When I moved 25 miles from the suburbs of Chicago to my new home in the city, the changes were all-encompassing. I transitioned from grad school to post-grad school, from suburban culture to urban culture, from a church home to a church search. It’s a whole new chapter in life, and thus far I’ve felt joy, frustration, hilarity, and disappointment. It’s been quite a roller coaster, and the ride is far from over, but I am excited for what is to come. A big priority on my to-do list is finding a new church home, and the last few months have clarified for me what I am searching for. There are four main areas that I now try to evaluate as I’m visiting churches: community, preaching, worship, and mission. Over the next two weeks, I want to share with you what I’m looking for in my church search. No church is perfect, and I’m not looking for perfect churches. I am looking for a healthy church, however, and I believe a few things are important marks for a healthy church. To begin, what are important marks for healthy community in a church? I think there are at least three marks of a healthy community:
A healthy church community is safe. It is a community where friendships are genuine and secure. One of God’s greatest gifts to me as I worked on my Master of Divinity was a church community where I could share my life and my struggles with complete honesty and without fear. My church had network of small groups in which safety was not only talked about, it was guaranteed and secured from the top down. A church community that is safe is one in which you can share your joys and your fears without threat of judgment or gossip. This doesn’t mean that the community constantly affirms you as God’s most special butterfly who never does anything wrong. Some of the best conversations I ever had with my church community were conversations of tough love, expressing deep disagreement or calling out my sins and failures. A healthy community has a level of safety that allows you not only to share your heart openly but also to receive tough love fearlessly. Deeply loving friendships establish safety in community, and this is essential to the health of any church.
A healthy church community is simple. Too many churches over-complicate their communities by trying to do too much. They have fifty different ministries and their weekly bulletins are packed with announcements, but few attendees are actual friends outside of church events. A church that cultivates healthy community is simple. They clearly grasp what God has called them to do and they avoid doing anything else. A simple church has fewer events but deeper community because people are free to build friendships through common mission together. A recent New York Times article explains that friendships only develop with (1) proximity, (2) repeated, unplanned interactions, and (3) a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. A complex church hinders all three ingredients; a simple church makes room for the ingredients of friendship. By God’s grace, simplicity leads to healthy community.
Lastly, a healthy church community is stable. A stable community was incredibly important to me in the suburbs, and it’s just as important for an urban church. My work ethic easily tempts me to slide into a pattern of busyness that ignores the importance of church community. In the city, the rate of change and transience only adds layers of difficulty to establishing friendships within the church. But I believe that churches create healthy community by providing structures of stability. Small groups with established leaders who are committed to digging in their roots and serving their neighborhoods are the backbone to stability. In contrast, a frazzled array of hospitable but unfocused small groups cultivates a culture of instability. A healthy community has developed structures that support stability. Stable communities provide a consistent filling station for spiritual nourishment and a steady launching station for kingdom-oriented mission. In the midst of constant change, stable communities provide an urban home for the rootless, and the influence of the church expands as members covenant together for the sake of the common mission.
Safe, simple, and stable: three marks of healthy community in a church. No church will be perfect, but a healthy church will exhibit some degree of these traits. As I’m searching for a new church, I am always asking, “What kind of community exists here?” In my next post, I ask, “What kind of preaching is found here?” This is an incredible important question, and I hope you come back to consider my thoughts.