Cultivating Rich Community in the Church

By Travis Cunningham

We all want to experience belonging. And as Christ followers, we get to experience this belonging within the family of God. Here are four ways to cultivate the type of biblical community that you and your congregation need.

One aspect of our faith that is both exhilarating and exhausting is that in the words of Eugene Peterson, “It is a long obedience in the same direction.” It is a slow, arduous, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other faith. I believe this is why the Bible puts such emphasis on comparing our faith to agricultural realities. Crops don’t magically appear. The farmer must have a long obedience in the same direction. Farming is a slow, arduous, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type of work. It is a work of cultivation. To cultivate something is to dig, stir, prepare, work, and turn the soil so that the seed can sprout.

Pastors of new churches are in the work of cultivation. We cultivate an appetite for God’s Word in God’s people. We cultivate a posture of missions in our core teams. We cultivate new believers into servants and leaders.

One aspect of cultivation that we must prioritize in new churches is the cultivation of community. Community is the “it-factor” that creates healthy, enduring, and growing churches. It is where brothers and sisters disciple, care for, and mobilize one another. It is where God forges us into His own image.

If we all agree that community is necessary to the flourishing of a new (and old!) church, then how do we cultivate it? To mix metaphors: How do pastors—as farmers—cultivate—dig, stir, prepare, and work the soil of—community in our local churches?

1. Create opportunity

One thing church planters must be aware of in their community is mixing the aspirational with the actual. Early in our church, I preached the aspirations of what our church would become, and it left our people wanting that. This was good. What I didn’t do was follow it up with mechanisms for the aspirational to become actual.

It is good and right to preach the beauty and necessity of community. It is also good and right to create opportunities for people to experience these things. Does this need to be a fully formed, functioning vision for small groups? Probably not. But maybe one day.

But when you start, just do something. A men’s hike. A women’s brunch. A summer equipping class. A monthly dinner. A quarterly church potluck. Pick your own adventure for what will work with your people. Don’t be fancy. Like we often say at Story Church, “It’s not about the food on the table; it’s about who is around the table.” This is our attempt to demystify community.

The bottom line is this: As a pastor you will cultivate community by creating opportunity for your people to be in community.

2. Model regularity

A second way to cultivate community is for the pastor of a new church to model community. As an (increasingly!) introverted pastor, I understand the dread of being encouraged to press into community. But as the famous axiom goes, more lessons are caught than taught.

If you ask your congregation to participate in community yet do not do it yourself, then rich community will never be present in your church. Why? Well, Paul tells his disciples to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Much of our Christian experience is simple imitation of those we are following. And pastor, your people are following you. They are choosing to submit to you.

I’m not saying you have to lead everything, teach everything, and be at everything. But you must model regularity. Regularly attending Sunday school. Regularly attending prayer meetings. Regularly attending outside events.

In the words of the preeminent modern philosopher Joe Dirt, “Keep on keepin’ on.” If you model regularity, then over time, people will value what they see you valuing. Just remember: it’s slow.

3. Teach ordinary expectations

What can our people expect to get out of community? That’s a complex question. In some ways, we should say, “It’s not what you get; it’s what you give.” But I believe this idea undermines the truth of community.

Our people will certainly get a lot of things out of community. If we are practicing the 59 “One Anothers” of the New Testament, then they will get encouragement, love, correction, rebuke, burden-bearing, and so much more. They will get a deeper understanding of the gospel and its implications. They will get people who are committed to helping them look more like Jesus.

However, those are the crops that are produced after the farmer cultivates the soil. We should teach our people to expect the ordinary. We should also preach that ordinary is not bad. It is through the ordinary means of grace (like baptism, communion, fellowship, preaching, and prayer) that God saves and transforms people.

When it comes to community, if we just keep showing up regularly and doing the ordinary things, God will be at work. Some ordinary things every church can pull off:

  • A weekly book study
  • Sunday lunches spent going over sermon application
  • A monthly prayer night
  • A men’s coffee spent sharing testimonies
  • A women’s tea where prayer is the focus
  • A pastors’ training group

If the Word, prayer, and God’s Spirit and people are present, then you have more than enough to see rich community begin to blossom from within your church.

4. Pray for powerful breakthrough

Finally, the pastor must pray. One of the main heart cries of our day is the desire to belong. People find themselves caught up in a bunch of evil faux-communities because they have found a place to belong there. When we are working towards community, we are working towards people belonging to the family of God. And we are fighting against Satan and the present evil age.

But God is more powerful than the present evil age. So, we must pray often and with fervency that He would create in our churches true, biblical, powerful community. And He is faithful to do that. But are we faithful to keep pestering Him for it?

To the weary, worn-down, beat-up, barely-hanging-on-by-a-thread pastor, Jesus loves you, loves your (His!) church, and works through your weaknesses. Don’t give up. Keep going, modeling, teaching, and praying. Walk the long road of obedience. Do the faithful, hard work of cultivation. The promise of Jesus and the testimony of farmers says it all: It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

Published February 5, 2024

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Travis Cunningham

Travis Cunningham serves as the Lead Pastor of Story Church in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. He is married to Katy and has two kids: Peyton and Owen. He earned a Master of Divinity from Western Seminary. Story Church was planted in 2019 and desires to see the Inland Empire region of Southern California transformed by the gospel of Jesus to the glory of God.