- Building a Community



How to Build a LIFEdevelopment Community - by David Cox



LIFEdevelopment groups and LIFEdevelopment centres are the heart of the community-building LIFEdevelopment process. The local church can create a network of LIFEdevelopment groups, or one or more LIFEdevelopment centres, or a combination of the two. Choosing the best option is a matter of deciding which will serve your church best. Understanding the LIFEdevelopment group concept and the LIFEdevelopment centre concept at this point will help.

a. LIFEdevelopment Groups

These are basically holistic small groups, which usually have between 3 and 8 Adventist members who are committed to:

  • Growing in relationship with God

  • Growing in relationship with each other

  • Growing in numbers by inviting friends (especially "pre-Christian friends) to be part of your small-group community

Such groups usually meet in homes, but can also meet in schools, colleges and workplaces. When they reach 12 or more in number, they "give birth," creating a new group which then meets at a different location.

Ideally, a network of holistic small groups can become a permanent feature of a local congregation, serving as the basis for church life and ministry. Jesus demonstrated the importance of the small group by selecting 12 disciples to live in special relationship with Him, even while He ministered to the many. We have also been uniquely counselled as a denomination that "The formation of small companies as the basis of Christian effort is a plan that has been shown…by One who cannot err." (Ellen White, Evangelism, page 115).

The evangelistic purpose of LIFEdevelopment groups is to provide a bridge between the larger church and the people around us. Many who are not ready to attend a regular church service will attend these "half-way places," where they will become better acquainted with members of the Church family, and more aware of our Church and our message.

b. LIFEdevelopment Centres

LIFEdevelopment centres will serve the same evangelistic purpose as LIFEdevelopment groups: they are simply an alternative bridge between the church and the people we are trying to share the good news of Jesus with. The important thing is that they provide as neutral a setting as possible for the various events and activities to which we may invite our friends. A church hall can therefore be an LIFEdevelopment centre, as long as it is not so churchy that "pre-Christian" friends don’t want to go there. Examples of other possible LIFEdevelopment locations include:

  • A school hall or classroom
  • A community centre
  • A library or town-hall meeting room
  • An empty shop

Unlike LIFEdevelopment groups, LIFEdevelopment centres will be created more for evangelistic outreach and community service than for the care and nurture of church members. Also, in most cases they will be more temporary in nature than LIFEdevelopment groups. The exceptions will be those LIFEdevelopment centres which become new churches.

How and when to invite friends to your LIFEdevelopment group or centre

If you have cultivated substantial relationships over a period of time with three or more pre-Christian friends, and those relationships have grown through stages one and two described above, you can invite them to your small group or centre, because by now:

  • they know quite a bit about you, and probably something about your beliefs and your church, and they are comfortable with that, therefore

  • they trust you

  • some of your Adventist friends are their friends too, so hopefully they already feel to some extent that they "belong"

So, go ahead and invite them, but remember a few important principles:

1. Get the event right

Make sure that what you are discussing in your group, or presenting in your centre, is something your friends are interested in. Better to design your group or centre agenda with your friends' interests in mind, than do what you and your Adventist friends are interested in. Whether the event is a Bible-based small-group discussion, or a workshop or seminar, the subject must relate to your friends' needs - not what you think they need, but the need/s they are facing in real life, such as:

  • relationships
  • spiritual development
  • parenting
  • marriage
  • health
  • stress
  • time management
  • self esteem, etc.

As part of, a variety of resources (videos, Bible study and group discussion materials, seminar kits etc.) will be made available on the above subjects and others.

2. Get the time right

As far as possible, invite friends to the group or centre when you are starting a new topic, rather than half-way through. Friends coming for the first time can easily feel "outside the circle" if they don't start the new series of discussions or presentations with everyone else. This is especially important in a small group setting.

3. Get the duration right

A discussion or presentation series should generally last no longer than six to ten weeks. This is probably a new experience for friends without a religious background, and an invitation to attend a series that is considerably longer appears less attractive. Remember, you're inviting them for a specific event and a limited period only. They must feel free to stop coming when the series is over. Hopefully, of course, they will enjoy it so much that they will want to continue with whatever follows: and they will be more likely to continue if they have a say in what the next topic should be.

The length of each meeting is also important. Until you sense that it is appropriate to continue for longer, one and a half hours is long enough (unless the event - such as an Alpha Course - begins with a meal, which requires extra time). Aim to begin and end on time.

