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Creating Meaning in Community

By Bryan Tener

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This past April, I participated in a three-day retreat with leaders from The Neighboring Movement in Orlando, Florida.

The Neighboring Movement leaders come from the church-planting world, whether they are planting their own congregations at the local level or helping to support and equip planters and other leaders from the annual conference level. Some are helping start something innovative in their neighborhoods through asset-based community development practices.

As part of the retreat, we visited sites where the congregation connects with the local community in important ways. Through the food pantry, day school, free health clinic, and support services for newly arrived immigrants, the congregation listened to their neighbors, saw the gifts within the congregation and the neighborhood, and built relationships of care and compassion. The congregation serves as a bridge between their neighbors and the gifts and resources so that needs can be met and the community can be nurtured.

Guest speakers at the retreat provided powerful insights that will make a difference for local congregations and leaders as they seek to connect with new people in new ways. The speakers stressed the importance of building relationships, connecting with neighbors, and connecting with God to tackle the epidemic of loneliness and isolation that American adults are experiencing. Half of the adults in the United States experience loneliness, which increases the risk of stroke, dementia, and heart disease.[1] The church offers relationships and a culture of connection. To see and be seen, to listen and be heard, and to share in life with one another is life-giving and makes space for hope and joy.

The following resources, while not from a faith-based lens, can provide insight, helpful action steps, and thoughts to ponder as you think about your community and your congregation.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet And Why It Matters by Priya Parker offers guidance on how to turn any gathering into a meaningful experience. Have you ever attended a meeting or conference (or even a baby shower) and felt like something was missing or that you couldn’t wait for it to end? In the book, Priya Parker argues that many gatherings could be meaningful but too many times, the opportunity is missed. Her book offers a step-by-step guide for creating a more meaningful event. You can learn more from her TED talk, “Three Steps to Turn Everyday Get-Togethers into Transformative Gatherings.”

“The Art of Asking” with Amanda Palmer. Musician and singer Amanda Palmer reflects on the relationship between the artist and the fan as she discusses her time as a street performer and her band’s rise in popularity. She offers insight into forming connections with others. Some powerful moments in this conversation highlight the power of connection as well as what it means to create innovative revenue streams. She stresses the importance of recognizing the gifts others have. While this is from the view of someone in the music industry, there is much here to help anyone who wants to connect more deeply with their neighbors, look for the gifts that others bring, and seek to connect those gifts with the needs of others.

Neighbor Love by Courtney Reissig, a freelance writer and the spouse of a pastor, explores being a neighbor and connects growing and being transformed as a disciple of Christ with neighborly love. She writes about breaking down our compartmentalized lives so that neighborly love is an outflow of the inward person being transformed by God’s love. We are connected even to those driving on the same highway or stopped at the same red light.

Reflection Questions

  • What insights from these resources seem significant?
  • When was a time you experienced a meaningful gathering? What made it meaningful?
  • In what ways could your next gathering incorporate learnings from Priya Parker?
  • When was a time you felt seen or that your gifts were noticed?
  • How can your leadership team ensure that people in your congregation and community feel seen or heard?
  • What gifts are present around you? Who around you would benefit from those gifts?

[1] For more on the loneliness epidemic, see “America Has a Loneliness Epidemic: Here Are Six Steps to Address It,” NRR, https://www.npr.org/2023/05/02/1173418268/loneliness-connection-mental-health-dementia-surgeon-general.

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