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Intentional Christian Community - Growing Gospel Community Near You

Posted by Jon Dennis on

(Part one of an occasional series)

How do you find community in a transient urban context?

Back in 1948, renowned author E.B White spent a scorching summer in New York trying to capture the spirit of the city. Writing in 90-degree weather from an un-air-conditioned apartment and diners across the city, his essay Here is New York was almost a love ballad. In it he meditates on the nature of community in the urban context; how the anonymity of New York could be a kind of gift for creativity; how there are ‘three New Yorks’, each experienced differently by commuters, long-term residents, and those who arrive in New York to find their destiny; how there is an ‘18 inch’ principle in the city, where everyone is given their space; how the city can absorb major events like the arrival of the largest seafaring vessels or an enormous convention without a ripple to the residents.

White’s essay captures the allure, the joys and the tragedies of the city.  He compares the city to a poem. “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”

What is community like in a city?

For the last 20 years I have been reflecting on the nature of community in the urban context. When our family moved with the Helms and roughly 30 others adults to Chicago, Dave and I knew we would likely only have congregants with us for 3 years. We built our ministry aware of this. The idea was fine in the abstract, in practice it hurt. We were used to a university context with repeated ”graduating classes.” But experientially at the end of three years, when about one third of the congregation relocated to other cities (Zurich, Boston, Seattle, etc), we felt it. One congregant remarked that HTC felt a bit like ‘an organ donor church’: “Need an arm? Here you go!”

I remember our first dinner with a fairly rooted, Chicago couple. They had been in the city 9 years. We enjoyed good conversation over Japanese food. But later they admitted they themselves wondered “how long before these families move away?” They weren’t sure if they should invest in us. And now they themselves have moved to another city.

One of the most challenging aspects of building a healthy community in the city is dealing with transience. New Chicagoans, in the city for degree programs, consulting jobs, medical school, law school, or undergrad, are often only here for a brief stay. Last week, I spoke to a pastor from Logan Square who planted 10 years ago. He said he felt like he was in a ‘continual state’ of church planting and that the typical congregant was with him just 18 months.

How do you build gospel community in a transient city?

About six years ago I hit a kind of minor ministry crisis in this regard. One of our elders, living on the North Side of the city was wrestling with community. He – and his wife – felt disconnected in the transience. My conversation with him sent me into a season of prayer. My question was, “Lord, if we can’t build deep community – what is the point?” Over a period of hours, I felt compelled to reflect on my own experience. We had moved to be on mission together in a neighborhood and to be part of one another's lives.

A few months later, I challenged about 30 adults in our downtown congregation (particularly those who were in rental apartments) to a simple concept: “When your lease expires, move within a ten minute walking distance of others from church.” But we clarified, begin a process of (1) prayer, (2) exploration, (3) commitment, (4) relocation and (5) celebration.

Our first ‘Intentional Christian Community’ came out of that time of prayer and vision.

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