Why Small Groups?
I recently finished a sermon series where I outlined the vision of our church. One of our deep values is connecting christians together in vital community. Below is an essay that I wrote that outlines why we believe community is so vital.
Why small groups?
Fellowship is a church that is structured around small groups. We are not just a church that “has” small groups; we are a church “of” small groups. Since we believe that small groups are the main atmosphere for Christian growth and discipleship, we want all of our members to be engaged in these communities. In short, small groups are a BIG DEAL here at Fellowship.
Our conviction about small groups grows out of a strong belief that Christians cannot grow outside of vibrant Christian community. We need more than a classroom and the deposit of information to grow; we must be deeply involved in a community of people where we can know and be known. Put another way, we need more than the Bible and the Holy Spirit to grow; we need other Christians in our lives to “spur us on to love and good works.” Before we get into what happens in a typical small group, let’s look at what the Bible says about the importance of community.
WE WERE CREATED TO LIVE IN COMMUNITY:
As a human being, community is in your DNA. You were created by God to live in vital relationships with other people. To understand why community is so vital, we must first understand that we were made in the image of God—and exactly what sort of God in whose image we were made.
In Genesis we learn that humans are made in the image of the triune God. This means that, as humans, we are made in the image of a God who is a “We,” not a “Me.” Notice in Genesis God says, “let us make man in our image.” God’s three-ness has huge implications for what it means to be human. Since you are made in the image of the God who exists in community, you are a being who has community hard-wired into your DNA. You were built for community. When you ignore relationships, you are cutting against the grain of your humanity. We cannot isolate ourselves without becoming deeply broken and lonely. As God told Adam at the beginning, “it is not good for man to be alone.” Adam was lonely not because he was imperfect, but because he was perfectly made in the image of the triune God.
At Fellowship, we don’t want anyone to be alone. We were built to know and be known because we are made in the image of God. Community groups exist to foster this basic “life together” for which we were built.
WE ARE REDEEMED TO LIVE IN COMMUNITY:
Not only are we created for community, we are redeemed for community. When Adam fell into sin, humans were not only separated from God, but also from one another. The world was relationally fractured, resulting in racism, murders, strife, alienation, and every other kind of social breakdown. A major aspect of God’s work in Christ is to heal the broken relationships caused by the sin.
God’s great plan for relational healing is the church. The God of the Bible is a community-forming God. God never brings a person into a relationship with himself, without at the same time bringing them into a relationship with others.
In the New Testament the church is described with strikingly intense metaphors. Christians are likened to “living stones” in a holy temple. In another passage we are called “fellow citizens” of the kingdom of God. We are also called members of the same household. Continually throughout the NT we are called “brothers and sisters.” In all of these passages we see that the gospel unites us together in a relationship that is closer than even blood relatives. Jesus connects people of different classes, races, and genders into “one new man.”
It is impossible to be a Christian on your own. Many in our culture say, “I love Jesus, I just do not want to be part of the church.” But the God of the Bible will not let you do this. If you do not want to be part of the church community, you will have to find another religion. God has redeemed you into a deep, rich, close-knit community.
THE CONTEXT OF CHRISTIAN OBEDIENCE IS COMMUNITY:
While many view the Christian life as a highly personal quest for private spiritual growth, the Bible reveals that growth is impossible outside of community. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals how deeply communal the Christian life is. Most of the “you’s” in the New Testament are plural. Almost all of the commands given to Christians can only be carried out in Christian community. For example, the phrase, “one another” is found all the way through the pages of Paul’s letters. We are told to bear one another’s burdens, forgive one another, speak the truth to one another, and the list goes on and on. How can you obey the “one another’s” of the Bible if you are not deeply engaged in community?
Not only is community assumed in the New Testament, the NT authors directly command believers to come together in community. In the Book of Hebrews the writer says that we ought not “forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” In the book of Acts, the example set by the early church is that the church not only assembled one day a week in the Temple, but throughout the week (day by day) in each other’s houses. The point is clear: Christians ought to be getting together often to “spur one another on to love and good works.”
LOVE REQUIRES COMMUNITY:
Furthermore, Love, the chief mark of the Christian life, can only be practiced in community. The Bible says, “God is love.” All who claim to be his children should resemble him in this most basic character trait. I John says that if we do not “love the brothers” we are not “born of God.”
The only way you can know that you love “the brothers” is if you actually know them. You cannot love somebody that you do not know or have any contact with. There is a famous character in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamasov who considers himself a humanitarian. He loves humanity, and he gives lots of his money to different charities. The only problem is that he hates people. It is impossible to love a generic “humanity” if you cannot stand to be in the same room with an actual human being.
Jesus said that the most defining mark of Christian love is that you actually love your enemy. The power of the early church is that former enemies (Jews and Gentiles) were living together as “brothers and sisters” in a close-knit community. Community is the context where our love (agape) is tested. How do I know if I love others? You must get to know a real “other.” You must get into close Christian community with a person that is different than yourself—even a person who was formerly an enemy. Community is the only place where true agape love is revealed. If a person says, “I love Jesus but not his church,” they are revealing a deep failure to display the most cardinal Christian virtue.
