I think I accidentally fell into being good at community building. It took a lot of mistakes. A lot of misunderstandings. A lot of hurting others and being hurt. Can you relate?
But through all my experiences of leading communities—of students, fellow church congregants, coworkers, and more—I’ve seen how transformative and essential good community can be.
In Acts 2, we see an example of what a strong community can look like. And we see that the strong community wasn’t just for the benefit of the believers. It also resulted in “the Lord [adding] to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
With all the isolation from the pandemic for the past two years, it’s been difficult to find and form communities that go deep. But we’re all eager for it. It’s a desire that God put in our hearts. And deep connection with each other can draw us into deeper connection with Jesus.
So whether you’re leading a small group or just trying to grow closer with your friends, here are a few tips for forming deep community that I’ve found to be useful in any season.
1. Share Life Stories
In any relationship, the key to growing closer is vulnerability. One of the best ways to kick off a new community group is for each person to share their life story or testimony. You’ll know more about each other and how to care for one another. And this can create a culture of transparency as you move forward getting to know each other better.
It’s important that this doesn’t feel too intrusive and that everyone feels comfortable. Some people might not want to plunge into their darkest secrets, and that’s okay. Try giving the disclaimer, “Please share as little or as much as you want,” and some topics they might want to cover:
Their experience with faith and Christianity—if they’re a Christian, how and when did they choose to follow Jesus
Cultural and ethnic background
Why they chose their major or career field
What their faith is like now
When doing this activity as a group, I recommend the leader going first. This shows that you’re not going to make anyone do anything you’re not willing to do yourself and sets an example of what these times of sharing should look like.
2. Hang Out Casually
An easy way to kill any sense of community is to only see people during official meetings or events. I’ve been part of these kinds of small groups before. They just felt like another thing on my to-do list, not a group of friends to have fun with (not that Scripture study is boring . . . I mean, it’s one of my favorite things ever! I’m on InterVarsity staff, silly!).
So it’s important to spend time together outside of those spaces. Invite your small group over for a movie or game night. Ask, last-minute, if they want to grab a meal together. Maybe you can just say aloud to your group something like, “Hey, if you’re ever wanting to do something fun but don’t have anyone to do it with, let us know!”
Jesus didn’t say to the disciples, “Hey guys, on Tuesdays at 3:00 p.m., I’m going to be speaking to people on a mountain. Okay? Cool. Sign up on this form, and we’ll just see each other then.” Instead he was embedded in their lives, and they in his. They spent nearly every moment traveling, eating, doing life together.
3. Meet in One-on-ones
Like my last point, most people are looking for friendship, not just being a member of a group. Be intentional to invite each person in the group to get coffee or food or to just hang out individually. Take that opportunity to get to know them better and encourage them with the unique gifts or qualities they offer.
For many people, especially those who are more introverted, it might be less comfortable to share openly in a group. But they may open up more with just you privately. They might need someone to share their struggles, doubts, and even joys with. When they feel closer to you, they might feel more comfortable in the group, knowing that there’s at least one person there who’s intentionally gotten to know them.
4. Communicate Vision & Expectations
In most small groups, everyone will be in similar stages of life and have many commonalities. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll naturally have the same expectations for what the community will look like. Some might not even expect community and friendship at all.
It’s good to communicate what your hopes and vision are for the group. Do you want to be a close-knit group of friends? Do you want to be missional together reaching the campus and beyond? How much time do you want to spend in Scripture study versus worship versus getting to know each other through ice breakers, etc.? Have everyone share what they’re hoping to get out of the group and then use those ideas to shape a group vision statement and rhythms.
There’s no guarantee you’re going to want the exact same things or that you’ll always see eye to eye. (This can actually offer greater opportunities to learn from each other!) But setting expectations early can help you have a mutual understanding of the purpose for gathering.
Above all, I pray that your community grows in your walks with Jesus. As you go deeper into prayer and his Word, you’ll naturally grow closer to each other. I pray that in his caring provision, he’ll give everyone in your community what they’re longing for.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to experience multiple tightly-knit communities that produced lasting friendships that feel like family, that I can trust with the deepest parts of myself. I pray that you can discover that too!
Ashlye works as the Managing Editor for InterVarsity's Communications and Marketing Team in Madison, Wisconsin. She enjoys deep conversations with friends and adventures with her husband (a Video Producer for InterVarsity) and their corgi, Penny. You can support her ministry here: donate.intervarsity.org/donate#21368.