Community, Mission, and Christian Formation

Finished Randy Frazee's The Connecting Church a few weeks ago, and really liked it. I have to be honest, i wasn't expecting a suburban church pastor (who a little over a year ago was on staff at Willow Creek) to make the kind of assertions he made in the book... but i was refreshed by what i found. So many books emphasize theory to the neglect of practical realism. Others strive to present a system that has very little, if any, grounding in Scripture. What i liked about this book was that Frazee truly integrated the two. He is biblically-solid, culturally-astute, and practically-illustrative. Oh, and he implemented it, and did it successfully.
I emailed a local pastor-friend of mine, who got some of his buddies together, to talk about some of Frazee's ideas (not new to him) over lunch. Specifically, i wanted to explore the relationship of community to the mission of the local church in forming followers of Christ. These are some of the concepts we wrestled with. I'm eager to hear your thoughts.

First, respond to this statement (True/False):
Our church’s program/system/practical philosophy of ministry is making sufficient progress in the mission of making disciples—quantitatively and qualitatively.

Frazee, paraphrazing Bob Buford of Leadership Network, says that "Whatever we measure is really our mission." The "church growth" world measures attendance and assimilation numbers. At best, they measure success based upon percentages of members involved in small groups, or rapidity of multiplication of small groups. Again, numbers. The best among them are growing by conversions. But are any of them effectively making disciples of the majority of their members? Do they have and effectively utilize tools to evaluate the qualitative success of the church (i.e. the spiritual vitality and progress of their members)? If so, what are the results showing? Willow Creek did this recently, and the results were alarming. That's old news now. But is anyone else doing it?

I attended a workshop yesterday on Developing a Reproducing Culture in a Rapidly Growing Church, led by Dave Ferguson of Community Christian Church and New Thing Network, multi-site phenoms. For them, and for an increasing number of church leaders and organizations, "multiplication" is the measure of success... multiplication of churches, that is. Of course, this is necessary for the expansion of the kingdom, but is this what Jesus called us to do? Not simply that, no. "Make disciples" is the mission he gave us. We can continue to move from field to field, reaping the harvest of souls until the soil is depleted, allowing churches to die their "natural deaths" and move on to greener fields, but are we really growing God's kingdom? Are people continuing to follow more and more closely after Jesus once they are born-again? Do we even care, or have we fooled ourselves into believing that filling buildings, and even homes, is accomplishing the Great Commission?

I would not be surprised if all but very few churches are missing the boat altogether, including many of the rapid multiplication ones. This is not about to change, i believe, until we recover authentic, biblical community as the non-negotiable base of our churches. Let me unpack this, with the help of Pastor Frazee.

Authentic: not artificial, not an event (small group). Frazee emphasizes five primary characteristics of authentic community:
  1. Spontaneity of interaction
  2. Availability to one another
  3. Frequency of interaction
  4. Geographical proximity (critical for the 1st three)
  5. Interdependence of life
Biblical: Community does not exist as an end in itself, nor does it automatically form Christ in people. It must be recognized as the means for higher ends, and must be done according to the wisdom of Scripture. Frazee notes five aspects of a community's common purpose:
  1. Clear, common understanding of and respect for an agreed upon authority structure,
  2. Common creed (foundational beliefs and practices),
  3. Common traditions (symbols, festivals, activities, etc. that reinforce the community's values, practices, and purpose),
  4. Common standards which define expectations of community members, and
  5. A clearly defined, common mission.
One of the most important concepts Frazee identifies is the need for individuals and families to "move toward one main circle" (p. 34-35), i.e., to consolidate our worlds into one.  The reason for this is that most urban and suburban Americans have too many "worlds" to manage (i.e. are over-extended relationally and emotionally), and are suffering psychologically and spiritually as a result.  Depression is at an historic high.  Divorce rates and family dysfunction continues to soar.  American individualism has become isolationism, and we are falling to pieces—as individuals, families, and as a society.  It is only as we rediscover and embrace an interdependent lifestyle, in which relationships are natural, normal, and necessary, that we will relearn how to be human—and learn how to be truly Christian.

I could go on and elaborate on the many, serious challenges which face the Western church—challenges which are not being adequately addressed by even the most rapidly growing churches and movements (e.g., youth/young adult dropout/retention, gross biblical illiteracy)—but time and space here do not permit.  Suffice it to say that all our elaborate means to structure, plan, and organize our churches via programs—and cure sick souls via counseling and support groups—are but scotch tape holding together a dam that is about to break under the tide of hyper-modernity.   They fail to address the root of the problem: our fundamental disconnectedness in every arena of life.  Oh, we have connections.  We have more than we can sanely manage.  What we lack is true, deep connection—the kind of connection that heals and inspires and grounds us.  The kind of connection through which Christ in me finds Christ in you—soul on soul.

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