Tips for Cultivating Community

When I started this series on community, I talked about how America is characterized by individualism and how that can be a significant cost to community.  Every human being’s greatest need is community (network of close relationships): with God and with others.  In the contemporary obsession with convenience and immediate gratification, community and relationships counter-culturally require sacrifice and patience.  There is no quick and convenient way to build community.  However, there are ways we can intentionally invest in and cultivate it.  Today I want to offer some practical tips for growing, nourishing and deepening community and personal relationships.  While I am not offering a system that will produce something, I am offering helpful tools for relationally investing in others.  Yet, these will take time and sacrifice.

Tip #1 – the Questions Funnel

I have found this to be helpful when leading groups of people to deeper community, but it certainly applies to one-on-one conversations as well.  We may think that asking deep questions that require vulnerability is the best way to get people to open up.  However, with most people, starting out with intimate questions will cause people to close up rather than open up.  Structure your questions like a funnel: start with general and non-threatening questions then move slowly and strategically toward more specific and committal questions.  Here is how the funnel works:

questions funnel Events:  Experiences, culture, and activities.  These questions center on general thoughts, attitudes and feelings of the person about something external to themselves.

Life:  Ideas, values, and beliefs.  These questions begin to get to the core of a person’s worldview and thinking.  They are general commitments or outlooks the person has on life.

Spiritual:  Beliefs/Experiences with God, church community and doctrinal and ethical issues.  These questions, particularly in a faith setting, can be seen as potentially isolating.  Seek common ground before noting differences. In other words, unite before you divide here.

Decision:  Asking a person to act, commit, or believe.  This requires not only mental assent, but a decision to do something or think differently.

Struggles and Needs:  If I were to add one more step, I would add this.  When someone opens up about a struggle (with sin, or a life situation) or expresses a need they have, it takes humility and vulnerability.  Be careful to create an environment where people can safely express these things, but also understand that it takes some time to get to a place where people feel permission to do so.

         Relationally Moving through the Questions Funnel:

  • When a person shares a thought, do not be quick to offer advice or correction.  Listen, ask questions and make sure you understand by restating what that person has said in your own words.
  • Thank the person for sharing, even if you don’t agree with what is shared.  Openness and honesty is to be affirmed in groups.
  • If you ask a question that requires movement to the next step in the funnel (and you think people may be nervous about answering), try answering the question first or second when it seems appropriate.  People tend to become vulnerable to the extent that the leader is vulnerable.

Tip #2 – Story Sharing

Why is it that you feel connected to the main character in a movie, or immediately feel connected to someone who talks about an experience they had from the platform?  You have never had a conversation with that person.  What connects you to them?  It is their story.  Whether in a group or one-on-one, sharing stories is a great tool for helping someone feel known and feel like they know someone else.  This can be sharing your personal testimony about how you became a Christian.  It can be the story of God’s activity in your life over time.  It can be how you got a particular job, how you and your spouse got together, or something as simple as how you ended up at this particular church or group.  The point, though, is that as we share stories, we feel connected to others.  It becomes a frame of reference for future interactions.  Not surprisingly, the question funnel can apply to the types of stories we share as well.  Here are a few things to remember:

  1. You need not have the answers to the questions in your story; life is full of ambiguity
  2. You need not have only “spiritual” answers to the questions; everyone makes mistakes
  3. Your heart is more important than your words, but description is the key to communication
  4. Try to identify a themes that God has used in your life
  5. Your story, struggles and all, is beautiful and written/used by God

Tip #3 – Events

Ever get that uncomfortable feeling when two people are telling an inside joke?  What exactly makes the joke “inside?”  It is the fact that those two people shared an experience that you did not share.  That shared experience creates a connection between the two people involved.  While I am not necessarily encouraging inside jokes, I am encouraging you to have those shared experiences with other people through events.  Whether a mission project, dinner party, road trip, or lunch after church, events create a sense of connection and community.  Planned and structured events (such as a mission project or a class) are important events and serve as the glue that holds groups of people together.  However, if deeper community is going to take place, there must be times where there are unstructured events as well (no agenda, just being with the other person).

