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Our Experience Building a Culture of Grace & Intimacy

We all crave grace. And we crave intimacy. But how many of us ever find them? Getting to intimacy is scary – it requires risks and pain. Our quick-solution culture doesn’t prepare us very well. And most of us lack experience with grace. How are we to find what our hearts crave? I’ve been affor…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

We all crave grace. And we crave intimacy. But how many of us ever find them? Getting to intimacy is scary – it requires risks and pain. Our quick-solution culture doesn’t prepare us very well. And most of us lack experience with grace. How are we to find what our hearts crave?

I’ve been afforded a wonderful petrie dish to experiment in to see how a culture of grace and intimacy can be built. With a sample size of nearly a thousand groups over more than a decade, the team I lead (the World Race) has tried every path imaginable.

Every year, we launch over 100 teams that spend between nine to 11 months living and working together overseas. During that time, the vast majority experience a level of deep community unlike any they’ve ever been a part of.

What we’ve learned is giving us hope for the future of the Church. It shows us a pattern for churches that Millennials will flock to.

The problem

The problem for any of us is that we don’t get to intimacy without first becoming vulnerable. When you show yourself weak to another person, it’s a signal to them that it may be safe to follow suit – to reciprocate. And that’s when the relationship begins to deepen.

A lot of things get in the way. We may not feel we can take that kind of risk. Or we may have a broken paradigm of intimacy, associating intimacy primarily with sex.

Most churches have a culture of superficiality with the result that 70% of young people graduating from college are leaving the church. They have a nose for authenticity that their Boomer parents can’t understand. They smell hypocrisy and stay away.

Of course there are no shortcuts to intimacy. Sex without emotional intimacy is a hollow act. A better paradigm embraces the possibility of sharing our brokenness, trusting that others will respond with grace.

Jesus intended for his people to have a culture of grace and intimacy. If you didn’t know anything about him, but just read about Jesus in the Bible, that’s what you’d see. He confronts the hypocrites, gives grace to the broken and pushes for deep relationship with God and man.

Our process

The process, begins with a commitment to grow in grace, a commitment that is repeatedly tested and proven. If we can’t make room for the mess others bring, then forget it. 

We call that commitment “having a yes in their spirit.” They have to say “yes” to God as he leads them deeper. The first test of that “Yes” is if they can embrace our cultural norm of safety. That jumpstarts the process that leads to a culture of grace.

We have watched as some teams got there quickly. When they did, it was lightning in a bottle – kind of like watching people fall in love with one another. They bonded deeply and felt safe and encouraged.

We also observed as other teams preferred to keep relationships at a superficial level. Having been raised in cultures that were not safe, they didn’t test the norm of safety. “We like each other and prefer not to complicate things,” they would say.

How it works

Norm of safety. Each team member agrees that their team will be a safe place. If anyone bring sarcasm or judgment to the team, then they have undermined safety.

Risks. We test if it is really safe by taking risks with one another. If we see unsafe behavior, we take the risk of calling it out. Jesus gives us a great example of this when he says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Vulnerability. Assuming that others will protect our safety, we take the risk of being vulnerable. We share parts of our lives where we failed, where we were weak and feel inadequate.

Reciprocity. Vulnerability triggers a psychological response that God built into humans called the principle of reciprocity. Jesus described it like this “Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full…The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.” (Luke 6:38)

Trust. When we experience other people giving to us, we begin to trust them. And trust reinforces that safety is not just a norm – a rule to be obeyed – but it is a part of the team culture. It’s something we all believe and expect.

Grace. When safety is tested and proven iteratively, we begin to experience a culture of grace. This is when we can say to one another, “There is nothing that you can do that would cause me to love you less.”

Intimacy. When you are part of a team that takes risks, experiences friction and practices grace over time, then you begin to establish a culture of intimacy. We may not be enough; we may feel inadequate. But our friends who know us deeply still love us and will encourage us.

Connecting deeply

Jesus called this process a “narrow way.” It’s fraught with risk that most Christians shy away from. But it’s the way that we were designed for. We’ve seen that there’s a rich pay-off for taking the risk. 

It turns out, following this way is a recipe for planting a church that regularly experiences grace – the kind of church we may dream about, a place where we regularly connect deeply with others, where intimacy and grace are part of the culture.

Haven’t you always longed to be a part of a culture like that? Don’t you dream about a part of a group that practices grace as they do life? What would it look like for you to help create that culture right where you are?

Comments (6)

  • Thank you Seth. I hear you and agree wholeheartedly. My only concern is that this new wine will never fit into an old wineskin. Unfortunately that’s what happens too often. Present leaders are trying to put the new wine of relational intimacy and accountability into the old wine skins of event driven programs and personality. The grapes of the old paradigms must be crushed to release this spirit of the new wine. I love how teams on mission have the opportunity to experience this. My prayer is that it will find expression in the local church over time. Stay inspired.

    • You’re welcome, Doug. And you’re right. New wine won’t fit in old wineskins. We’ve got to make new ones – without the local church, we can’t survive.

  • Learning community and intimacy on the WR forever changed my life in amazing ways. I have never found community quite like we had there, but I relate to people very differently than I did before. I know the value of vulnerability and how it opens doors.

    I am leading a prison ministry in my church now, and I am trying to impart that same community and vulnerability to them. It’s not quite as easy as I thought it would be, but we’ll get there.

    • That’s awesome, Kim. So thankful for the work that you are doing there! I love how you go for it – you always were ready to do the hard work that growth and community required.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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