Small Groups – The Way to Christian Community
By Emily Seiler –
In a day and age when authentic, loving relationships are being recognized as an essential need of individuals, the Christian community is uniquely positioned to meet that need…in theory, at least. Whether or not the church is fulfilling its mission is in question.
The ultimate potential for “connectedness” lies within the development of a sense of community. In the Christian life, community is about relationships. It is based in an intimate and growing relationship with Christ. Unless this experience exists, it is difficult for believers to muster the desire to care about others. In Christian community, Jesus is the only Savior. Out of our life in Christ flows the natural desire to connect with other believers. Relationship with God and others is built on trust, openness, honesty, listening and sharing. These require time, energy and commitment. Christian community is not easy to create, because everyday demands of life–families, work, church activities and personal needs–easily drain our resources.
In John 15, Jesus illustrates community life in the allegory of the vine and the branches, which he likens to a living organism in which the parts share a common life. The parts are joined together in order that their purpose may be achieved. While the vine lives with or without the branches, the reverse is not true. To have life, the branches must be connected to the vine. When they are, they not only live, but their growth results in fruit, the fulfillment of their intended purpose. The fruit is derived from the life of the vine, manifested in the life of the branches.
Similarly, community is formed by being united in common with “the living organism.” This is not the case with inanimate objects, such as a bolt of fabric. If you cut off a yard or two, its qualities and properties remain. The cut material can become even more useful and beautiful when crafted into an outfit or a quilt. This is not so with a living organism. Removing an eye or an arm renders it useless. It cannot live on its own, and the body as a whole is now incomplete and unable to function as originally designed.
Keeping with the analogy of a human body, one might ask, what part is Christ? When a human is brain dead, the person may be physically alive, but cannot experience the love and relationships that define human life.
Preceding and following the allegory of the vine and the branches, Jesus’ discussion focuses on love and obedience as the ties that bind. These are what keep us connected, alive and united. To be connected to Jesus and each other, we must love. He commands it because it is the life blood that will keep us connected to him and one another. Christian community is a shared common life which flows from the life of Christ, through us, into loving relationship with one another.
The book of Ephesians reveals Christ as the source and purpose for everything in the Christian life. Woven throughout this book is a theme of belonging. We belong to Christ; we belong to his dearly loved Son; we belong in God’s household with every other Christian. We are joined with Christ and with each other by the Spirit. “We who believe are carefully joined together with Christ as parts of a beautiful, constantly growing temple for God. (Eph. 2:21 LB) This verse illustrates four major components necessary for community to exist.
First, people must be believers. Christian community is not simply a place where “everybody knows your name.” Secondly, Christian community is Christ-centered. It can exist and become beautiful only when its central focus and empowerment are derived from Christ. Thirdly, it involves people who are connected in Christ in a common spiritual bond that enables an integrated life of togetherness. Finally, as though listed in priority order, the verse speaks of a people who are constantly growing. Note the growth is not for themselves. The purpose of constantly growing is for God, so he’ll have a place to dwell. We are created and built up for him.
To a self-focused society, this fact can rub the wrong way. So much of what the Bible and contemporary writers in the area of community and Christian spiritual formation indicate is that what is required to experience community is virtually the opposite of what most Christians are comfortable with and confident in. In modern society, personal need seems to drive growth. Individuality is a part of our national beliefs. For example, as Americans we live by the Declaration of Independence, and take pride in the Bill of Rights. We value personal freedom and choice. We take pride in being responsible for ourselves as the highest priority. Our work ethic and survival-of-the-fittest mentalities feed into our need for self-preservation at all costs. We’ve all probably found that when we’ve tried to trust and depend on others, we’ve been let down, reinforcing our compulsion for self-sufficiency and independence. We are severely impacted by our culture and influenced by past experiences, which makes true Christian community difficult to create.
