In a world that can seem increasingly divided, United Methodist leaders point to community as a way to find real connection and spiritual growth.
Sallie Anna Barton, director of youth and young adult ministries at Dilworth United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, said her role involves helping people find community that is "warm and comfortable" and feels like "home away from home."
"I have been so nurtured and supported by Christian community that I want everybody to have that," she said. "I think that's one of the greatest blessings the Lord gives."
The Rev. Mi-Sook Yoo, associate pastor at Barrington (Illinois) United Methodist Church, sees a direct connection between relationship with God and relationship with others.
"By loving God, you're loving your neighbor," she said. "When you move closer to your neighbor, you're moving closer to God."
Discover self, recognize God's work
Yoo said community is a place for understanding and growth.
"Community is a place I can discover my true self," she said. "A safe place, my belonging place, but also a challenging place that nudges me to grow deeper."
The Rev. Matt Seaton, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, said being in community gives people more opportunities to recognize God's work.
"When we hear about the saints, both present and 2,000 years past, we're able to hear and learn from others who have gone through various trials," Seaton said. "We can re-appropriate what God has done in their lives, and we can see how it relates to our own lives."
Barton said her church provides a unique opportunity for relationship each year by inviting those in the larger Charlotte community to join in producing a musical. Spending time together on a shared interest is a great way to build community and invite others into the church, she said. It may also be the first step toward being part of a community where spiritual growth is the goal.
"I have relationships with people because I spent time with them and got to know them," she said of some of the cast members. "It's a really neat community-driven ministry."
According to Johnny Sears, director of The Upper Room's Academy for Spiritual Formation and Emerging Ministries, creating a sense of safety is a vital aspect of community.
"We talk about the Academy creating safe space for people to be in communion with God, themselves, others and creation. When we say 'safe,' we're not meaning everything is going to be to your preferred liking," he said. "It's really more about stability. It gives you the ability to be vulnerable, which then allows you to move past the illusions that we wrap around our lives. We can go deeper and get to know more of our whole self and God's creation."
Learning to embrace vulnerability was a key aspect of Yoo's Academy experience when she participated in the two-year program starting in February 2012. Now she strives to lead by example in that way with her congregation.
"I tell my story. When I open myself up, they can join my story by telling their stories, too," she said. "We are companions. Although we can work on our devotion and piety by ourselves, when we come to the community and do it together, there is power. This spiritual discipline is an essential practice."
Some of the power of community, Seaton said, is found in being honest with one another.
"When we come into Christian community we're able to help reflect back to others that growth needs to happen," Seaton said. "We are human and fallible and unable to see when our blind spots keep us from seeing areas we need to grow in. It takes a certain kind of community to do that. It's a kind of community that's held together by truth and able to speak in love. And that love is characterized by kindness, gentleness, self-control."
Seaton's congregation provides different opportunities for Christian education and for sharing the everyday spiritual journey together.
In Kairos groups, he said, "the emphasis is on relationship-building, community-building, with the intent of having Christian community that's able to talk about how God's interacting in each one's life. Each person can seek encouragement, advice or consolation or prayer."
Listening is another powerful catalyst for community, Sears said.
"Listening is the first modality," he said, explaining a key attribute of the Academy. "It's about each person sharing from their own life and their own experience and the rest of the group is holding that space for them and honoring that. We listen one another into being. There's something beautiful that happens in that."
While times of solitude are an integral part of the spiritual journey, Sears said faith always leads to interaction with others.
"Authentic spirituality will always lead back to community, to deeper engagement with the world. It's never something you do in isolation," he said. "If you're really engaging the work of the Spirit, it's going to compel you to be engaged with others."
Participating in community is "a step of faith," Barton said, challenging people not to let others' failures be a hindrance to finding community with them.
"Don't let those things keep you from something wonderful," she said. "It's investing in yourself as a disciple. Try whatever your church or another church has to offer until you find the right one. Give yourself a chance to really invest in a group and see how it works out for you. It'll change for you if you find the right niche."
Finding community can take time, especially if relationships have been damaged in the past.
"We all get burned by people," Seaton said. "It's just going to happen. If you fall off a horse, get back on the horse. Maybe you need to find a different group. Be encouraged to confront rather than run from problems. Take a different sort of engagement with community."
Differences bring growth
Though uncomfortable in the moment, Sears said struggling with personality differences could be a tool for long-term growth.
"Often times the way that God works, you're in community with the person you would least choose to be with," he said. "There's some formation that happens in that because that person has something to teach you about yourself. Being in intentional community means you're committed to this relationship even when things are challenging or difficult and your preferences aren't necessarily met."
In those challenging moments, "God meets us," Sears said. "We learn to see the face of Christ in others."
This aspect of community is crucial, especially in a culture where people are divided.
"We don't have enough places where people really engage in encountering otherness," Sears said. "Because of that we haven't developed those muscles to be with people who aren't just like us or don't think like us or have the same values as we do."
In a fast-paced world that often focuses on differences, Yoo said it benefits God's people to acknowledge how interactions have a lasting impact on one another.
"Our lives are inseparably woven together with God and each other," she said. "We never just pass by as strangers. There's joy and celebration when we realize we are all connected to each other. That's the direction we have to move together as humanity."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other publications.