29 November, 2022

Authentic Community

Features

by | 1 March, 2022

By Rick Lowry

God created every person with a “community gene.” We all have a natural longing to be with other human beings.

From an early age, we have known the value of being a member of a group. Everyone grew up in some version of a family, a place where we belonged, living with significant others who helped shape us. We are in community, in groups, every day: the staff team at work, the board or committee on which we serve, the Thursday night Bunko ladies group, the guys who gather to watch NFL games—all small groups that satisfy, in some way, our need for community that God crafted within us. But God especially uses Christian community as a special place to help us grow and thrive.

The original idea for connection in groups came from God himself. God exists in community. After all, God always has been, and always will be, three persons in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God created us in his image. When we gather in community, we reflect his nature. Small groups are not just the latest program fad in churches. Groups and authentic community come from the very essence of God.

A Lifelong Journey in Community

God has taught me new and interesting lessons about community throughout my life. As a child, Sunday school is where my church “small group” journey started. I recall fondly my second-grade Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Bryant, who took us on a yearlong journey through the exodus. I was fascinated! She gave each of us individual attention. We knew she cared about us. I couldn’t wait to get there each week. I belonged in that group.

As I got older, those Sunday school classes evolved into the youth group—another community, where we helped each other stay on track during those formative high school years.

We had a powerful Bible study together on Wednesday nights, where we made ourselves accountable for our relationship with Christ and called each other to his Lordship. Eventually, others who were hungry for the same level of commitment joined us. During one six-month period, that group grew from 20 to more than 100. I hold cherished memories of that group spread across someone’s backyard in the dark, singing praises to God and lifting up prayers.

Not Just Sunday Worship

My experience in high school was when I learned one of my first important lessons about community: An authentic relationship with Christ does not happen by only attending worship on Sunday.

Sunday worship at my home church was a rich experience. But my greatest growth happened when I was able to “get real” at those Wednesday-night gatherings.

The church has had both worship and small groups since day one. In Acts 2, Peter preached the first gospel sermon, and then Luke described the first church members: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). 

Notice how the story progressed: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46, emphasis mine). 

The early church valued two kinds of meetings. First, they met together in the temple courts. The large group gathering, what we think of as the weekend worship service.

But a second setting had a high priority. In addition to the large-group gathering, “they broke bread in their homes.” This was the more intimate setting in what we might call a small group.

On weekends we gather and focus primarily on God, but I get to know the names and lives of the people around me during the week, in my small group. It is where deep, meaningful, caregiving relationships can develop.

Discipling

I continued to involve myself in small-group Bible studies during my college years. But my most significant college learning was when a young teacher named David Roadcup invited me and some other upperclassmen to spend a year with him in something he called a discipling group.

At that stage in my Bible-college education, I had learned a lot about preaching, teaching, and studying, but in that group, the classroom was everyday life. Dave took us with him when he spoke at churches and when he was serving the kingdom in many other ways.

He modeled for us how a godly man lives. He and his wife, Karen, made sure the door of their home was always open to us. We spent many evenings in their living room, talking and eating like family. In the process, we learned what a godly home looks like—without ever seeing a lesson plan. In that group we got serious about our walk with Christ, and I grew by leaps and bounds.

That discipling experience was life-changing for me. I resolved that, throughout the rest of my life, I would disciple other men. It’s been a key part of my philosophy of ministry leadership for more than 40 years.

Discipling in groups was not just a good idea Dave came up with. It was used by Jesus himself. In fact, Jesus’ entire public ministry modeled what it means to live in community. 

When Jesus was here, crowds seemed to surround him constantly. He didn’t ignore them; he preached to them, healed them, and loved them. But his main emphasis was on twelve guys. He invited them to join him in community for a three-year, life-transforming, ministry-learning journey—a small group.

The result of that group was twelve men who changed the world forever. You and I are Christians today because of the work those Twelve went on to do after Jesus left.

Not Just Church Staff

Another idea about authentic community came into focus for me while I was lead pastor at a church in Topeka, Kansas. It goes like this: The church staff will never adequately take care of every individual church member.

I’m a pastor at a megachurch with three campuses. When it’s my turn to be the hospital pastor, I often call on someone I have not met before. But there’s nothing more satisfying than arriving at the hospital room of one of our members and finding some folks from that person’s small group already there! I can be confident the sick person is not going to get one brief visit and prayer from me, but instead has a whole support network bringing in meals or helping with children and chores.

I recently calculated that if our church relied solely on staff and elders for member support, each leader would be caring for over 250 people! By all accounts, that would be a bad system.

On the other hand, we currently have over 150 groups in our church. If each of them had only 10 people in them, that would mean more than 1,500 people were getting meaningful care and growth in a small group. As a pastor, I can be assured that, if you’re in a group, you are being taken care of—better than our church staff and elders combined could ever hope to do.

Growth and Shepherding

Later, I discovered a simple way to remember why community and groups are important: Small groups are for growth and shepherding.

First, groups are the place we grow spiritually. When we build real community in small groups, we get down to what each individual needs for growth—in a way that we couldn’t do just by attending the big worship service.

Shepherding is the other thing we try to accomplish in small groups.With small groups, we answer the question,Who’s going to be there for me . . .  when the phone call comes about the family tragedy? . . . when the job layoff happens? . . . when I’m dealing with a wayward teenager? . . . when my health takes a serious turn? This is what authentic community in the body of Christ is about. Not professionals being called at those times, but the people who are close to me and love me. I can count on them to be there for me.

One Size Does Not Fit All

My biggest learning about community in recent years has been this: We need a variety of small groups, because one size does not fit all.

We encourage everyone who becomes a part of our church to get into a group and immerse themselves in true community. But visiting a group in someone’s home can be a big step for many people. So, we create groups that match each person’s journey into community.

“Front end” groups. The 10-week series “Rooted” is a great place to “try out” what small groups are like before you take the plunge. Affinity groups are also a good place to start into group life. We have settings utilizing pickleball, volleyball, hiking, and others. Some unchurched people who are active in our fellowship started by coming with a friend to a pickleball league.

Regular Bible studies. For those who are ready to take the step of getting to know some friends in the church and studying the Bible with them, we have our regular home Bible studies, which we call life groups. Most of our life groups look like the typical Bible study, but some have started around special interests. We have a group that started because some retirees in our church were all talking to each other about their knee replacements! They turned that into what we affectionally call “The Knee Group.”

Season of life groups. For those who are in a special season of life, we offer opportunities for community with others who have similar needs, such as GriefShare, Survivors of Suicide, Weight Loss and Fitness, Financial Peace University, or parenting.

Discipling groups. When someone reaches a place where they are ready to take a deeper step into group life, they can join one of our discipling groups.

I’ve had a long, rich journey with Christian community so far. And it’s made all the difference in my personal life, my relationship with other Christians, and my leadership in the church. I’m looking forward to what God will show me next about authentic community!

Rick Lowry has served as spiritual growth pastor at First Church, Burlington, Kentucky, since 2011. His favorite part of church is seeing people grow in small groups.

Christian Standard

Contact us at cs@christianstandardmedia.com

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