In other words, encountering God within a group is an act of God's grace. Loving one another in community is likewise a free gift of God. But working, witnessing and serving others is primarily about my efforts, my willingness and my work. Of course, no one actually said it this bluntly, but as I've interacted with groups, the work of the small group that pertains to how the group relates to the world is the most difficult to develop.
For years, I've been looking for alternative ways to stimulate a new imagination regarding the work of a small group. Here's something to consider:
I'm writing this post today while sitting under a tree, listening to the birds. The trees are coming to life with the life of Spring. The air dances. This day is new, full of unpredictable breath, characterized by twists and turns. At the end of this day, there will be a story to tell. Most of the time, the story is rather mundane, but some days are full of adventure. Either way, when we look inside the story of each day, every one is full of wonder. There is at work in and around us a deeper story that lies beneath the surface of what we experience with our senses.
Everyday every person lives a story, but most of us recount the story based on what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste. In other words, we live the story "according to the senses of flesh." The Bible uses this phrase a lot. The word "flesh" is the Greek word sarx, which most often we apply to immoral living. But immoral living is the fruit of found in those who only live according to the senses. Living according to the flesh means that we see the story of our lives according to what we experience with our senses. There is always a deeper story being told parallel to that of the story of the senses. It's the life of the Spirit. Life according the Spirit calls us into a the deeper story of wonder and mystery that is much more true and much more intriguing.
This is the story of what God, by the Spirit, is doing in our midst to redeem everything. It's a story about the trees and the birds, about our mundane stuff and our great adventures, about our conversations and our times alone, about work and our play, about our families and our neighbors, about our friends and our enemies. Ultimately it is a story about the pain and alienation that has penetrated life and about how God is at work to turn it all on its head.
Just as every person tells a story with how they live, every small group tells a story through it's way of interacting. The question is whether our small group is living out of the surface story of sarx or out of this deeper story of what the Spirit is doing. Think about it this way: How do you respond when someone asks you to describe your small group. Most of the time the answers are about meetings, who attends the meetings, the meeting schedule and what is studied during those meetings. Or if you are a missional group, the conversation focuses on what the group does. While these are not unimportant issues, they describe the surface story.
But what is the deeper story of what God is doing in and through your group? This deeper reality is what makes your group distinctive from a just having a meeting that happens to study the Bible or a group that happens to do some form of outreach. This deeper reality relates to how your small group is a continuing manifestation of God's life in the midst of a world that is alienated from God and one another. This is the story of how the Spirit is creating a group that is participating in God's work of redemption. In this way a group has the potential to be more than just a group; It is a manifestation of God's body in the midst of the world. This is life together. It is a way of living in community that manifests God's work in the world.
Elton Trueblood, a Quaker philosopher of the last century, spoke about this in ways that were ahead of his time. He called the church into this deeper story. He wrote: "Jesus was deeply concerned for the continuing of his redemptive work after the close of his earthly existence, and his chosen method was the formation of a redemptive society" (29). This is more than just having a group that does some kind of work of mission for those who need Jesus. God's work is a way of grace where we enter into what God is already doing in the world around us. The practical question then for us is How do we as group enter into this deeper story?
Let me be clear that the point is NOT to go do something for Jesus. That only reinforces our focus on the surface issues. The practical way of becoming this redemptive society involves formation. We are being formed by the Spirit into the way of life together that manifests God's body on earth. Trueblood wrote, "If we want to make a difference, here in a clear way, make all within your society, members of the crew and permit no passengers" (74). We must tap into the way that the Spirit is making and forming us into a society of difference makers. God makes a difference in our lives. We make a difference in one another's lives within a group. And we make a different in the world around us. This is the work of life together.
The practical first step involves asking the right questions. It's not the question of What can we do to do the work of God? The right questions look like this:
- What is God doing in me?
- What is God doing in us?
- What is God doing around us?
- What does God want to do through us?