MISSION REQUIRES COMMUNITY:
While each Christian is called to be on mission, the Christian community as a whole offers a powerful collective witness in the world. The church community is called to be an alternative society in the midst of an ungodly world. As we treat one another with love and grace, as we forgive one another and bear one another’s burdens, and as we model a new way of relating to sex, money, family, and success, we show the non-Christian world the way of the kingdom of God.
Although it is possible to some extent to live out these values individually, God’s plan for mission is to use his people as a whole. Our love for the outcast and the stranger, our care for our enemies, and our unity around the gospel becomes a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. In chapter 2 of the Book of Acts, the church began to gather together in community, and in doing so became a powerful witness to the world. As a result of this vibrant community, the church “had favor in the sight of all the people and God was adding to the church daily those who were being saved.”
THE GOSPEL IS THE FOUNDATION OF COMMUNITY:
The gospel is the only foundation for community. It tells us that, at the bottom, we are all the same. We are all more sinful than we have ever imagined. At the same time, we are all more accepted by God in Christ than we ever dared to hope. When it comes to God, none of us are “more acceptable” than anyone else. All of us come to God as sinners saved by grace. The ground at the foot of the cross is flat.
The truth that we are saved by grace through faith has huge ramifications for community. One of the main barriers to community is our pride. We exclude others because we think we are inherently superior to them and their kind (they are inferior to us and our kind). Our pride stems from the law (false notion that we are right before God and others because of what we have accomplished). Any time we base our identities on our ability to follow the rules (or on our race, culture, financial status, etc), we create communities of exclusion and division. As Ephesians tells us, the law becomes a barrier that separates people.
But the gospel abolishes the law that divides us. It tells us that our identity is found not in what we accomplish, but in what Christ accomplishes for us. Our acceptance before God and others is based upon Christ’s work, not our own. This creates a community of people that humbly accept one another. Our differences are divested of their moral significance. We can unite around our common acceptance before God rooted in grace.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL SMALL GROUP AT FELLOWSHIP LOOK LIKE?
Each of our small groups seek to engage in four basic practices:
1. We do life together:
A small group is more than just a Sunday school; it is an extended family or network of friendships. It is a group that does life together. This group eats meals together, plays and has fun together, celebrates important events together, and basically walks with each other through the ups and downs of life.
2. We study Scripture together:
If the group lives life together without studying Scripture together, it is simply a social club. The real power for transformation in our groups is that they are gathering around Christ and his Word. All of our groups are committed to making the gospel the center of their time together. Because it is the gospel that unites us and enables us to love one another as family, it is the foundation for everything the group does together.
The study in our groups is discussion-based. The small group is not the time to hear another sermon. This is an opportunity to hear how the gospel is at work in the lives of others in the group. It is a time to learn from the unique perspectives that others bring to the table. It is a time to ask hard, honest questions, and to share our struggles with obedience to God’s word. It is a time when we can challenge one another to follow Christ in the unique contexts of our lives.
3. We pray and encourage one another:
In a medium-sized church like ours, it is very difficult for the pastors to meet all of the needs represented in the congregation. Inevitably there will be discouraged members who we will not be able to encourage on a weekly basis, there will be physical needs that we will not be aware of, and prayer needs that will go unmet. The small groups are the place where physical, spiritual, and emotional needs are specifically and consistently addressed.
We encourage all of the small group leaders to make prayer and sharing of needs a consistent part of the group’s life together. On many occasions small groups have provided meals for moms after pregnancy, visited sick members in the hospital, and provided counsel and encouragement for members struggling with doubts and sins.
4. We do mission together:
Finally, our groups are committed to being on mission together in Batesville. If a group stops looking outward it will soon lose momentum and die. God designed his people to be on mission together in the world. We are not only called out of the world into a relationship with Jesus and one another, we are also sent into the world to be on mission for Christ. We are called in to be sent out! Like a tornado, God is constantly spinning his people out on mission.
Knowing this reality, we ask all of our groups to engage in at least one mission project per semester. This could be any number of things. Some groups pass out quarters at the local laundry mat; others have packed Operation Christmas Child boxes at Christmas time; others have provided food for a youth or college outreach. There are many ways that the groups engage in mission, and each group is unique in its particular focus.
WHERE DO SMALL GROUPS FIT IN OUR OVERALL PLAN FOR DISCIPLESHIP?
Just like any organization has a plan for accomplishing its overall objectives, at Fellowship we have a clear plan for our chief objective. The mission of our church is to reach out with the message of the gospel and to make disciples here in Batesville. Small groups are a vital part of this plan. The path of discipleship then looks like this:
Sunday Service, Discovery Class, Small Group Involvement, & Sending out/Service
After attending Sunday services we hope that all of our attendees will take the next step and go to the Discovery class. Having become a member, the next step is to find a small group and get plugged in. If you are not engaged in a small group, you are missing out on our main strategy to make disciples. We have noticed that members who are involved in small groups grow faster, are more involved using their gifts, and stay connected to church more than attendees not connected to a small group.