Building church community the right way

Books | An excerpt from <em>The Compelling Community</em> contrasts a natural and a supernatural way to create community in the church
by Mark Dever & Jamie Dunlop
Posted 10/10/15, 02:37 pm

Mark Dever is president of 9Marks Ministries and the author of numerous books on what makes for strong churches. Through God’s grace he has helped build one himself: Since 1994 Dever has pastored Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He speaks of his longing: “I long for God to raise up more pastors who care more about conversions than the numerical growth of their own congregations. I long for God to raise up more pastors who will work to develop a culture of care for and cooperation with other churches. I long for God to raise up pastors who pray for revival for years, and who are not disappointed when God answers their prayers at another local church.”

I interviewed Dever last fall, and he said, “A lot of preaching in America is cruddy. It’s terrible in liberal churches because they don’t understand God or the Bible, and terrible in conservative churches because they take it for granted and just want people to have good families. Whether a preacher is a hipster church planter or an overconfident revitalizer who’s going to take care of the last cruddy guy’s ministry, the main work is to open the Bible and tell the people what God’s Word says.”

God’s Word teaches us about both vertical and horizontal community. Here’s Dever’s summary of our relation to God: “We’ve all been made in God’s image to know Him, but we’ve sinned and separated ourselves from God. Because He is such a good God, He will punish us for our sins, and in His amazing love He sent His only Son to live the life of perfect trust in Him that we all should have lived. We have no reason not to live that life, but none of us has lived it. Jesus lived it for us, and He died on the cross as a substitute, a vicarious sacrifice, taking all of God’s right wrath against us for our sins, bearing it completely, exhausting it. Then God raised Him from the dead, showing that the Father accepted the sacrifice of the Son. All of us who repent and believe are those for whom He has died, and for whom forgiveness is available.”

And what about our relation to each other? That’s the theme of a new book by Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Associate Pastor Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Crossway, 2015). Chapter 1 below contrasts natural “gospel plus” communities to supernaturally created “gospel-revealing” communities. The latter are not mutual admiration societies but shared admiration societies, with admiration directed toward God. Reading Dever and Dunlop’s book reminded me that it’s not that hard to build communities, at least temporarily. Open up a trendy coffee bar and the result may be instant community. It is hard, though, to build them the right way. Happily, nothing is too hard for God. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 1: Two Visions of Community

Two churches in my neighborhood offer a study in surprising similarity.

One church is a theologically liberal congregation; the other is the theologically conservative church where I pastor. Both started meeting in 1867. Both grew considerably with the city of Washington, DC, in the years surrounding the Second World War. Both struggled as the surrounding blocks were decimated by a wave of race-charged rioting. By the late twentieth century, both congregations had dwindled in number and consisted largely of older commuters from the suburbs. In response, both purged their roles to remove members who no longer attended. The future of both was in question.

But then starting in the late 1990s, both began to grow. Both attracted young people who were moving into the city, and both regrew roots into the neighborhood. For many years, the growth of both churches was roughly the same: the membership of one never strayed more than a hundred or so people from the other. Both congregations care for the poor in the neighborhood. Both buzz with activity on Sunday mornings and throughout the week. Both receive attention in the secular press for their tight-knit community.

But despite a similar history, these two churches could not differ more at their core. When I first moved to Washington in the 1990s, the pastor of this other church didn’t call himself a Christian. He didn’t believe in the atonement, didn’t believe in physical resurrection, and, as he explained to me one day, wasn’t even sure he believed in God! Whereas our church logo cites Romans 10:17 (“Faith comes from hearing”), theirs describes them as “the church of the open communion.” Ours is a congregation centered on the historic Christian gospel. Theirs is a congregation, I would maintain, focused on an entirely different gospel. And yet both appear to thrive.

My point? You don’t need God to “build community” in a church.

How to Build Church Community without the Gospel

Now, if you’re reading this book you probably do believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. You probably do believe in a holy God, in the reality of sin, in the power of the atonement. And beyond that, you likely hold the Bible to be the perfect Word of God. So for you, community without the gospel isn’t a danger. Right?

That’s exactly where I intend to challenge you. I think we build community without the gospel all the time.

Leave aside the theologically liberal church I just described. My concern for the evangelical church isn’t so much that we’re out to deny the gospel in fostering community. Instead, my concern is that, despite good intentions, we’re building communities that can thrive regardless of the gospel.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that a single mother joins my church. Who is she naturally going to build friendships with? Who is naturally going to understand her best? Other single moms, of course. So I encourage her to join a small group for single moms, and sure enough, she quickly integrates into that community and thrives. Mission accomplished, right? Not quite.

