I have, rather inconsistently, been doing a series on this blog on Christian community. I've recently added links on the left sidebar for the community series...and links to my earlier leadership series on the right side. So, head over there and catch up if you missed the first three posts.
I'd like to write today about "small groups." First - a full disclaimer: I help lead a church with a small group ministry. I believe that a larger church with no method of grouping people into smaller communities is relatively pointless. I've written several times about this. I believe that "small groups" are actually much closer to the New Testament idea of "church" than what we normally call church.
That said, I need to address a significant weakness in typical "small group" programs and ministries. Namely, that many people tend to drift toward seeing their group as primarily an event or meeting instead of a community. Ironically, this is why small group ministries became so widely popular in the American church over the last three decades...to force people to move past the mentality that church is primarily an event or meeting (Sunday service) instead of an interactive community. Unfortunately, many small groups facilitate the exact same problem diagnosed on Sunday mornings but in a smaller format. They become simply another (sometimes irregular) meeting to attend - an event to go to for prayer, study and maybe to sing a few songs. Yes, sometimes in these meetings people do grow deeper together and actually begin to share life on a deeper level. Sometimes truths are told and tears are shed. (This is good thing.) But, more often than not, once the event ends so does the sharing of life...until the next meeting in a week or two.
As church leaders, we tend to look at our small group numbers as a sign of health and a barometer for how our people are doing at sharing life together. If we have 500 people in our church and 400 of them are in groups, we feel pretty good about things. "80% of our people are in community," we say. But are they? Are we sure they just aren't attending another meeting? This should be of primary concern for a pastor.
I think it comes down to us wanting a short cut when it comes to community. We know that it is impossible to live in the Kingdom and know Jesus apart from life within a community. We want everyone in our organization to know Jesus and the Kingdom, so we create a system of groups to ensure their growth. This is not bad thinking. It is actually a well-intentioned loving act of leadership. But...we cannot let ourselves so easily off the hook in assuming that gathering people in meetings will lead to community. Our goal is not that our people attend events, but that they can honestly say that they are part of a growing, missional spiritual family. We want people to be in community - not simply in "small groups."
Attending a meeting together doesn't make us a community. Neither does studying the Bible twice a month together. Nor sharing "how we are really doing" 24 times per year. Here's the hard pill to swallow: there is no quick fix to real community. It takes TIME. Lots of it. More than you probably think you have or want to give. Real Christian communities live life together daily. They arrange their lives around each other. Their informal meetings dwarf their formal scheduled ones.
Think about how families are made. Real families are slowly formed over years and decades. I don't buy the "quality is better than quantity" argument for half a second. The people I know the most, love the most, have been influenced by the most are the people I have spent the most time with. My mom and dad, my wife and kids...and my closest friends. Family involves daily check-ins, regular clarifications, consistent communication and, perhaps most importantly, shared proximity. In essence, family is forged over time though the act of togetherness. Once a family has been forged in togetherness, it can afford to be apart for a while. But none of us would honestly imagine a husband-wife or parent-child relationship built solely upon two 90-minute formal meetings per month. We should not presume that a spiritual family can be formed that way either. I'm rather convinced that it cannot.
Of course, at some point balance is a factor. I need days to be alone. I need days to be with just my wife and kids. But I also need to be a part of a church. I need a spiritual family. I rarely go two days without being with someone in my community. It could be a lunch with a friend, a text to check in, a formal "small group" meeting or a friday night poker game. When a community learns to live life together, the need to strictly "program" their time together diminishes. In my opinion, this is why the weekly or bi-weekly formal meeting is still important. It's the time to check in with one another about the state of the community: Have we prayed together this week? Have we shared? Have we learned? What have we learned? Have we worshipped? Have we served the poor? The meeting is a time to keep the community on mission...it isn't the time, generally speaking, to do the mission. That is done everyday as life is lived together.
This may create in many of us a flood of negative reactions: What do you mean my small group isn't enough? Do you have any idea how hard it is to get together just once a week in the first place? This is all too much work!
I get it. I feel that way sometimes...even about the people I love. And I think I have found the answer: It is simply hard to live in community. It is more natural to isolate. Being a part of a Christian community will involve radical sacrifice on your part. Just as being a part of a family influences every decision you make, so being a part of a spiritual family has consequences in every area of your life. It will take time to see this family birthed: hours and days and years. It is how families are made...slowly and over time.
So my advice for you is to find a few people to love. Live your daily lives in regular proximity with one another. Be entwined. Tie your lives in relational knots. And have a few "small group" meetings each month to make sure you are becoming the sort of community that honors Jesus and points others toward his coming reign.