Community Isn’t Just a Buzz-word

Posted: August 31, 2010 in community

My alma mater Taylor University is infamous for tossing around the word “community” as if the existence of the school itself depended on it. Mention that word in the student union and you’ll either get a couple of rolling eyes or an over-eager student senate member advertising the next big event that somehow will enhance the Taylor community more than last week’s event. In the well-intentioned but often misguided use of this word, many people are left with unsatisfying answers to some of the hardest questions about what deep fellowship is really about.

This past weekend at Vanguard Church our senior pastor Kelly Williams addressed the topic of aloneness and finding real relationship with others as we seek out real relationship with Jesus Christ. He pin-pointed an extremely important topic that is affecting every church and ministry, big and small. The fact of the matter is that people – especially middle school students – are lonely because they lack real community and relationships that go deeper than the surface level.

In his book called Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships, Dr. Larry Crabb says,

I have come to believe that the root of all our personal and emotional difficulties is a lack of togetherness, a failure to connect that keeps us from receiving life and prevents the life in us from spilling over onto others (32).

This togetherness, this deep community and fellowship, does not come easily. It requires sacrifice – something which our Facebook society does not encourage. Think about it. On Facebook it’s very easy to give only a tainted picture of who you really are to your “friends” and then run from anything that resembles pain or suffering. We don’t get on Facebook to enter into deep, life-pouring relationships. We use it to consume shallow relationships.

So what does this have to do with middle school ministry and relating to our kids? Everything. I’m not that old, but I didn’t have Facebook or any kind of social network until I was in college. I actually had to learn through my teenage years how to relate to others and build relationships. Our middle school kids, on the other hand, have grown up with this kind of social interaction. Most of their relationship knowledge and what they’ve learned about “community” has come from a website.

I can’t just point the finger at Facebook, though. I think youth ministries have accidentally (at times) encouraged shallow relationships with what it calls “fellowship” times. I was challenged once by a book on youth ministry that said we should never assume that what we call in youth ministry “community-building” is the same kind of fellowship and community that the early church experienced. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have times of fun and games, but community, in the biblical sense, is so much deeper.

So what is community? And are we asking too much to have biblical community with our middle school kids?

Picture this. Setting: all-guys middle school small group, 9:00 AM on Sunday morning in Indiana. The kids’ eyes are barely opened, as most of them stayed up really late the night before. But all of a sudden, one student (I’ll save the names to protect these students) shares about his desire to change from his old life when he wasn’t a Christian, and how he broke into tears explaining this fact to his non-Christian mom who wouldn’t let him go to youth group. His heart-level honesty encourages the next guy to share to about his relationship with his mom, and how he felt that he could never do enough to earn her love. With tears in his eyes, he tells the group, “I just don’t know what else I can do.” At that moment, two of the other guys put their arms around him and ask if they can pray for him. Immediately after I said that we could pray, every guy in the small group, including guys who never prayed in front of people before, prayed for our friends who shared.  At this point, there’s hardly a dry eye in the group.

Or how about a month ago when a group of middle school guys in our youth group got together with their leader and shared some of their deepest struggles in hopes of finding accountability and support with each other? With gut-level honesty these guys cried out for help as they relayed stories of struggling with lust, self-esteem, past mistakes. For over an hour these guys prayed with their leader for each other and for the Lord’s strength.

Or what about 2 months ago when, after I finished a talk at a camp I was guest speaking at, the middle school kids refused to leave the service because they wanted to worship together and pray for each other? With the tune of Amazing Grace playing from the front, huddles of students were seen all over the room as kids re-dedicated their lives to Christ… together. Not alone.

That is community. That is deep fellowship. That is what the early church experienced in Acts 2 as thousands were added to their number daily.

Now, I don’t want to mis-represent the picture of middle school ministry week after week. It doesn’t always look like that. But I DO think it is possible more than we imagine. This is the reason our middle school ministry on Sunday mornings has shifted to a focus on small groups. By doing so, we create space for the Holy Spirit to work within our friendships and relationships to deepen our sense of community and God’s presence. We have to create space for deep fellowship and community that goes beyond pizza and ultimate frisbee. While there is nothing wrong with pizza and ultimate frisbee, we have to remember that it can’t stop there. Jesus entered our lives as a human being for more than a free lunch. He came to enter into our lives and our suffering in real relationship.

As a final note, I’d like to thank the people in my life who have taught me through joys and trials what community really means. Especially within this past year – Joel, Dan, Grant – thank you for showing me what it means to love deeply and live sacrificially.

How are you seeking out true community and deep fellowship in your life? How are you creating space for the teenagers in your influence to experience real community and relationships with peers and adults?

  1. Paul Turner says:

    Great blog. I was looking for a good middle school blog. I’ll be checking back and adding your site to my blog.

  2. Paul – Thanks! I appreciate it! I’ll be checking out your blog as well

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