What occurred is a demographic phenomenon and not necessarily a gospel phenomenon. Single moms gravitate to each other regardless of whether or not the gospel is true. This community is wonderful and helpful—but its existence says nothing about the power of the gospel.

In fact, most of the “tools” we use to build community center on something other than the gospel:

  • Similar life experience: Singles groups, newly married Bible studies, and young professionals networks build community based on demographic groupings.
  • Similar identity: Cowboy churches, motorcycle churches, arts churches, and the like are all gospel-believing churches with something other than the gospel at the core of their identity.
  • Similar cause: Ministry teams for feeding the hungry, helping an elementary school, and combating human trafficking build community based on shared passion for a God-honoring cause.
  • Similar needs: Program-based churches build community by assembling people into programs based on the similarity of their felt needs.
  • Similar social position: Sometimes a ministry—or an entire church—gathers the “movers and shakers” in society.

I recognize this probably sounds ridiculous. In the space of a hundred words I’ve critiqued Bible studies for single moms, singles groups, and hunger ministries. But stick with me for a moment. Underneath all these community-building strategies is something we need to expose and examine with fresh eyes.

Let’s go back to the small group for single moms. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with people of similar life experience. It’s entirely natural and can be spiritually beneficial. But if this is the sum total of what we call “church community,” I’m afraid we’ve built something that would exist even if God didn’t.

My goal in writing this book is not for us to feel guilty whenever we enjoy a friendship that would probably exist even if the gospel wasn’t true. My goal is not to encourage churches to aim at some entirely unrealistic model of relationship where we never share anything in common but Christ. Rather, my goal is twofold:

  1. To recognize that building community purely through natural bonds has a cost as well as a benefit. Often, we look at tools like the single moms small group and see only positive. But there is a cost as well: if groups like this come to characterize community in our churches, then our community ceases to be remarkable to the world around us.
  2. To adjust our aspiration. Many relationships that naturally form in our churches would exist even if the gospel weren’t true. That’s good, right, and helpful. But in addition, we should aspire for many relationships that exist only because of the gospel. So often, we aim at nothing more than community built on similarity; I want us to aim at community characterized by relationships that are obviously supernatural. And by supernatural I don’t imply the mystical, vaguely spiritual sense in which pop culture uses the term. I mean the very biblical idea of a sovereign God working in space and time to do what confounds the natural laws of our world.

Two Types of Community

In this book, I’ll contrast two types of community that exist in gospel-preaching, evangelical churches. Let’s call one “gospel-plus” community. In gospel-plus community, nearly every relationship is founded on the gospel plus something else. Sam and Joe are both Christians, but the real reason they’re friends is that they’re both singles in their 40s, or share a passion to combat illiteracy, or work as doctors. In gospel-plus community, church leaders enthusiastically use similarity to build community. But as a whole, this community says little about the power of the gospel.

Contrast this with “gospel-revealing” community. In gospel-revealing community, many relationships would never exist but for the truth and power of the gospel—either because of the depth of care for each other or because two people in relationship have little in common but Christ. While affinity-based relationships also thrive in this church, they’re not the focus. Instead, church leaders focus on helping people out of their comfort zones to cultivate relationships that would not be possible apart from the supernatural. And so this community reveals the power of the gospel.

You can’t physically see the gospel; it’s simply truth. But when we encourage community that is obviously supernatural, it makes the gospel visible. Think of a kid rubbing a balloon against his shirt to charge it with static electricity. When he holds it over someone’s head with thin, wispy hair, what happens? The hair reaches for the balloon. You can’t see the static electricity. But its effect—the unnatural reaction of the hair—is unmistakable. The same goes for gospel-revealing community.

Yet gospel-revealing community isn’t our first inclination, is it? Our tendency is toward gospel-plus community because it “works.” Niche marketing undergirds so many church growth plans because it “works.” People gravitate to people just like themselves. If I told you to take a church of two hundred and grow it to four hundred in two years, you’d seem foolish not to build community based on some kind of similarity.

A friend of mine recently received such a growth directive. He pastors the English-language congregation of an ethnically Chinese church, and the advice he received consisted nearly entirely of which type of similarity he should focus on. “You should be the church for second generationals.” “You should be the church for young professionals.” “You should stick with English-speaking people of Chinese descent.” And so forth. If you want to draw a crowd, build community through similarity. That’s how people work.

