By Paige K Slighter
Feelings of isolation and disconnectedness are nothing new. Even before the pandemic hit, researchers predicted a looming epidemic of loneliness. In an article from 2018, Psychology Today noted, “More than just a mopey, Charlie Brown-esque mindset, loneliness causes serious hurt, acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain … More of us than ever before are feeling its sting, whether we’re young or old, married or single, urban-dwelling or living in remote mountain villages.” Now that social distancing has become the new normal, the heartache of exile is all too familiar for many of us, including the church. Finding authentic community can be difficult, especially now that most social interactions take place online, but it is not impossible.
Woodland’s Gathering Groups are an easy, low risk way to engage authentically with others while diving deeper into the weekend sermons. Shawna Boren, our Engagement Pastor, says, “Of course, there is a measure of risk any time you put yourself out there in a new way, but these groups are well worth it.” The Blaine, Minnesota Gathering Group can attest to this. They believe the rewards far outweigh the risks. Check out their stories below.
“In the course of my life, the greatest learning and growing that has ever happened for me always came through authentic relationships with others.”
Loren was raised in a Christian home and gave his life to Christ at the age of 15. Later, he attended Bible college, but somewhere along the way, he lost sight of who Jesus really was. It wasn’t until he started attending Woodland that he began to rediscover God. He says, “I honestly would have likely tossed in the towel altogether if it wasn’t for someone pointing me to Woodland.”
Though he really enjoyed what he was learning, he was having a hard time getting connected. He says, “I was still feeling really isolated. I went to the 9am service but didn’t know a single person. I felt like I was in a large room with strangers, not family.” That all changed when he reached out to Shawna. He says, “She listened to my story, heard me and offered to help connect me to people in my area.” Since fall of 2019, Loren has been hosting a weekly Gathering Group in Blaine, MN. It’s been really meaningful to him.
In addition to discussing the live-stream sermons, the group participates in book studies and processes relevant issues. Together they grieved George Floyd’s death and dove headfirst into the Race Conciliation series. Loren says, “I grew up in a rural part of the country where the population was almost exclusively Caucasian. The narrative that I heard around race was very different than the reality of life for so many people.” He’s learned a lot and is grateful for a community that is open to all his questions.
Matt and Stephanie
“This isn’t a sprint. It’s a road filled with potholes, but it’s a road we can walk together.”
Matt and Stephanie had been going to Woodland for a while, but they too were having trouble connecting. Though they knew bonding takes time, they were tired of walking in and out of church without really knowing anyone. Stephanie says, “Being a Christ follower is my life, so that means the church is my family.” Prior to coming to Woodland, she had worked as a church choir director for sixteen years. Though no church community is the same, she wanted to feel energized by having intentional relationships.
Matt felt the same and was also looking for a safe space to process his thoughts and ideas. His heart hurt when he learned about the destructiveness of systemic racism in the sermon Revolting Against the Powers. He says, “I listened to all of the tactics that our dominantly White society has used to block our Black brothers and sisters from home ownership, and I thought back to my own experiences. I could finally see how I was complicit in structural racism, whether I knew it consciously or not.” Earlier in the fall, Matt had just renovated and sold a home to the highest bidder. It bothered him that he had not been more selective in the process and allowed more opportunities for Non-White families to own a home. Instead of staying discouraged, he decided to move forward with hope. He says, “If I could renovate and resell a house once, surely I could do it again.”
He shared what he was processing with the Blaine Gathering Group. What if house flipping was a redemptive act they could do as a community? Together they brainstormed the possibilities. Though the idea hasn’t completely grown legs yet, the group still has a lot of enthusiasm about it. Matt and Stephanie are keeping their eyes and ears open for affordable housing, though the market is crazy right now. With retirement in reach, Matt hopes he can devote more time to the project.
“Living in community really benefits my life.”
Ruth Ann really likes Matt’s idea of flipping houses for a greater cause. As a recipient of God’s generosity, she’s ready to take action and give back. When she was young, her family didn’t have a lot of money, but somehow, they were able to build a home. That home created value for many generations to come, and now she and her children have better opportunities because of it. That’s why she wants to get involved and help open the door for others.
At first, Ruth Ann didn’t think joining the group would be her thing. Typically, her natural tendency had been to refrain from getting too close to others. In the past, she had always felt guarded in group settings. She said, “It was odd for me because I’m not really a group person. After meeting everyone, my perspective changed.”
She decided to take the risk because “it just felt like the right timing.” She really didn’t have anyone she could discuss sermons with before. She said, “I love talking about God and I guess I was really hoping to have a community to share that with.” Their discussions have helped her understand God, herself and others more deeply.
Nimi and Emily
“We all have something to give, something unique to bring to the table.”
Nimi and Emily love the group because each person is so unique. Emily says, “You wouldn’t think we all go together, but somehow we belong.” They are grateful for the different perspectives of each individual and their common ground of togetherness. Nimi says, “It’s like we’re all peeling back layers of an onion and God is meeting us where we’re at. This kind of community cannot be manufactured.” They are excited to see where God leads them as they continue to make connections and grow.
At Woodland, we believe relationships are essential. That’s why we like to say we’re “learning to love together.” We’re so happy the Blaine group found each other and are thriving in their uniqueness. We hope God will continue to form more lasting connections among our congregation—locally and globally. If you’re feeling alone, just remember you’re not! There are plenty of other like-minded people ready to connect. For more information about Gathering Groups contact Shawna at firstname.lastname@example.org.