How to Build Spiritual Community

by | Mar 29, 2022 | 0 comments

Belonging is a key aspect of mental health, happiness, and productivity. This is especially true in a post-pandemic world. It’s why creating true community at church—community that is both social and spiritual—is essential. In this article, I’ll share three ways to build spiritual community.


Belong to Groups

One crucial element of community is having friends or being with like-minded people, but there’s more to belonging than that. Participating in groups is also important. The real power of belonging is revealed when you are part of multiple groups: for instance, belonging to church, plus singing with the choir; or belonging to your family, plus being on the team that organizes the summer reunion; or belonging at work, plus being part of the group that plans the Christmas party. Or all of the above. The more groups you belong to—no matter how big or small—the more your self-esteem rises because it affirms that you belong. You’re part of the community.

An enduring Harvard study revealed that “close relationships are what keep people happy throughout their lives, and these relationships with family, friends, and community delay mental and physical decline.” I assert that vibrant connections of belonging—to one another, to God, to the community at large—can delay organizational decline as well.

A recent study conducted by neuroscientists at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that cravings for human interactions and food register in the same part of the brain. Likewise, the pain of being excluded by others and physical pain are also located in the same part of the brain. In other words, belonging is as delicious as your favorite food. Not belonging throbs like a broken bone.


Include Time for Talking

I arrived early for worship one morning and headed straight for the front chancel area since it was my turn to serve as liturgist. As soon as I arrived, I was invited to join the small choir that would be leading the singing. It was easy to say yes because I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting every note; the pipe organ would be the dominant sound in the sanctuary. In between preparing the scripture reading, glancing at the call to worship, and scoping out the hymns on the order of worship, Linda, Dana, Susan, and I chatted about Linda’s recent doctor’s appointment, Susan’s preparation for the children’s sermon, and Dana’s impeccable sense of timing. I’m not super close to these folks, but this kind of informal talk pulled us together as worship leaders and prepared us to enter into the spirit of worship by giving us a sense of belonging. I could feel the sense of connection deep in my bones.

At one level, being social is as simple as our informal visiting before worship. On another level, being social can be an even more intentional part of what it means to be spiritual. For instance, I noticed that as worship unfolded—since there was no passing of the peace or passing of offering plates—very few people moved or had speaking parts in the service. Along with the preacher and the musician, the small choir and I were responsible for all the service’s active parts. That meant everyone else in worship was fairly passive. There wasn’t even an official time to say hello to each other.

This dynamic could be changed by asking people to exchange a few words with a person sitting nearby—like introducing yourself, sharing something you are grateful for, noting where God was present in the previous week, or exchanging a prayer concern. Those online could post something in the chat to share with others participating virtually. Even small social interchanges such as these can amplify a sense of belonging and create a greater sense of community.


Include Food

Weaving the social and spiritual together can take place at a programmatic level as well by gathering folks together around common interests and needs. For example, find themes or activities that are biblical and contemporary with both social and spiritual aspects. Take cooking and eating, for example. Consider the meal Abram and Sarai made for the angelic visitors at the oaks of Mamre. Or the many times Jesus ate with others as occasions for fellowship and teaching. Or the post-resurrection meal Jesus shared with a handful of his disciples. In each instance, eating was both social and spiritual. Who doesn’t know the transcendent experience of being nourished by just the right food at just the right time? Food is more than calories or nutrition. It provides the bridge for conversation and sustenance for the soul.

Resurrect the practice of building social and spiritual community around food by intentionally hosting classes or experiences that encompass these themes. For instance, in teaching people how to garden or cook, you could offer a store-to-plate or farm-to-table experience. As you first shop or garden, prepare, cook, and enjoy the food, you can interweave biblical themes like hospitality or care of the body into your discussions. Or, more simply, share a scripture or two. Then invite the Risen Christ to join you at the table. Not only will community form around these experiences, but these experiences themselves can lead to community-oriented projects or congregation-community partnerships.


Get Hands On

When weaving together the social and the spiritual, the same sort of multi-faceted experience can apply to crafts and creativity, construction and building, parenting, and mentoring children or young adults.

By designing gatherings that include both the social and spiritual, you promote spiritual and emotional growth while building community between and among members. The bonus in creating spiritual community is that you bolster mental health as well. When you belong to groups, include time to talk, and include food, you help create a stronger church – one that is both social and spiritual. It’s not hard to do, and it may seem too simple to be true, but it makes a world of difference.

Adapted from Rebekah Simon-Peter’s upcoming book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World (Market Square Publishers, 2022)


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