Are We A Thriving Community?

Exploring an intergenerational future of the church.

Are We A Thriving Community?
Photo by Chengwei Hu / Unsplash

I love a good meal. My favorite thing to do is find new places to eat. Food is a conduit to connecting people. There’s something that happens when you share a good meal with people you care about that allows relationships to flourish.

A few years back my wife and I began eating breakfast weekly with a group of friends. We get together at a local restaurant every Thursday morning to share a meal and life together. For 7am on a Thursday, we can often be noisy as we converse and build our shared relationship.

As the early church began living into Jesus’s commandment, they developed a thriving community built upon shared relationships:

42The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44All the believers were united and shared everything. 45They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. Acts 2:42–47 CEB

The early church gathered daily to share meals and discuss life. They shared and lived out their faith together. The final line of Acts 2 explains as the church lived out these practices together, their numbers grew daily. They were a growing, thriving community because they were living out their faith and developing deep and lasting relationships together. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be part of a fun community involving food?

Unfortunately, we live in a world where developing relationships and being part of intentional community is really difficult.

Due to the hectic nature of our lives, instead of naturally living out the vision of the early church we’ve made experiencing community a special commitment.

Our lives are so busy it can be difficult to find time to sit down to a meal with others. Our breakfast group gets together once a week which can be a difficult task. Some weeks it’s not possible for everyone to be present, but we try because the relationships are important.

In our hectic lives, we often only allot an hour or two a week (if it’s a good week) to experience a sense of shared community and build relationships with others. Then we walk out the door and return to the chaos of the world.

Even in the church it’s become difficult to experience a thriving community. Instead of being together, worshiping and discussing faith as the body of Christ, we’ve opted to split ourselves up among age-lines, worship preferences, and individualized groups. This self-chosen separation hinders relationships.

I was at a conference last week with church workers from around the world. An Australian woman named Tammy Tolman described the church as a butcher shop.

We’re able to select the ministries we want to engage in while we ignore those that don’t interest us or we don’t have time for.

This is not a picture of a thriving community, living out faith and building relationships together.

Instead, Tammy challenged us to look at the church as the whole, living cow.

When the church is seen as a single, connected being reflecting the ideals of the early church, it becomes a thriving community.

Sure, like an actual living cow the church can sometimes be messy and not always go in the direction we individually want. Yet, a living and united church built upon connected relationships is much better than a butchered one.

Last year myself and seven church members began researching intergenerational formation. We got together with Rev. Melissa Cooper to discuss a church focused on the whole cow.

Through months of studying generational theory and faith formation, we developed a vision for an intergenerational future of First Church:

We believe God calls all of us at First Church to use our unique gifts to cultivate a thriving community of deep and lasting intergenerational relationships where every person is valued and loved.

It hit me last week this vision of a thriving community is the vision laid out in Acts. Our vision has everyone connected through deep and lasting intergenerational relationships, using their gifts to experience faith and life together.

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Doing this requires us to be in relationships with people different from ourselves. This includes those who have different worship preferences, different ages, different cultures, and different theologies than ourselves. Only when we can break down these barriers can we begin to live into this vision of a thriving community.

As part of our intergenerational work, we walked our congregational leadership through Map Your Ministry. This is our attempt to look at First Church as the whole cow.

Through this work we learned there are over 173 ministries or groups here at First Church. We then looked at all the things and determined 20% of what we currently do is intergenerational. This is a great step, but to live into our vision where deep intergenerational relationships are formed, we need between 50% and 80% of what we do to be intergenerational.

Our cohort looked at research showing children and teenagers have a stronger likelihood of developing a life-long faith if five or more adults know and care for them on a deep level. Our vision of an intergenerationally connected church takes this concept a step further and desires five or more deep and lasting relationships, across generations, for every member of our congregation.

To live out this vision we must set aside the differences that separate us. Then we must embrace our shared calling to be a thriving community built upon deep and lasting relationships.

We live in a highly individualistic culture. Studies show people, especially young people, are dealing with extreme levels of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection. We need to follow Jesus’ lead and ensure the church provides an alternative to the culture. Instead of furthering a sense of individualism and isolation, we have an opportunity to embrace our collective unity through intergenerational relationships.

At the conference last week, all meals were served at large round tables. As an introvert, spending ten hours in classes each day and then conversing at a table was a tall order.

Yet, it was through these meal times I met people of all ages, from multiple countries. Sharing a meal invited us into a conversation together, developing relationships that otherwise would not exist. Regardless of age or place of birth or faith tradition or political affiliation, we were united through a meal.

The room was noisy as food fueled conversation. Those meals were a glimpse of our intergenerational vision lived out — the same vision of the early church worshiping, eating, and sharing life together.

I think Jesus was a foodie. Many of his big moments involved food. His first miracle was at a party. He fed entire crowds. After his resurrection, Jesus returned to his friends and, as Nadia Bolz-Webber puts it, asked if they had any snacks.

It’s no wonder Jesus provided us a bridge across our differences through communion.

Communion is a time of celebration over a shared meal. Like the dinner table at the conference, communion sheds our differences and provides an opportunity for relationships to develop.

There are times communion gets noisy and it’s always messy — breadcrumbs get all over the carpet — but that’s ok! Celebrations should be noisy. They should be messy. Just like the whole, living cow is noisy and messy.

The early church followed Jesus’s example and developed a thriving community built around food and worship. They took these practices from the temple into their homes and lived their faith daily.

We have an opportunity to do the same and live into our intergenerational vision for First Church. Let communion be the example.

Our hectic culture of isolation is not the vision Jesus had for the church. It’s not the way the early church functioned and it’s not our vision of an intergenerational church.

If we begin connecting with each other and developing intergenerational relationships while inside these walls, it will become a lot easier to do so when we’re outside of them.

Let’s share a meal together.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!