[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays]
In his article “The Neighborly Arts: How Skills Contribute to Community,” Mark T. Mitchell challenges our best community-building intentions with an important question: Do we have the skills necessary to build community? By “skills,” he doesn’t mean the sociological, theological, or economic training that helps us theoretically know what makes for good community. He means bread-baking, fence-mending, tailoring, teaching, and roof-patching; the tangible skills that enable us to be community for one another. He writes, “When we send strangers to do the work of friends, we are outsourcing camaraderie.” However:
“There is a connection between what might be called the ‘neighborly arts’ and a life well lived. When we make it a point to learn various skills, we become better equipped to help our neighbors. When we can grow a tomato, we can then share it with others. When we can build a fence, install a light fixture, or repair a carburetor, we can not only take better care of ourselves and our families, we can better serve our neighbors.”
According to Mitchell, then, serving one another in practical ways knits local communities together, preserves traditional skills and gives them local flavor, and makes communities healthily self-sufficient. But this kind of sharing also benefits God’s creation. When we share the cost of a snow blower with a friend or teach others to bake bread at home, we lessen our demands on the natural resources that go into the production, transport, and fueling of everything we purchase. We also exchange a lifestyle of solitary consumerism for a lifestyle of communal help and service.
Obviously a lifestyle of intentional sharing is in line with the old borrowing-a-cup-of-sugar-from-the-neighbor ethos. But in a social context where actual neighbor-to-neighbor interaction is increasingly rare, members of Christ’s Body can, at the very least, share resources and knowledge in their church communities in the spirit of the first believers: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).
Do we have practical skills, services, and tools that we can share with one another? More to the point: If we have them, are we sharing them?
A simple way, in today’s context, to develop the sort of interdependence modeled by members of the early church is to create a directory of skills, services, and stuff that members of your church community are willing to share. Here’s how to establish and use such a “Skills and Stuff Swap” at your church:
Establish the swap directory in the format and forum that will be most appropriate and accessible for your church community:
- Online – Is your church community wired? If so, an internet directory will most likely serve it best. Establish a list serve; Google document or site; or an additional, password-protected web page or blog attached to your church’s existing website, and start swapping over the Web. The advantage of an online directory is that folks can regularly update their entries and access the directory immediately, from almost anywhere.
- Hard Copy – Many churches create and distribute a directory of church members’ contact information each year. Simply adapt this format for your swap directory. If your church creates a member directory on a regular basis, it will likely already have the publishing capacity for a second directory—one that, while being more static than an online forum, will be more accessible to members without reliable internet access.
- Categories – In the creation of the directory, be sure to include categories for all the information folks will want as they search for items or services they need: members’ names and contact information; the skills, services, and items they are willing to share; the general availability of those individuals or the items they wish to loan; and any additional information about their swap.
Provide a clear explanation of the purpose and format of the swap and encourage your church family to join it, though no one should feel pressured to share more than he or she is comfortable with. Advertise the formation of the directory and provide easy instructions on accessing and adding to it. To kick off the start of the directory you may want to distribute information cards that folks can fill out with all the information for the directory, or set up a table that everyone will walk by before and after services, where they can ask questions and provide their information for the swap.
Just because a forum for exchanging skills and tools exists doesn’t mean everyone—especially those of us accustomed to our self-reliance—will remember to use it. Using creative ways to remind your church of the directory’s existence and encouraging members to take full advantage of it will make the swap worthwhile:
- Highlights – If your church has a regular method of communicating with members about events and prayer requests (emails, newsletters, bulletin inserts, etc.), include highlights from the directory in that communication as often as possible, and make it fun! For example: “This week Brian Jones added his rototiller to the Skills and Stuff Swap. Come borrow it from him so he won’t feel like he bought it for nothing!”
- Public Swap – Consider holding a special event, maybe on the day the directory goes live or gets printed, to bring the swap to life. A fun reception where folks feature their loanable goods or advertise their services face-to-face is a lighthearted, memorable way to kick off this community-building ministry.