Fostering Community Like Christ

By: Adam Gilliland

I grew up spending my summers in North Carolina, right on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Each year, the park holds a ticket lottery for a firefly event in early June. I had always heard about this event, but had never been until my wife and I lived in North Carolina in 2019. We were lucky enough to be selected in the ticket lottery, and what we were able to witness is a phenomenon that only occurs in a few places in the world. The fireflies collect in these woods and begin to flash synchronously. It begins slowly as the sun falls, but eventually for brief moments, the fireflies flash together to light up the entire forest floor. Ultimately this happens as a mating routine, and, as it was expressed to us, helps the insects to be upwards of eighty percent more effective in mating than if they worked independently. That’s a transformative difference, and it affirms something that we should already know: there’s power in community.

In education we’re familiar with the concept of communities – PLC’s, professional organizations, personal networks, etc. I’m sure at some point we’ve all uttered the phrase, “it takes a village.” We know and recognize the value and the influence that these communities have on us, our teaching, and our schools. Throughout my own teaching and leadership, however, I’ve struggled with what it looks like to create a community that could be a catalyst in a student’s growth. How do we engage each student in the same goals, working together to unlock each other’s highest potential?

I’ve looked at many practices, programs, and even curriculum and always felt as if creating a student community within the classroom was a forced effort. I overestimated student engagement or undervalued student strengths. I often abandoned my plans and reverted to controlling the classroom dynamic and instruction – not creating an environment of my students, but an environment or my own ideals that the students came in and experienced. This year I looked elsewhere when I began to reflect on creating a student community though. I looked to Christ.

Jesus’ first act of ministry was to invite a community around him. Twelve men who participated in his ministry grew alongside each other, and ultimately, were given the charge to take his teachings into the world. Jesus was exactly the example I was searching for: a teacher inviting individuals to be a part of a community that unlocked the potential of each individual to exponentially grow in understanding and wisdom and help them best serve his church. But how does this translate to the classroom? Weighing research against Jesus’ own journey, one tenant became clear, we must first create a stable environment built on shared vision, truth, and invitation.

Though teaching was at the center of his community, Christ first used action to invite his disciples into an environment that fostered a shared vision and truth:

  1. He devoted daily to his father and his father’s word.
  2. He pursued his community. He was devoted to them. He put their needs above his own. He was steadfast when relationships should have been difficult.
  3. He shared the truth. He used God’s word and his word alone.
  4. He lived authentically. He was honest and full of humility.
  5. He encouraged with thankfulness. He corrected with empathy, exerting an authentic example of walking in righteousness.
  6. He engaged missionally. He stepped first into the lives of his community to then invite them into his own.

*These practices are defined and outlined in the core values of community by Watermark Community Church in Dallas, TX

Scripture tells us that all of God’s word is useful for teaching so that man may be equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3: 16-17, and so I began to look to these practices to better create a stable foundation that may foster a shared vision and truth for my students:

  1. I want to devote daily to God’s truth.
  2. I want to pursue my students. To put their needs first in the classroom. To care for their well-being and to seek their success, not my own.
  3. I want to recognize that all truth is God’s truth. I want my words, my practices, and my content to align with and be informed by his truth.
  4. I want to live authentically, to be the example of relationship, humility, and integrity that I hope to witness in my students.
  5. I want to encourage often, with joy and thankfulness. I do not want to shy away from correction, though, being willing to walk alongside students to maintain what is right.
  6. I want to engage externally, seeking that which is of importance, interest, and investment for my students to then invite them into that which is important to us all.

The phenomenon of fireflies only happens in rare parts of the world, in an environment inviting and stable. Likewise, it rings true that in order for a community to form, for collaboration to occur, and for potential to be unlocked, the conditions must first be right. To unlock the potential of community, we must first invite the community around us by looking to Christ so that we can better look like Christ.

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