4. Get the atmosphere right

Post-modern people will not take steps towards making spiritual commitments simply because you have argued the correctness of your beliefs or the Bible's teachings. Their decision to act will be based as much if not more on what they experience than on what they understand. So while it's important to make sure that what your friends hear is right, and is shared in as persuasive a manner as possible, it's also important to make sure that what your friends feel is consistent with what they hear. With your friends in mind, this is the kind of atmosphere to pray for and work towards:

  • Welcoming. Our pre-Christian friends need to feel welcome, but they don't want to be the centre of attention. You can introduce them to your group as your friends, but after that they want to be treated as one of the group. Be sensitive to cultural norms: forms of greeting vary, and no-one should be embarrassed.

  • Relaxed. An informal setting suits the concept best. Seating should be comfortable, arranged in a small group setting so that everyone can see everyone else, and in a LIFEdevelopment centre setting at least in a semi-circle. Lighting should be bright but soft rather than dazzling, and background music as people arrive appropriate to the occasion (it doesn't have to be religious). Casual dress is better than formal, though the aim is to help everyone feel at home, whether they are "dressed up" or "dressed down." Drinks and light refreshments can be served at the beginning and/or at the end of the event, but they should be made available at some point. If a meal is part of the programme (as it is with the Alpha course) keep it simple - gastronomic extravagance is out of place. Guests should feel able to arrive fifteen or so minutes before the advertised starting time, so everything needs to be ready then, and after the event itself there should be a warming-down period during which people can feel free to leave or stay and chat. Remember, you're not trying to impress anyone by your performance or appearance in any of the above areas. So just relax. This is God's work, and you are in His hands.

  • Structured but not rigid. Do what you set out to do, but be flexible. If that means changing plans to accommodate an unexpected question or need, do it. The important thing is that people are served, ministry takes place, and lives are changed. Ministry is the goal: activities and events are the means of reaching that goal.

  • Safe. For post-modern people, the search for truth is like a journey through unexplored territory. They are interested to hear the experiences of those who have travelled before them, but are not willing to accept long-established values and beliefs without question. LIFEdevelopment groups and centres should therefore be places where people can ask questions (however basic) raise doubts (however groundless) and express opinions (however radical) about anything without fear of embarrassment. Such a safe environment is the result of a group willingness to accept people as they are, and their views as valid, rather than the result of compliance with a set of beliefs and behavioural rules. It almost goes without saying that there can be no safety of this kind where there is not a corresponding commitment to confidentiality. Safety and gossip are incompatible.

  • Caring. Love for one another has always been a test of Christian discipleship, and persuasive evidence to the world that the story of Jesus is true (John 13:35; 17:23). But in the post-modern world, this is especially the case. Actions speak louder than words.

  • Authentic. Authenticity is probably the most important characteristic that post-modern seekers look for in the people they choose to share their spiritual journey with. However, it is not a quality that can be "created" simply by doing or saying the right thing in the right way. As individuals we are either authentic or not – and when we meet in LIFEdevelopment groups or LIFEdevelopment centres, all we do or say will reflect that. Authenticity is simply the willingness to be who we really are, without pretence or hypocrisy, or a mask to hide behind. That requires openness, honesty, and the willingness to be vulnerable, and these virtues don’t come naturally. They can only be cultivated in a safe, trusting environment. Authenticity is something which is learned together through the mutual sharing of feelings as well as opinions, failures as well as successes, hopes and dreams as well as fears and disappointments. Why is this quality so important? It’s important because there can be no honest search for truth without a commitment to living the truth of who we are. Claiming to "have the truth" while living a lie, we fool no-one – except ourselves.

5. Get the relational dynamics right

The way we conduct activities in our LIFEdevelopment groups and LIFEdevelopment centres, and the way we actually relate to each other on those learning or social occasions is just as important as the overall atmosphere we should endeavour to create. So here are three additional LIFEdevelopment values to consider, specific to the relational dynamics of LIFEdevelopment community events.

a. Equality. Christian community is possible only when everyone is regarded and treated as equal. While differences such as age, gender, personality, and race (which make us who we are) can and should be celebrated, no one should feel superior or inferior to others because of differences in social standing, education, material worth, or spiritual maturity. Adventists are not better than others. While we have much to share, we also have much to learn. At the level of basic human worth - as God sees us - we are all equal. In LIFEdevelopment groups and centres, there should be no cliques or favourites in our relationships with one another. However, while we all agree with the theory, it is easy to unintentionally create an atmosphere of "us and them" in our groups (those on the inside/those on the outside) if we don't take care in certain areas. Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Language. There is an Adventist vocabulary just as there is a "posh" or cockney or Caribbean vocabulary. The problem is, only church members understand it. So we need to filter out any theological or denominational jargon which will leave people without any church or Bible background feeling ignorant or mystified. The challenge is to talk about justification, sanctification, righteousness, "the blood of the Lamb," Zion, sin, hell, circumcision, lost, saved, the Fall, Sister White (or the Spirit of Prophecy), the great commission, pagan, the BUC and the General Conference in words that ordinary men, women and children can understand.

