By Eddie Pipkin

Last week, I experienced two different insights into how the church might (or might not) respond to cultural shifts by functioning as an extended family for people who need new ways to connect to others and need support for getting through life’s day-to-day challenges.  One of these moments was reading a long-form article about “co-housing,” which was a real eye-opener for me as it explored new ways that families are choosing to live together to share the responsibilities of parenting and safely build multi-generational connections.  The other was a more personal moment, when I realized I needed extra help in providing a safe and nurturing network for a young man who is important to me who is struggling.  In both cases, the church has a sacred opportunity to do the very thing we get so excited about when we read Acts 2.  But it’s not an automatic thing, even in a healthy church.  It requires intention and thoughtful application.

The deep-think opinion piece arrived via the New York Times, a long and thorough analysis by Judith Shulevitz, titled, “Does Co-Housing Provide a Path to Happiness for Modern Parents?”  In it, she recounts the history of co-living scenarios and communes of the past and focuses on a modern iteration that is cropping up in today’s cities with their unaffordable housing.  Families are buying whole buildings and sharing space in them together.  Each individual family has their own personal space (like a traditional apartment), but there are also many shared spaces for gathering and co-living, such as large kitchens, recreational areas, game and gathering rooms, and the like.  It’s a contemporary take on the old concept of the flower-child commune: in this version families have their own personal space (which they own outright and do not share), but they also have readily accessible community areas which they can access at will.  There are many organized opportunities for hanging out, sharing meals, and doing life together.

The advantages of such an arrangement are that families have a presumably safe way to build relationships with other families, and that those presumably safe and healthy relationships can nurture kids, give support to parents, and divvy up some of the responsibilities of family life, such as easily arranged babysitting, chore sharing, and cost-sharing for the amenities of home ownership.  It’s a very different take than previous versions of “all in” communes and religious communities where everybody shared everything equally and without much privacy or even choice.  Those who participate in this new version tout the way in which it offers the best of both worlds: privacy and vibrant community.  There are lots of optional potlucks; there are safe and interesting places for kids to build friendships and interact; there is somebody who’s good at math to tutor your kid if that’s not your thing; there are other adults to be a good influence; there are people to pitch in when you’re going through a crisis.

It is, in many ways, a modern take on what we read about in Acts 2:43-47, which is the gold standard for how the local church should live in community.  We share that passage regularly with our congregations, with special gusto during the season of Pentecost, and we hold it up as a model for true faith-based, selfless fellowship.

Of course, now when we read that passage together, we read it metaphorically – well, that is, we’re on board with the sharing meals part (on a regular but not oppressive basis), and we’re up for the occasional prayer session, but we put a more subtle and sophisticated twist on that “selling and pooling all their resources so that each person’s need was met” – let’s not get carried away with a literal interpretation, shall we?

Even so, the local church, in its prime, functioning at its healthy best, has historically provided many of the benefits that the new co-housing movement is seeking.

The local church offers a place of supportive community, a safe space to build valuable relationships, a haven of growth and encouragement, a place of nurture, a place of sharing life’s burdens (emotionally and practically), and a place of locating and utilizing resources made available through the diverse talents and gifts of a gathering of people who have chosen one another as family.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.  And it often does!  But it most often does so in pockets.

Whenever people gather together in the local church setting, especially when their proclivities, interests, and life stages overlap, there is an organic outgrowth of deep connection that can result in friendships that last a lifetime.  We see this in families that are raising children together in the context of local church programs from Sunday School to Youth Group.  We see this in retirees who become close friends through church fellowship.  We see it in Bible nerds who keep encountering one another in study after study.  We see it in musicians and singers who build bonds of connection in the countless hours of rehearsal and performance.  It happens naturally, and these relationships form the core of the local church’s sense of family (what happens beyond the organized programs of the church).

