As I studied the faces of my small group family, I began to reflect on the makeup of our group. These were not new Christians finding community for the first time. This was a small group of ordained ministers, elders, and deacons who had spent most of their life in the church—the smaller church—and for the first time were beginning to catch a glimpse of the community God has called his church to live in.
As our small group was wrapping up for the evening, we held hands and prepared to pray for one another. That is when I noticed one of the ladies in our group holding back a tear.
“I have been a Christian my whole life,” she said, “and up until last year, I never had the opportunity to come together with a group in our homes, and really get to know one another and pray for one another. This is an experience I will never forget. Never did I think my husband and I would join a group of Christians and openly discuss our marriage and encourage one another as we are this year. I just want you to know how much I appreciate that experience and all of you.”
Others in the group fought back tears, as everyone nodded in agreement.
Created for One Another
God created us for one another. As Christians, we know this, yet we insist on living separate from one another. Those of us who have grown up in the church can recite the creation story from heart. For five days God created a universe full of great color and beauty. At the end of each day, he looked at what he had done and said, “It is good.”
The sixth day was to be the Creator’s masterwork, for he would make man in his own image. Man would be able to love and be loved in return. So God created man, and then said something that was different. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18).
As Christians, we instinctively know we need one another. We understand we are created for community. To emphasize our need for community, our Lord commanded us to live life together through a number of “one another” commands found in the New Testament epistles. Despite this, men and women insist on living their faith alone, missing out on the blessings of community the Creator intended for us to experience.
For the typical Christian who attends a smaller church, life revolves around Sunday morning. You arrive at church just in time to make small talk about the weather, sports, or work, but not early enough for the conversation to go much deeper. For an hour you sit silently listening to the message.
During a 10-minute break before Sunday school you grab a cup of coffee and make small talk. But again the conversation remains shallow.
Sunday school class begins, and for an hour you sit silently while being taught an intellectually challenging and inspiring lesson. It rarely affords an opportunity to discuss the issues and practical problems you’re facing at work or home. In class, you receive great information about the passage, and there are opportunities to pray, read aloud, and answer questions regarding that day’s Scripture. Yet, in a typical Sunday school setting of 20-40 people, it is difficult to share personal needs or to receive specific help or prayer.
After class you quickly pick up the kids from their activities and try to beat the rush to lunch. At lunch the family discusses the fifth Sunday pitch-in coming up in a couple of weeks before commenting on the great community everyone experiences at First Christian Church. But is this community?
Yes, you do know everyone’s name in the church. You may know where they work and live. You enjoy playing softball together. You enjoy being in their company on Sunday morning. But is that all God has in store for us when he calls us to actively live our lives in community? Only partially.
The call for smaller churches to embrace small groups is a call to take Sunday morning relationships to another level. When we look at the description of the first church (beginning in Acts 2:42), we see an active family who lived out life with one another daily. They served one another, encouraged one another, prayed for one another, shared intimate meals with one another, studied with one another, and sold their possessions to help one another. They formed such a close bond that they had “all things in common.” Community, for them, was not a passive experience lived out in a pew once a week on Sunday morning. Community was an active experience lived out with one another daily.
Over the years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit many churches on Sunday mornings, and as good and important as Sunday morning services are, if that is the extent of our church experience, we are not fully realizing all of the blessings God desires for us. Churches of all shapes and sizes have been called to soak in God’s blessings found in community and in living life together. We are called to live out life together as a family as the early church demonstrated by serving one another, encouraging one another, and submitting to one another.
Unless the smaller church provides opportunities for all people to experience true biblical community within the life of the church, she will deny herself the blessings God has in store for her. She will become unattractive to new people.
Small groups can lead you and your church family to explore new and creative ways to live out life together.
Eric Bingaman is associate minister at Batesville (Indiana) Christian Church.