We need to ask ourselves some tough questions and try to answer them honestly. Can we sacrifice our selfish interests for the sake of others who are so human and imperfect? Are they deserving of our love? Jesus thinks so. Do we really love each other? We don’t have time–there is too much to do. Busyness may be our undoing. Can we be honest, open and accepting of both ourselves and others? Can we open up enough to let others see past our constructed protection barriers? Do we care enough about others to listen to them without the need to fix them coldly? Can we trust that God will do the needed work in our lives and the lives of those around us? Can we find the time in our incredibly busy schedules to “waste” time with God and each other, to share our stories, pray, wrestle with scriptural application, and talk with one another about the Lord? (Eph. 5:19)
Christian community is a place where we live out what we say we believe as members of God’s family and as followers of Christ. Isn’t it encouraging to hear how God is gracing a friend’s life? When this exchange occurs, don’t you feel more a part of their lives and feel a sense of belonging in God’s family, involved in what he is doing?
Henri Nouwen’s View
Henri Nouwen speaks of an order or priority of disciplines in the life of one who has said “yes” to following Jesus. Modeled after Jesus’ life as discussed in Luke 6:12-19, the first priority is spending time with God. He suggests it is through this primary relationship we are called into the second discipline, which is experiencing community. Community, he says, involves the practice of forgiveness and celebration. Forgiveness is accepting that people are not God and cannot love us unconditionally as only God can do. Community begins as we come together in a way that is continuously forgiving and undemanding. When we do this, we can begin celebrating the gifts God has uniquely given each one of us. In community, we begin to see the reflection of God in each other, and can affirm for mutual benefit God’s love revealed in us and through us. The third discipline, ministry, flows out of the first two. All believers are called to ministry. We are to use all he has given us, not to be successful, but to be fruitful.
Sometimes we get our priorities mixed up. Ministry is perceived as God’s priority for us, and if there is time left over we spend time with him and each other. Sometimes, God is getting the leftovers rather than the first fruits. As a result, we feel empty and tired. We can find these types of issues difficult to discuss with fellow Christians for fear they will judge us, not understand–or worse, tell us how to fix it. It can seem like a vicious cycle. We are all in this together and are experiencing similar life challenges. If we could be more open and accepting of one another, our understanding of God would be enlarged and our ability to care and show compassion would be given an avenue for expression.
Nouwen says, “Every human being has a great, yet often unknown, gift to care, to be compassionate, to become present to the other, to listen, to hear, and to receive. If that gift would be set free and made available, miracles could take place.” He suggests, “By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness, we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but the powerless; not to be different, but the same; not to take our pain away, but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.” A community of people living this way cannot help but have ministries that reflect the compassionate heart of God.
While on a walk at the conclusion of a recent retreat, I was looking for something to take back with me to help me remember how God had been present with us. I picked up a rock which spoke to me of community. It actually was not one rock, but a lot of little pebbles of different colors, shapes and sizes, all held together in one form by an invisible bond. Each stone was defined, but not particularly special by its own merit. Each stone was bonded with the others in a unique way that was noticeable. Each stone had greater significance, and was part of something much larger and stronger than itself. This rock formation has been on the dashboard of my car for six months, and though I’ve driven many miles and hit many potholes, not one stone has broken off. The glue is strong, and steadfastly holds all the stones together.
Roberta Hestenes and Julie Gorman define a small group as “an intentional face-to-face encounter of no more than 12 people who meet on a regular basis, with the purpose of growing in the knowledge and likeness of Jesus Christ.”
It’s important to remember that human beings, unlike stones, have free will and past experiences that can unglue Christian community. Each day we make choices which may or may not embrace the life of Christian community. Rather than having hearts of stone, those who choose community enjoy the benefits of a heart shaped by the values of community, held together and strengthened by the Spirit of God.
But how and where do we go about developing an intimate relationship with God and human beings that results in true Christian community? In one sense we do it in every life sphere and encounter. But, in a more intentional way, we can experience and develop Christian community through participation in the ministry of small groups. Over the last decade, small groups have become the primary means in Christian circles to address the believer’s diverse needs and deal with the complexities of today’s world.
(Ed. Note: Salvationist Emily Seiler is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, with a M.A. in Theology and a concentration in Christian Formation and Discipleship. She oversees small group ministries at Pasadena Tabernacle Corps and presents seminars, workshops and retreats.)