Tip #4 – Resolving Conflict

Conflict in relationships is inevitable.  It is not a question of IF you have conflict, but WHEN.  Conflict can be as simple or it can be complex.  And, it doesn’t always look like an argument.  It can be a look someone gives you or even a misspoken word uttered in haste.  Whatever conflict looks like, you have four responses.

  1. Flee – either physically or emotionally remove yourself from that person and limit your interaction.
  2. Fight – this may be an argument, passive-aggressive comments, or even an outright shoving match.  The point is that you express frustration or anger in some way.
  3. Forget – we can simply overlook an offense and move on (Proverbs 19:11).  So, while we acknowledge that something wrong has been done, we don’t feel that it is necessary to “work through it.”  The danger of this path is that some will say “I’m fine” when really they are storing up bitterness in their heart.
  4. Forgive – This requires that we go through a process of owning our contribution to the conflict and allowing the other person to express to you their motivation for action.  It is important for both parties to express how they feel and take ownership where necessary.

Of the 4 responses, only #4 provides an opportunity for community to be developed.  This path requires a great deal of humility as well as a desire to see the relationship restored.  When forgiveness is extended, it provides an opportunity to understand each other on a deeper level.  If I express my hurt to another person, they get to know more about what is important to me and why.  When they have a chance to explain, it helps me know them better as well.  A conflict that is talked about and resolved creates a deeper and more meaningful unity than could have been present before.  WHEN you find yourself in conflict with another person, I encourage you to talk it out and extend forgiveness.

Tip #5 – Remember

When you get a birthday card in the mail, it means a lot doesn’t it?  Why? The card is inexpensive and it is pretty easy to sign a card and stick it in the mail.  Though not costly, it is significant because that person remembered.  Remembering can come in a lot of forms.  Maybe it is following up when someone says they have something big coming up (often comes in the form of a prayer request), or asking about a situation at work.  Remembering may be as simple as remembering that someone likes a particular food when you are at a restaurant, or commenting when you see their favorite team won a recent game.  The point is that remembering demonstrates that you are paying attention and that you care about what that person says.  Little ways you can demonstrate you remember go a long way in connecting with another person.

Tip #6 – Appreciation

Appreciation is the act of assessing the qualities that give a particular thing value.  When you encourage or appreciate someone, you are expressing their value.  Who doesn’t want that?  This should be distinguished from flattery, though.  Flattery often feels manipulative because it is self-serving.  Flattery is usually about evoking a response from a person (either to get them to do something, or to get them to like you).  Appreciation is authentic and substantial.  Here are some tips for great encouragement/appreciation:

  1. Focus on who they are more than what they do
  2. Identify specific things rather than general comments (for example, “I like your hair” is better than “you look nice”)
  3. Pay attention to what they value and value that in them (if you hear me comment on how thoughtful a person is, it is probably because I value thoughtfulness)
  4. Ask for their advice – believe it or not, you can show someone that you appreciate them when you ask for guidance or counsel from them
  5. Don’t wait until they are down, offer appreciation every time you think of it

This should be pretty intuitive, but the point is to make it your practice to regularly encourage and appreciate what you see in others.

Tip # 7 – Physical Presence

At the end of this series on community, let me say this:  Community is all about your presence embodied in love.  Jesus said “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  If you are going to have community with other people, you must learn to love well.  That is not profound.  What is profound, though, is this: if you are going to love people well, the best way to do that is to be physically present with them.  Often we want to show love from a distance.  Sometimes that looks like sending money to people in Africa or serving once a month at a homeless shelter.  Other times, we think we are showing love by thinking well of someone, or simply praying for them (yet with limited interaction with that person).  There is much good about such actions.  But, ultimately, the greatest love is found when you offer your presence to them because it is giving yourself to another person.  Think about Jesus: God, took on flesh, and presented Himself to us so that we could have a direct relationship with Him.  He didn’t stop there, He sent His Holy Spirit to live inside of us and relate directly to us in our soul.  God is love and His love means that He also draws near to have community with us.  And, we should also have that same type of love for others; the greatest way to build a relationship is through time in that person’s presence.  Let us have community with one another as is envisioned in 1 John 1 says (my translation):

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we express to you concerning the Word of life.2 The life appeared; we have seen it and report in what we experienced, and we exclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may have community with us. And our community is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ

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