So is there anything wrong with this? Isn’t this just a basic law of organizational development? Does it matter how we draw the crowd so long as once they arrive we tell them the gospel?

Yes. It does matter. When Christians unite around something other than the gospel, they create community that would likely exist even if God didn’t. As a modern-day tower of Babel, that community glorifies their strength instead of God’s. And the very earnest things they do to create this type of community actually undermine God’s purposes for it. Gospel-plus community may result in the inclusive relationships we’re looking for. But it says little about the truth and power of the gospel. To understand why, let’s examine God’s purposes for the local church in the book of Ephesians.

Supernatural Community Is God’s Plan for the Church

What is God’s plan for the local church? The apostle Paul lays it out in Ephesians chapters 2 and 3. It begins with the gospel, in 2:1–10. We were “dead in the trespasses and sins” (v. 1). But God “made us alive together with Christ” (v. 5). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (vv. 8–9).

But that gospel doesn’t end with our salvation; it leads to some very disruptive implications. Implication number one: unity. As Paul writes of Jews and Gentiles at the end of chapter 2, God abolished the dividing wall of hostility “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (vv. 15–18). Note that the gospel alone creates this unity: the cross is how Christ put to death their hostility. After all, what else could ever bring together two peoples with such different history, ethnicity, religion, and culture?

Now, what is the purpose for this unity between Jews and Gentiles? Skip down to chapter 3, verse 10: God’s intent was “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

Consider a group of Jews and Gentiles who share nothing in common except for a centuries-old loathing for one another. For a less extreme, modern-day parallel, think of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans in my own neighborhood. Or the disdain the Prada-shod fashionista feels for the Schlitz-swilling NASCAR crowd (multiplied many times over, of course). Bring them together into the local church where they rub shoulders on a regular basis, and things explode, right? No! Because of the one thing they do have in common—the bond of Christ—they live together in astonishing love and unity. Unity that is so unexpected, so contrary to how our world operates, that even the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” sit up and take notice. God’s plans are amazing, aren’t they![1]

Gospel-revealing community is notable along two dimensions (see figure on p. 26). First, it’s notable for its breadth. That is, it stretches to include such peoples as divergent as Jew and Gentile. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matt. 5:46). One way in which this community glorifies God is by reaching people who, apart from supernatural power, would never unite together. Remember Ephesians 2:18: “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Second, this community is notable for its depth. That is, it doesn’t merely bring people together to tolerate each other, but to be so tightly committed that Paul can call them a “new humanity” (2:15) and a new “household” (2:19, NIV). Paul reaches for the natural world’s deepest bonds—the bonds of ethnicity and family—to describe this new community in the local church.

Supernatural depth and breadth of community make the glory of an invisible God to be visible. This is the ultimate purpose statement for community in the Ephesian church. This is the ultimate purpose statement for community in churches today. Is it the ultimate purpose for community in your church?

Let me summarize two foundational elements from Ephesians 2–3 before we move on:

  1. This community is characterized by commonality in Christ. It’s said that “blood is thicker than water.” Our world’s history is a long story of tribal conflict where no one is closer than those who are family. That is, with one critical exception of course: the local church. When two people share Christ—even if everything else is different—they are closer than even blood ties could ever bring them. Again, they are the family of God.
  2. If this community is not supernatural, it doesn’t work. By “work” I mean “fulfill God’s plans for community.” What if, instead of uniting around Christ, Jews and Gentiles figured out some nifty organizational trick for them to coexist? Would that make known “the manifold wisdom of God”? No. It would glorify their wisdom and their ability. And it could never approximate the breadth and depth of community described in Ephesians. What if Jewish Christians just loved Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians just loved Gentile Christians? Not a bad start … but compared to the community Paul describes in Ephesians, it says relatively little about the power of God in the gospel.

Does this mean that we should flee any relationships where we share Christ plus something else? No. God uses our sociological affinities. Every church has a certain culture, a certain feel, a certain majority. It would be dishonest to suggest otherwise, to say that a congregation shares nothing in common but Christ. Like is attracted to like, and that’s a natural reality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people’s comfort with the familiar. Nonetheless, an important question is, What are you going to build with? What tools are you going to use? Will you use the natural tools of “ministry by similarity”? Or, while recognizing our tendency toward similarity, will you set your aspiration on community where similarity isn’t necessary—because of the supernatural bond of the gospel? As the apostle writes, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). The difference will show itself over time. When you build with natural tools, over time the natural divisions between people will become set in concrete. Use natural tools to reach middle-class whites, and over time your church will be middle-class white. But when you build with supernatural tools, over time those natural divisions begin to soften. An all-white church will, remarkably, slowly perhaps, become less all-white. This has been the story of my own congregation.

