If you have any amount of significant years behind you in this life, you’ve been a part of some type of community of people – be it a family, a church, a team, etc. – that has broken down and broken apart over time. Sometimes it’s planned. There’s nothing wrong with temporary communities that form to do something with a clear end in mind.
But many times it’s not planned. It breaks down and you may look back and wonder what the heck happened.
Communities usually fall apart as a result of not having specific characteristics known to make them sustainable. The foundation of the community was always a relatively weak one. Weak foundations don’t make for long-lasting shelters.
Here we’re going to take a look at 4 main characteristics that consistently stick out when examining successful, authentic, long-lasting communities of the past and present. These are known to be critical to have at the beginning.
We’ll go through them and then talk about how they apply specifically to starting a church.
Note that having these characteristics doesn’t mean the community will definitely be long-lasting. Life is complicated and things happen. But not having these characteristics is most definitely setting a community up to either vanish or exist as an organization.
There are plenty of organizations that last a long time. We’re not examining those here. There’s a whole other set of characteristics that define success for those. Here we’re talking about authentic community.
The founder(s) have a deeply cared-for purpose
When examining authentic communities, the first characteristic you find is that the purpose of the community is the anchor of the community.
Before starting, a person or persons identified what they’re so deeply passionate about they’re willing to make it something the rest of their life is built around. They were so sold out that when the storms hit, the purpose was a mighty anchor. They believed in the purpose so much that they couldn’t give up on it no matter what. Even if they were the only one working to fulfill it, they couldn’t help themselves.
This is the starting point. An authentic community shouldn’t attempt to be started without a deeply cared-for purpose by the founder(s).
Other people have the same deeply cared-for purpose
You also find that other people were needed that cared just as deeply about the purpose as the founder(s). This is the second characteristic.
This is a common mistake that gets made with attempts to start communities. The person starting it is willing to join with all-comers because they want their vision for the community to become a reality. They end up attracting and working closely with people that will join in for a variety of reasons. For example, many people attend community gatherings for social opportunities.
Long-lasting authentic communities don’t waste time starting and trying to build a community this way. They only start if they can find at least 1 other person that has the same deeply cared-for purpose.
How a community starts is everything. The long-lasting authentic ones start with others who are allies in the purpose.
A purpose that is shared equally
A third characteristic is that nobody owns the purpose. It can’t be something one or a few people are asking other people to help be accomplished. Others won’t care deeply enough about something they don’t own. The purpose must be shared equally between the members of the community.
Those that don’t share in the purpose won’t care for the purpose. They’ll be tagalongs and freeloaders. They’ll be happy to show up when it’s convenient and do things they enjoy doing. But they won’t adjust their life and lifestyles to accomplish the purpose.
When only a segment of the community owns the purpose, they won’t be able to help trying to control the community. After all, by owning it, it’s established that the ultimate outcome is on their shoulders. They will feel it constantly. It delivers pressure to not fail.
Therefore, they’ll take more responsibility than everyone else, even when they shouldn’t. They’ll do more things than everyone else, even when they’re not equipped to do so. They’ll get frustrated that other people aren’t as committed, even if they may be the reason.
There’s a whole slew of unhealthy issues that can be avoided if the purpose of a community is shared, just like the Persons within God share His eternal purpose equally.
The purpose is clear and specific
The purpose is the foundation that everything the community does is built upon. The fourth characteristic is the purpose is clear and specific. If it is at all unclear, it will lead to confusion.
The purpose is an agreement being made by everyone in the community. It’s the policy that will govern the community.
In authentic communities, there is no one in charge. The purpose is in charge. If there’s any confusion, it will eventually lead to chaos in the community.
When conflict occurs, it’s what gets referenced to help bring the community back to what they’ve agreed upon.
How to know if people have passion for the purpose
In the process of aligning with these 4 characteristics, there are a couple of signs to look for in people as you’re looking to start a community that are tell-tale signs if they care deeply and share in your passion for the purpose.
First, they say no to other good opportunities. What purposes are going to get busy people’s time, energy, attention and money? Those they care the most deeply about of course.
You can tell how deeply a person cares about a purpose by how willing they are to fit it into their lives. Are they willing to turn down opportunities to be a part of other activities in favor of those that will serve the shared purpose?
For example, in today’s day and age where I live, youth sports has become an extremely popular activity to serve the purpose of developing kids health and social/emotional skills. This is a good thing.
So good that I routinely see families stop attending church gatherings because their children have games during the gathering time. Because of scheduling, they’ve been put in a position to choose one purpose over the other.
The more important purpose to people is the one that wins out. Before starting a community, you have to have a purpose that wins out with the people you’re starting it with.
Second, they will show up and have enthusiasm for the purpose even if the community is 2 or 3 people. Communities rarely start with a bunch of people. Those that show up regardless of the size of the community will be your best and most important allies. These are the people to invest in heavily.
Regarding starting a church
When it comes to starting a church, these characteristics of long-lasting communities can help guide you on whether or not it’s even a good idea. If they are present, it should give you more confidence in moving forward.
The first thing is to examine why you even want to start a church. Ask yourself. Are you out of a ministry job and this is a possible solution to paying the bills? Nobody else will deeply care about that purpose.
Do you have a special gift or talent you want to use for God? You may deeply care about using it. But nobody else will deeply care about that purpose. You get the idea.
The purpose of the church will be the anchor of the church. How strong is the anchor?
Second, you want to examine who you might start a church with. A typical approach is for someone to find a gathering spot, create a name, outline beliefs, create a schedule, etc. They basically handle the logistics, create programs, put on the show and then invite people to attend the festivities.
This can work, but it won’t be a church of authentic community. Those who care deeply about the purpose will do most of the work and get frustrated that more people don’t join in the mission with more commitment and passion. Those that attend will do so if they feel like a need of theirs is being met and it fits in their life around their more important priorities.
There’s nothing necessarily inherently wrong with this approach as long as you understand and accept that the result won’t be an authentic Kingdom community (the biblical vision of church). You’ll have manufactured community. That can serve a purpose, but it may not be the one you’re shooting for.
If an authentic biblical church is what you’re after, start with people that will deeply care and share the clear and specific purpose of the church that’s been outlined. This group will undoubtedly be small at the beginning, but it will be set up to truly be one body with many parts.
If you can’t find those people yet, wait. Ask the Lord for them to come into your life. Get around as many Christians as possible and get into their lives. Identify those whose heart beats for the same purpose. When you think you’ve found some people, you can then consider taking the next steps.