happiness science. One particular morning we were focusing on the joys of living into your unique strengths (in spiritual speak, “gifts”). We thought it was going to be a really fun, positive message, but something was off. I (Brenna) sensed anxiety building in the folks gathered, and finally it hit me.

“You all are waiting for us to start passing the sign-up clipboards, aren’t you? To use the sermon to help ‘motivate’ or manipulate you into doing what we want you to do? Serve in Kid Min, show up early to set up chairs…”

Nervous laughter echoed through the crowd. That was exactly what they were expecting. (You can see the moment for yourself here at about the 28:30 mark.)

And they weren’t crazy. That is so often what we religious folk do. We have an organization to build, a community to serve, a mission to pursue, and we can’t do it by ourselves. Our motives are good – at least some of them. So Bible in hand, we lean in hard on the should’s, the demands, the cookie-cutter expectations.

We’ve been there, done that, friends. We get it. But we think there’s a better approach – unforced community – that emerges when we name some competing values, or perhaps more helpfully, some key creative tensions. For instance:

“Unforced” and “Better Together”

I’ll never forget the coffee with a new friend at church. She’d invited me over, served a delicious brunch, and shared so thoughtfully about her spiritual journey so far. Then finally she took a deep breath to ask the big question that had been weighing her down.

“Brenna, you know I have a little one. Do I have to serve in Kid Min?”

“Do you like working with kids?”

“I HATE it.”

“Wow. Please don’t then.”

This delightful woman was so relieved. She really wanted to participate in church life (that “better together,” life in the body of Christ value), she just didn’t enjoy the particular role she’d felt forced into in other church settings. In fact, she began to share with me all the things she did enjoy doing, particularly administrative tasks. Like scheduling volunteers for Kid Min, which I had been doing. Which I HATED. Ding ding ding – we had a match.

Still I hesitated. Questioned a bit. Because she’d just transitioned from another painful church experience, where her family had been heavily involved. Did she need a little more time to grieve, process, rest, heal? When she insisted this would help her feel connected, we agreed to try it for a bit and then check back in.

When we name being “unforced” as one of the core values of our community, we’re explicitly renouncing the patterns of guilt, shame and control that have too often pervaded our churches. We invite people into service and using their gifts all the time, of course, tell them about opportunities… But we also celebrate, authentically, loudly, when they tell us no. When they practice using that muscle and setting healthy boundaries. When they get to experience us receiving their no respectfully – many have told us afterwards how healing those experiences can be.

(Need help surfacing your community’s core values? Check out this practical exercise.)

No’s Make Room For Deep Yes’s

Of course, in unforced community we also get to celebrate when people come up with their own great ideas, their own deep yes’s that we can support and champion. Things that were actually not on our agenda, we had no plan for, but that make us so much better as a whole.

Like my friend offering to do the Kid Min scheduling out of the blue. That wasn’t on my radar, and it was such a relief!

Like the friend who’s a Zoom pro (actually hosts meetings for a living) and let us know as soon as quarantine was announced two years ago that we had nothing to worry about. He was in. We’re able to continue hosting hybrid services today (allowing our people to make “unforced” decisions about how to participate on Sundays) because of his cheerfully contributed skill.

Or the friend who offered his incredible AV skills to improve our sound when we started meeting both online and in-person. He noticed a space where he could help, and he was feeling ready. Now every week he makes us a little better.

Or the friend who had no interest in Kid Min when we mentioned that need, but just recently asked if we’d ever thought about starting a youth group. (YES – this is so exciting.)

Or the other friend who asked even more recently if they can help build an LGBTQ+ group for the church. (YES, YES, and AMEN.)

Trusting the Admittedly Awkward Process

But Brenna, perhaps you’re thinking, people aren’t making those kinds of offers in my setting. If I don’t push a little, nothing will ever get done. Unforced community sounds like wishful thinking.

Friends, it’s an awkward process. Perhaps something like allowing your hair to go back to its natural color after years of coloring it. Yes, there is a transition period we have to breathe through to get where we want to be. We might have to pull back on how busy we are, how much we’re trying to accomplish as a community (even if that means we look a bit less impressive). We might even declare a community-wide sabbatical, reducing all but our most essential activities and gatherings, at least the formal kind, for several months.

But in that transition some beautiful things begin to happen.

  • We release ourselves from the pressure to make ministry happen, whatever it takes, and begin to rest and recover. To re-discover our being over our doing.
  • We begin to relate to each other differently and rebuild trust, that we’ll honor each other’s limits and respect healthy boundaries.
  • In the absence of external pressure, we begin to notice our internal drives, those deep yes’s and even a few “sure, why not’s” we can cheerfully offer to each other.

And the big one – we begin to trust more fully that God knows what God’s doing in our midst. That if there’s something our community really needs, we’ll be able to figure it out together, with prayerful discernment, creativity and persistence, while continuing to honor the humanity and dignity of each person involved.

We’ll back in a few weeks to talk about a second key tension: People v. Production. Diving in here will help us think more about those bigger questions – what does our community really need?