While recognizing our tendency toward similarity, we should aspire toward community where similarity isn’t necessary—where no strand of similarity in the congregation explains the whole congregation. That kind of community defies naturalistic explanations.

God has great purposes for the community of your church: to safeguard the gospel, to transform lives and communities, to shine as a beacon of hope to the unconverted. Community that does this is demonstrably supernatural. It is not community designed around the gospel plus some other bond of similarity. It is community that reveals the gospel. Yet too often, community in our churches better testifies to our own prowess in niche marketing than to the supernatural at work. Why is this?

Pressure to Build Gospel-Plus Community

Quite simply, gospel-plus community seems more reliable than the supernatural community we see in Ephesians 2–3. We’re sure we know how to make it happen. Compare community building to the breeding of some endangered species at the zoo. You could just let those black-footed ferrets have at it in nature’s own special way and hope for progeny to blossom. But with so much at stake, you’d never leave it to chance, would you? So the zoo in my town is measuring timing, and temperature, and diet, and whatever else you can imagine to help black-footed ferrets breed as reliably as possible.

We have our own endangered species to protect: the community of the local church, and we know how important it is. Community makes people feel included. When people feel included, they stay and volunteer and give. When they don’t feel included, they leave. So the growth of our churches and the apparent success of our ministries depend on effective community. With something that important at stake, it’s understandable that we want it to be as reliable as possible. We want something we can control. Plus, we do want as many as possible coming to faith, and this is a good thing!

So what do we do? Like the ferret-breeding project, we seek community that is measurable and repeatable: community you can capture on a spreadsheet. We assign everyone to a life-stage small group. Or we slice and dice demographic segments to perfectly situate people in the resulting affinity groups. Or we narrow our “target market” until we reach precise homogeneity.

These pressures are nothing new. In his book Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray traces the root of American Protestant liberalism to a tendency among Christians to seek seemingly supernatural results through entirely natural means.[2] The First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, Murray explains, was an example of genuine “revival.” God chose to supernaturally bless the ordinary means of grace: the preaching of the Word of God and prayer. As time went on, however, God stopped blessing those means of grace to the same degree. And so the so-called Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century attempted to produce revival-like results through entirely mechanistic means—what Murray calls “revivalism.” The book chronicles the destructive fruit of these tendencies in the American church; they are still alive and well today.

When we build gospel-plus community, we may get the inclusive relationships we’re looking for. But aside from an unusual act of God, we will not achieve the supernatural breadth and depth of community that makes the world sit up and take notice. We build a demographic phenomenon, not a gospel phenomenon.

So how do we cultivate the type of community Paul describes in Ephesians?

A Book about the Shadow, Not the Substance

Oddly enough, we cultivate this kind of community by not paying it too much attention. And this is hard work. It is hard work to not worry and get impatient. It is hard work not to get in the way of the supernatural. But fostering church community is like learning to ride a bicycle. If you focus too much on the mechanics of what you’re doing (left foot forward, right foot, quick! turn handles a little, lean to the right), you’ll crash. But eventually we all realize that as we focus on the goal ahead, the riding happens.

In that sense, church community is the shadow, not the substance. It’s not the thing we should focus on. To be sure, this is a book about cultivating community in a local church. We will explore how as a leader in your church you can help your congregation become fertile ground for the kind of organic, sharing-life relationships that we all hope to see in our churches. Yet as we do this, we must remember that community isn’t the point. The point, the substance, is God. God is immortal. He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). So how do we learn about him? Through his Word. And how do we perceive his glory? Primarily, through the church. The body of Christ is the fullness of God (Eph. 1:23) and the most visible manifestation of God’s glory in this present age (Eph. 3:10). And so describing community in the local church is like describing the light radiating from the heavenly throne. The point is not the community; the point is God. Community is merely the effect.

Our new society of the church is not a mutual admiration society, but a shared admiration society. Our affection for each other is derivative. It derives from our worship of God—a God who saved us from a million different “communities” of this world to become his family. Our identify no longer stems from our families of origin, our professions, or our interests and ambitions, but the fact that we are in Christ. We are Christians. And so as an urban American of the professional class, I have more in common with my working class, rural, Sudanese brother in Christ than with my own non-Christian blood brother. Thus the song of heaven is praise for this culmination of Christ’s exploits, that “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). God and his glory in the church are the point, not the community we seek.