  • Recognition. How we greet or identify each other when we meet, can easily make our guests feel very different to the rest of the group. While we should make everyone feel welcome, we are likely to make visitors feel uncomfortable if we fuss over them or make them wear a visitor's badge or flower. Once they have been welcomed, they should be treated the same as everyone else. One way in which we can express our belief in our equal-ness is for everyone to be addressed in the same way. Since friends usually use first or Christian names when talking to each other, it is good if everyone in the group can be addressed in the same way. Calling some by their first name (Joan, Robert, etc) others by their title (Doctor, Professor, etc) others by their church appointment (pastor, elder, brother, sister, etc), and others simply according to their basic society status (Mr, Mrs or Miss) doesn't do much to create a sense of oneness in the group. In some cultures, general use of first names can indicate a lack of respect, but in post-modern thinking, that is generally not the case. To be on the safe side, the LIFEdevelopment group or centre team should agree on this matter before friends are invited, and those who invite guests should always ask their friends, "Can we call you (first name) or should we call you .... ?

  • Dress. As Adventists we take our religion seriously, and dress accordingly! In LIFEdevelopment centres and groups, however, no-one should be made to feel they don't "fit" because they are not dressed in their Sabbath best like everyone else. So a more relaxed, informal approach to dress is best, with those leading the programme going for "smart casual" as a general rule.

  • Where we sit. It's nice to sit with friends. But sitting or talking with the same two or three "special" friends most of the time makes others - especially our guests - feel on the outside. LIFEdevelopment groups and centres are places to make new friends, and make the shy and quiet ones especially feel at home.

  • Approach to prayer, Bible study and worship. Try and put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not sure that God exists, and imagine how you'd feel if you were told to kneel in prayer, or turn to Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 and read it aloud to the group - especially if you noticed that you were the only one in the group who didn't have a clue what to do. You would probably feel awkward or embarrassed - and might not come back next week. We need to be very sensitive to our friends' backgrounds, and find ways to introduce them to Christian activities gradually. For example, instead of using Bibles in LIFEdevelopment groups for the first few weeks, use booklets or single-sheet outlines which contain both the Scripture text and the discussion questions.

b. Participation. Since every person in an LIFEdevelopment group or centre is a learner (no-one has "arrived" or has all the answers) there should be plenty of opportunity for interaction during meetings. If the meeting involves a lecture or some form of presentation by an expert, time should be allowed for group discussion of the topic, not just questions addressed to the presenter. If there are more than a dozen individuals present, it's important to divide into smaller groups (5-7 is ideal) for this period. This kind of participation, in which the ideal is for everyone present to be involved, is important for the following reasons:

  • Everyone has something worth sharing. Everyone can contribute to the understanding and growth of the group.

  • Most people learn best this way - by speaking as well as listening.

  • When people share their opinions, feelings and life experiences, they are actually inviting other people into a relationship with them. This is how meaningful friendships develop.

  • As people share their lives with us, we get to know where they are on their spiritual journey. Whether their opinions agree with ours is not the most important thing. Knowing how to help one another grow in our relationship with God and each other is.

c. Enjoyment. LIFEdevelopment events should be a pleasure. They will have their serious moments, but the dominant experience should be one of enjoyment - not just of the topic or presentation, but of the people. LIFEdevelopment communities are first and foremost about people - people who enjoy other people. If God "delights in" and "rejoices over" His people (Isaiah 62:4,5) we can do the same - and say so. Here are a few ways (and you can think of others) in which you can maximise the enjoyment potential in your LIFEdevelopment group or centre:

  • Give affirmation. When someone says or does something which helps you, say so, either privately or publicly. When they make a decision or take a step that requires courage, take notice, and affirm them for doing the right thing.

  • Celebrate. Cultivate an atmosphere of celebration as the norm for LIFEdevelopment events, but don't miss special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, promotions, etc., as opportunities to share the achievements/joys of others. Frequent social occasions need to be organised in addition to the regular group/centre meetings to keep the celebration element strong.

  • Communicate - not just during regular meetings, but in between. Joyful community is not achieved by a weekly meeting alone. There needs to be other contact between individuals as well, either on the phone, by e-mail, meeting occasionally for a meal with one or two others, for prayer or a hundred other reasons.







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