One of the saddest emails I ever received was while I was a college pastor in Canada. Now I’ll admit, on the spectrum it wasn’t too bad, but for me it was a tip of an iceberg, revealing a deeper problem which is easy to miss at first glance.

By the way, if this is the first post you’re visiting on my missional journey, feel free to start at the beginning here

The email was from a 38 year old. She was excited about all the fun events we could have now that a young adult pastor (that would be me) was on staff. Now perhaps I am being too hard on her, but I couldn’t help but thinking, ‘at the age of 38 why do you need a young adults pastor to organize activities for you?’ (While I admit gathering older singles and creating healthy community can be a challenge, this issue was something different.) As I thought about this it hit me, we have trained people ever since they were in high school to depend on the church as their social facilitator. From high school youth group to college ministries to young adults ministries, the church has provided social programming. My newfound fear, however, was that this provision of social programming over multiple decades had robbed them of developing their own social skills – skills that are critical to reaching a post Christian world.

This gets even more disheartening when viewed through the lens of sociology and the church. If the church has deprogrammed people from developing their own social network, then they have limited the ability for any grass roots social network evangelism. The evidence is not hard to find. Any evangelism which happens these days tends to be big events programmed by the church in a day when the people need to see real believers down to earth. We have missed something.

Unfortunately, while this church over-programming may be motivated by a desire to keep people connected, it is problematic when it functions to keep people dependent on the institution. To reverse spin an old saying: “teach a man to fish and he won’t need you, sell a man a fish cheaply at first and he will depend on you forever… (or until he finds someone else to sell him a cheaper alternative).” Is there a subtle implied concern that if young adults were to possess excellent social skills and community building skills then they would leave the church? If so, we lack faith and trust – both in God and in our young adults.

When we see the life of Jesus we more often see him interacting around groups of people and people within groups, not in isolated conversations nor always in large scale sermons. Sure there are sermons on a mount, but far less than our current church culture would imply if we were modeling after the ministry of Christ. This all goes back to my radically different perspective that the church should not be the institution controlling people’s social life nor managing their ministry possibilities.

So what would a more socially healthy church look like? (I don’t want to be one of those people who criticize without providing better options). What if the church held a course – small group format- which provided education and wisdom on healthy social dynamics, true hospitality and community building? This would be the foundation for a more viral and grass roots faith building community. Of course, this could be supported with training on Bible teaching and spiritual formation.

The next post applies this discussion of healthy ministry to a university campus setting.

Live it Out:
Would you agree or disagree with the observations in this post? What are some skills you’d like to learn regarding building a social community? What are some things you’ve had to learn the hard way? What pieces of advice would you offer to young community builders?