The Rest of This Book

In one sense then, nurturing Ephesians 3 community in a local church is simple. When the gospel is believed, the supernatural community described in the New Testament happens. Our problem is that our impatience for this all-important work of the Spirit leads us to construct it artificially. Consider how standard approaches affect depth and breadth of community:

  • Depth: Instead of calling people to act out the supernatural depth of commitment to other Christians that is inherent to faith, we make our churches as low-commitment as possible for newcomers. “Slide on in,” we say. “We’ve got no expectations.” We hope that as they grow, these people will increase their commitment to one another. But, of course, what you win them with is how you’ll keep them. Attract people as consumers, and you’ll wind up with a church of demanding consumers. This may allow our people to feel some level of commitment quickly, but it compromises long-term depth of love for each other. And consumerism is the antithesis of the gospel of grace.
  • Breadth: Since we attract people as consumers, there is no intrinsic commitment to others in our church. So we must manufacture that commitment. How? Through ministry by similarity. Instead of prophetically calling Christians to love those with whom they may have little in common but Jesus, we patch people into affinity groups where we know relationships will prosper. As a result, our church “community” is really pockets of independent, homogeneous communities that do not display the supernatural breadth God intends.

As you read through these chapters, you may hesitate at what I’m saying. “But wait,” you might say. “If we don’t have [insert name of ministry you use to attract people to your church], then how will people come? Don’t you care about getting people into my church?” I do. Absolutely. But I’m concerned that the things we do to attract people can actually compromise our ability to nurture a supernatural community. And God intends that community to be profoundly more attractive than those things you’re doing today. Yet to do this, you may need to rethink much of your ministry, such as your approach to small groups, your goals for Sunday services, or your membership policies. Then lay the groundwork for a community you’re dependent on God to grow—a community whose attraction and beauty will reach to the heavens.

In all our efforts to build community, we so often destroy the very elements that should mark it out as a supernatural act of God. We’re like King Saul, impatient with God’s timing as he waited for an all-important sacrifice, deciding to do things our own way. The rest of this book shows how we as church leaders can foster biblical community without getting in the way.

Chapter 2 will examine what makes “supernatural community” supernatural in the first place. Then chapters 3 and 4 will assess how we can cultivate the two most distinctive marks of this supernatural community: its depth of commitment (chap. 3) and its breadth of diversity (chap. 4). With this foundation in place, the rest of the book will apply these principles to our preaching and prayer, how we encourage personal relationships, and how we address conflict and sin. Finally, the last two chapters will focus on stewarding the community God’s given us—through evangelism and church planting.

Conclusion: Not All Community Is the Same

At the beginning of this chapter, I described the uncanny parallels of growth between the church where I pastor and another church that long ago rejected the Bible as its authority. Yet I don’t believe for a moment that the community life of these two churches is in any way similar. One community can pretty much be understood by the world. Special, to be sure. But not unexpected. The other? The formerly non-Christian neighbors of mine, whom you’ll meet in this book, would say it’s something supernatural. It was community they could not explain as non-Christians, and yet found profoundly attractive despite the offense of the gospel at its core.

I’ll close this chapter with some questions to help you assess your own attitudes toward church community.

  1. How do you define “success” for the network of relationships in your church that we call community? How close is your definition to Ephesians 3:10 (“through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known . . .”)?
  2. Are your goals and targets for nurturing community in the local church consistent with something that only God can create? Or do they push you to gospel-plus community that people can manufacture on their own?

Excerpt from The Compelling Community © 2015 by Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop. Published by Crossway. Used by permission.


[1] How do we know that Paul is referring to a local church here and not just the universal church? Three reasons: (1) What is true of the heavenly assembly should also be true of the local assembly. Peter O’Brien puts it well in his commentary: “Since it was appropriate that this new relationship with the ascended Lord should find concrete expression in believers’ regular coming together, that is, ‘in church’ (cf. Heb. 10:25), then the term here in 3:10 should probably be taken as the heavenly gathering that is assembled around Christ and as a local congregation of Christians” (The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999], 246). (2) Much of the rest of the epistle will discuss relationships between believers in a local church. (3) The focus of 3:10 is the present, not an assembly someday in heaven. The assembly of Jews and Gentiles today is the local church. And each congregation points to the larger, grander assembly of all peoples in Revelation 7.

[2] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994).