How Worship Leaders Cultivate “Porous Community”

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Leading Tips1 Comment

Having recently been in the studio in preparation for new albums this Fall and Winter, I was reminded again of how relationships deepen both spiritual connection and the music-making process. Musicologists have noted for decades that better music is made by an ensemble (their rhythm is tighter, their phrasing is more unified, etc.) when the players are friends. The professional musicians I have worked with over the years have said the same thing—there’s a difference between virtuosic “parallel play” and true, organic ensemble. And the dynamics are in large part due to the type of community the players share.

For worship leaders seeking to be pastoral in their approach to their vocation, community-cultivating is not only important for great music-making but for preserving an ongoing vitality in ministry. And there’s a particular model for how this looks that I think works best in most contexts. I’ve heard some call it “porous community.”

Two Errors in Community Cultivation

I’ve seen two kinds of errors in leadership with worship leaders overseeing their teams of staff and/or volunteers. I’ve seen these errors take place in big churches and small churches. The first kind of error is the leader who cultivates no community at all. In this scenario, worship leaders view their job purely in a functional, up-front capacity. Their job is to “get the service done.” Their volunteers aren’t guided to be people-centered but task-centered. Their teams are more or less “event staff.” Therefore, it’s unimportant to the leader to cultivate relationships and foster community. The leader leads purely from platform. In this very task-oriented approach, misunderstanding and mistrust can find many cracks to leak into. Over time, the “winter seasons” of ministry can cause those cracks to expand and contract, eventually leading to an irreparable fracture and a crumbling ministry. This is often the context where “moral failures” of many kinds find fertile soil to grow. 

The second kind of error is the leader who cultivates tight, bounded community. This type of leader likes his or her group of friends, and once they’re set, they’re an impenetrable clique. Along with the people on the inside, this leader can have a false sense of the depth and richness of the community. “Us four and no more” feels great…for the four. They have their weekly hang-outs and eventually develop insider language and humor that becomes obvious to the rest around them when they’re in the “big community” settings like worship practice or even the Sunday morning prep and services. To those on the inside, the worship leader could truly be a pastor to them—loving them, caring for them. But rarely do folks on the outside of this bounded-set community feel that shepherding and oversight.

A Model for Porous Community

When Jesus gathered people to Himself, He cultivated a community that certainly had discernible boundaries but was incredibly porous. He allowed for two-way traffic and seemed to be perpetually disrupting the status quo when the community was either too undefined (think of his boundary-marking with his interactions with the Pharisees) or too cliquish (think of his welcoming of prostitutes and children when “the community” was trying to push them out). Similarly, when Christ is our center and when the gospel’s aroma of grace is wafting around, we worship leaders will notice a similar dynamic at play, which we happily encourage. A porous-community worship leader encourages and fosters relationships both inside and outside “official” times and places, and they constantly have their eye out to introduce new people into the “system,” disrupting its tendency toward ingrown-ness.

What Community-Cultivating Looks Like

In official times and spaces (rehearsals, meetings, pre-service gatherings, etc.), a community-cultivator seeks to winsomely introduce informality, honesty, and down-to-earth-ness.  I find, for me, that I just naturally want to inject humor into my rehearsals, with a little joking and teasing here or there. Or I’ll take time before a meeting starts just to be around to chit-chat with the early birds. A community-cultivator also seeks to create and foster unofficial times and spaces where the same people interact. I often try to pull a few people and run out for coffee or take a group to lunch. I’ll try to have small groups of folks over to my place. And, to be honest, because I’m more task-oriented by nature, I find that the only way I’ll ever faithfully do this stuff is to schedule it. If you have a team of co-leaders you work with, I think it’s also important to encourage these values in their lives as well. One-on-one connections with people can happen but are best only with people of the same gender, so I often encourage some of my female co-leaders to take out and connect with other ladies in our ministry spheres.

When you make community-building your ethos, another thing begins to happen. You develop a kind of sixth sense for when the community is becoming ingrown and cliquish. If there’s a pocket of folks that is beginning to look like it might be cutting itself off, I try to grab a few of the folks from the clique and connect them with other people at a third-space hangout.

What If I’m Not Wired That Way?

I think we need to be honest that some people just don’t feel wired to be community-builders. Though I ultimately believe that we’re all called to stretch ourselves and grow in these areas, the reality is that some of us won’t be the fire-starter for this kind of ignition. In such cases (and I think this is wise advice even for the folks who feel locked and loaded to cultivate community), I’d encourage you to pray for and seek out people who can be those catalysts on your team. Some people are just born relational networkers. Others are hospitable, both in their spirit and in their home. These people need to be encouraged that they have something indispensible to give to the church and to its ministry of worship.

So much more could be said about all this, but hopefully this post has provided a few hooks on which to hang some of your leadership ideas. 

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