I am always intrigued by where I experience community and where community is occurring in our culture. This past summer, a few experiences captured my imagination and I wonder what we can learn as a church from them.
The first experience occurred at a local brewery. My sister and I had done a “sister day” together, and we decided to cap off a beautiful summer evening by heading over to a brewery in her neighborhood. It was fascinating. It was filled with people in groups, hanging out and talking. Some were young, sitting around a table, phones out while conversing with one another. Others were outside by the bean bag toss. But the one that caught my eye was an older couple, sitting together at a table, playing a game, while sipping on a beer. It struck me, they could have easily done that at home. No reason to go out to play a board game, except to be in the midst of people instead of home alone. I shouldn’t have been surprised because my sister and I were doing the very same thing. We were playing cribbage, sharing a flight of beers, enjoying the evening, and we could have easily have done that on her back deck, but somehow it felt different to do it here, like we were a part of something. The brewery was doing more than selling beer. They were creating what social scientists call “the third place,” that place after home and work, where people gather and connect. They provided games, food, and ambience. They even offered a yoga class on the weekends! They wanted people to come and stay awhile, and they created an environment where people did just that. How do we create environments so that our church buildings become third places, true gathering places for the community, because people want places to congregate with friends and neighbors?
The second experience was a bike trip at the end of August. It was organized through Road Scholar, an organization that plans educational trips. We had 20 people or so come together who did not know each other, from different parts of the country, who simply had a common interest: biking. We were a variety of skill levels, ages, and personalities. One day was particularly challenging, with numerous hills, and several of us had chain issues while shifting. Others stopped to help, and you never felt stupid for not being an expert! People were genuinely interested in one another and sought to get to know each other. I remarked while on lunch break that it gave me hope for our country to see a diverse group of people come together, work together and be so thoughtful to one another. Someone else remarked, “that is Road Scholar kind of people.” They had experienced this quality of community on every Road Scholar experience. What can we do as a faith community to foster such powerful experiences of belonging that people would say about us, “well, that is Christian kind of people?” Just by how we are as a community, can we give others hope about who we can be as a people and a country?
The third experience was attending the Brene’ Brown speaking event at Hennepin Avenue UMC. Close to 1,000 people streamed through the doors to hear Brene’ Brown speak on her new book. You could feel the energy as they walked in, excited to be there. But what hit me that evening was that this was church. Oh sure, people had bought a ticket to come. And it was billed as a book tour.
But Brene’ was preaching. She was talking about the spiritual crisis that is occurring in our world. She offered four practices we need if we are going to create a different world, practices like “hold hands with strangers,” when we experience large communal gatherings that create shared experiences, because they bind us together. I have no idea whether the people in attendance belonged to a faith community or even would see a faith community as a way to embody what Brene’ was talking about, but they were clearly hungry for the message she was sharing. How can we be so bold and relevant in our messaging that we pack them in, standing room only, because we can offer them a way forward towards a world they desperately want to see and live?
Church has been such a defining community for me in my life. I want others to experience that too, but for the church to be known as the place where you go when you are seeking community, well, we might need to change up our game a little bit. My summer experiences gave me some things to think about. I am curious; where you have you experienced community lately, and what about it made it community for you?
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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