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Five Cultural Struggles: Aloneness
by Tom Goodman
November 8, 2007

We are a mobile society today.  In the past, when people tended to stay in one place all their lives, they experienced a wide network of parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors, and friends to support them.  Now that we no longer tend to live in any one place for long, that network doesn't exist anymore.

And that provides "a tremendous opportunity for the church," says John Burke.  A church can be the family that many people no longer have -- or perhaps never had.  In his book, No Perfect People Allowed, the Austin pastor says that churches have to be ready to deal with five main issues as we serve our community:


We've already looked at the first four struggles in previous editions of LeaderLines, and I posted a great response I received from last week's coverage of brokenness (click here to read it).

Now, what about the concern with aloneness?  The reality is, Burke says, "people long for community but they are afraid to get close."  For many, their disappointment with trusting others from their past contributes to this, added to the transient nature of contemporary life, especially in city settings:
We live in a highly fragmented, relationally isolated society.  People move, change jobs, get divorced, commute hours each day, travel around the country weekly, then spend all their free time surfing through 1700 cable channels and millions of Internet sites, and all of the cost of relationships.  We have increased our financial capital, but it has cost us relational capital.

But Burke says this is the point where the church has a great opportunity.  According to Scripture, the church is to function like a family.  And church leaders that focus on other things and neglect to develop their church into a supportive community will fail:
Emerging generations, like never before, crave this sense of community inside a spiritual family.  If they don't experience hope for authentic relational support, I don't care how hip the service, or how rippin' the music, or how vintage the vibe, they won't stick.  The challenge for leaders is first to learn how to live in community with others, and then to provide ways to ensure that nobody stands alone.

One of the most fundamental things church leaders can do to overcome our culture's experience with aloneness is to develop an effective small-group ministry.  No matter the size of the Sunday worship attendance, people really experience "church" when they regularly meet with a group of no more than 10-15 people.  Bible study, encouragement, accountability, and service happen here.

The Hillcrest small-group ministry is Sunday School at 9:30am and Common Ground at 10:30am.  Though we have other small groups as well (the Hillcrest Institute, the Anchor Course, handbells, orchestra, etc.), the best place to experience the kind of community that helps our culture overcome aloneness happens in Sunday School or Common Ground.

Effective small-group ministry has to constantly deal with the tension of building closeness while also reaching out.  Burke acknowledges that it is no different at Gateway:
When groups get larger than 10 to 15 people, it becomes difficult for people to feel is connected and known.   A very real tension develops the emerging churches must struggle to resolve.  We've fought hard against the idea of splitting a group into two when it reaches a certain size.  In a generation fearful to trust due to failed relational connections in the past, once they feel like they've found a family of friends, to insist on splitting the group due to size feels destructive, like a divorce.  On the other hand, when groups become ingrown for years and years and never reach out to others, never provide connection and support to others, generally they stagnate and disband because the individual members are not growing to be more Christlike by extending life to others.

Their solution is to look for "apprentice leaders" within the existing small groups who can be trained to the point where they can take a few people who want to start new group for outreach.  It's something we promote at Hillcrest, too.  We don't want to "split" a class or a Common Ground group, but we do want our Sunday morning groups to look for ways of "giving birth" to new groups so we can keep the average attendance of each small group to around 10-15.

Of course, all of these things are simply part of small-group strategy.  The point is that church leaders must build a sense of "family" in their church.  It's the way we address one of the crying needs of our culture: the need to find connection in an isolated world.

This concludes our five-week series through the major cultural issues that Burke says today's churches have to address.  Reviewing the list with you has given me a chance to think about how well we're accomplishing this task at Hillcrest.  God bless your continued work for him in this mission outpost at Steck and Greenslope!


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