So connected are these people who are connected that we can lose sight of the people who never get connected in this natural, organic way.  The local church, it turns out has certain biases where connection is concerned:

  • People who are natural “connectors” get connected – because connection is available and, indeed, because connection is part of the proclaimed mission of the community. However, people who struggle to connect, by disposition, by virtue of past relational trauma, or by sheer awkwardness, can be left on the sidelines.
  • Churches are program oriented, so people who benefit from specific programs are most likely to see their needs met and get connected. Programs, by definition, are most often designed in “one-size-fits-all” format, so people who aren’t engaged by the program or can’t get their needs met by the distinct framework of any individual program can be left on the sidelines.  (This is the flaw in our frequent mantra of “just get involved in something.”)
  • Squeaky wheels get the grease. This is as true in the local church as it is in other areas of human interaction.  There are those among us who are adept at describing our needs and advocating for those needs to be met.  They tend to be at the front of the line in terms of garnering attention and help.  Others, who are more circumspect or insecure in ways that cause them to be less vocal, can fall between the cracks.
  • No matter how hard we try, there will always be Insiders and outsiders in our institutions. It is extremely difficult to resist this natural gravity.  It requires discipline and clear goals of integrating as many people as often as possible into insider spaces.

Churches build community – often deep and lasting community – as a natural outgrowth of the stuff churches do, from worship to classes to service opportunities to fellowship events.  But most churches are content to accept the community that springs from these efforts without looking too closely at the people who never access that deeper community connection.

It is rare for a local church to have a systemic approach to building supportive, responsive, integrated community.

My own personal experience with this in recent weeks involves figuring out how to expand the safety net of relationships for a young man who is special to me: a teenager who has known great loss and challenges, and who is dealing with learning disabilities and socialization awkwardness as he makes the transition from teenager to adult.  He’s a sweet and thoughtful young man who is struggling in the chaos of a large high school.  I spend regular time with him in person and on the phone, and I got him connected to his local youth group, but it’s not enough.  He doesn’t have extended family connections.  He doesn’t have conventional friends.  He’s not part of the core ‘insider’ group at youth (and every youth group has such a core).  He’s an outlier.  And I’m not sure how to get him more relationship resources from his local church.  I am figuring this out, but there is no system for it.  It’s a ‘try this’ and ‘try that,’ ‘hit or miss’ approach, and even though I’ve been involved in one kind of ministry or another for 30 years, it’s frankly intimidating and exhausting.

At most local churches, the only person to put in a call to talk about an issue like that is with the local pastor.  And, frankly, that’s evidence that we have a broken system.  The pastor, faced with countless responsibilities in a given week, does not have the bandwidth to figure out the relationship resourcing for everyone in the congregation who needs extra help and attention.

Compare this to this young man’s educational situation.  He has, what is known in classroom circles, as an IEP (Individualized Education Program).  This means that periodically, his parent, his teachers, and a bevvy of counselors and educational specialists meet and formulate a plan tailored to his educational needs.  They monitor his progress and adjust their approach accordingly.  It’s organized, it’s systemic, it holds people accountable, and it empowers children and parents to advocate for what they truly need.

What if local churches had a version of the IEP?  What if, instead of most of our time going into the design and implementation of programs and events, we focused more on the spiritual and relational needs of individuals?  What if we made an effort to understand their needs more fully – not just how those needs intersect with the programs and events we are offering – and we connected them with people and resources to address those needs?  There are lonely people in our midst.  There are single parents in our midst (who need babysitters and financial planners and someone to change the oil in their car).  There are grieving people and depressed people and outcasts and people who need work and people who need someone to listen to them.  If we give those people a way to honestly communicate those needs, we also open up a world of possibility for the people who have something to offer them (kind of like that model established in Acts 2 – those of us who are good listeners can be there for those who need someone to listen; those who are good professional mentors can mentor those who need guidance; those who are lonely can be integrated into social gatherings beyond the church walls; those who like to fish can take a teenage boy on a fishing trip – there are more ways to serve than teaching a Bible study, noble work though that is).

All of this essential connection and relationship ministry can happen if there is a system of connection.

What are the systems for building relationships at your church?  Do you celebrate your brand of co-parenting, co-living, and co-operating in the spirit of Acts 2?  If someone has someone who needs some extra attention, who do they call for figuring out how to get help?  Share your stories, challenges, and celebrations.  Where do you see essential community happening and where do you wish you would see it more?