Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Small Groups Bull's-Eye

Groups are the most important aspect of the life of your church! 

Overstatement? Well maybe. But one could easily make the argument that groups will make or break a church as much as any other aspect of a church’s life. After all groups are the web that links people in the church together. They are not simply a strategy of a church. They pervade every aspect of a church, whether there is an explicit group strategy or not.

I make this claim because churches—as with all other organizations—do life as an organization of sub-groups. In many cases these are formal groups: leadership teams, worship teams, Sunday school classes, home small groups, youth groups, etc. But there are also other kinds of groups, informal connections of people who naturally gather and talk with one another in a way that they don’t talk with others. Just look around before or after a worship service and you will see the groups happen.

It’s only natural that churches would get stuff done in groups as they are part of the warp and woof of how good living works. All organizations operate as a system of groups. Businesses, governments, teams, classrooms, volunteer foundations, and, yes, churches work as a network of smaller groups.

We often miss the reality of how groups pervade our lives because they are always present, whether they are healthy and life-giving or not. We are born into a small group called a family. We go to school in groups called classes. We play in groups called teams. We organize our work in groups. Our friendships naturally cluster in groups. We even eat in groups, something that is easily illustrated—for good or bad—by our high school lunch breaks.

Small groups are everywhere.

This is just the way relationships naturally work. We cannot relate to everyone we meet with the same level of depth. We even see in this in the life of Jesus. He did not relate to everyone in the same way. He did not come to the entire world 2000 years ago. He came to the people of Israel. Within Israel he related to people at different levels. Like concentric circles, he connected more deeply with smaller groups as he move further into the center.

He surrounded himself with three intimate confidantes and nine other close friends. Jesus then related to a large group of up to 70 people who followed him in his ministry (See Luke 10). Then there were others who were connected to him, symbolized by those in the Upper Room after his ascension. Beyond this, he related to the crowds of people who did not know him personally (e.g. the crowds who heard the Sermon on the Mount or the 5000 who were miraculously fed). Those around Jesus formed a web of connections where he demonstrated God’s relational kingdom. At the center of this web was a small group.

What We Need
Even though groups are foundational to the way we do life, in our day, grouping well is a challenge. When we consider the reality of the context of how we do life in Western society, the need for the development of community has never been more central. We live in an era of chronic isolation and disconnection. It does not take much effort to survey how sociologists describe Western life to see what is going on. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation.

We are “hardwired for relationships,” and we intuitively know it. However, our way of life fosters a set of practices that train us to live as if we don’t need them. In the describing this way of life, the authors of the classic book Habits of the Heart write about the mythology of individualism using the classic characters of a cowboy and private detectives as individualistic heroes.
“Both the cowboy and the hard-boiled detective tell us something important about American individualism. The cowboy, like the detective, can be valuable to society only because he is completely autonomous individual who stands outside it. To serve society, one must be able to stand alone, not needing others, not depending on their judgment, and not submitting to their wishes.”
While we all know that none of us can stand alone against the tide, this mythology shapes us. Our logical conclusions about the need for belonging and connections don’t necessarily form the way we practice life on a daily basis. The environment in which we live forms us without our even knowing it. For example, I grew up on a farm and I learned about life by being formed through the ups and downs of farm life. Those raised in the inner city, for instance, learn how to do life differently. If you are raised in the inner city, you will be shaped the pattens commonly found there. Western society has formed us through the mythology of individualism which means that who I am as an individual is to be prized over my relationships. The habits that correspond to this mythology create life patterns that we practice on a daily basis without ever thinking about it.

For instance, we tend to operate as if we are able to construct ourselves from nothing so that we can do what we want to do and be whomever we think we should be. We change jobs. We relocate. We create identities online. We switch marriage partners. We form and reform ourselves as if we were a blob of Playdo. If we were to look in the mirror and ask “Who are you?,” the honest response would be, “Who do you want me to be today?”

What We Want
When we take an honest look at how we do life and then compare that to the biblical call to be the church, it does not take long to see the disparity. We could look at many different scriptures to illustrate this, but this one highlights as concretely as any:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil 2:1-4)
The word that is translated “others” is the Greek word allelon, which literally means “one another.” The church is called to be a people who live in community with each other and manifest God’s love to each other in these ways. This stands in sharp contrast to the patterns of life that describe our culture.

We are made for this. We need this. We might even say that we hunger for this.

When you are hungry, what do you want? The answer is obvious: you want food. If you were to say that they want _____________ (insert your the name of your favorite restaurant), no one would think that you want the actual restaurant. You want the food that is served by that restaurant. The restaurant is simply the form used to provide that food.

When you say that you want groups to flourish in your church, what is it that we really want? We don’t actually want the form called “small groups” or “missional communities.” We want belonging, community, life together, connection, prayer, sharing, sacrifice, the presence of God together, mutuality, discipleship, leadership development, spiritual gifts, mission.

Our hope for our groups can easily be summed up with:
  • Love God
  • Love One Another
  • Be Witnesses in the World. 
One of my mentors put it this way, “If you love God, love each other, love those who don’t know Jesus and the train others to do the same, you group will flourish.”

Some kind of basic explanation like this for what we want to see in groups can be found in almost every book or conference on small groups and missional communities from the last half century. It's remarkable how every resource about groups starts out with the confession that we are aiming for the same things. For instance Bill Donahue writes of four basic components that he hopes to see in groups:
  • Love. “Love is expressed in a variety of ways in group life. First, we express love to God through prayer and worship and by giving him praise. We express love to one another as we serve one another and care for one another in our group.” 
  • Learn. “Learning about Christ and about his will for our lives is a key component of group life. All groups learn—they learn the Scriptures, they learn about one another, and they learn about them- selves.” 
  • Serve. “Service and good works are part of any vibrant, healthy small group. Your group must decide how you will express Christian love to your community or to others in the body.” 
  • Reach. “Groups must make decisions that ensure the group’s purpose and vision are carried out. That means reaching others for Christ.” 
Steve Gladden writes in his book Leading Small Groups with Purpose that his dream is based on the experience of the early church recording in Acts 2. There he finds the five purposes of the group: Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Evangelism, and Worship. (41-42)

Joel Comiskey has done by far the most research on the worldwide growth of the cell church and has written over 25 books on the topic. While the cell church has not taken off in North America like it has on other continents, the hopes and dreams of what leaders want to see happening in the cell groups looks much the same as those stated by Donahue and Gladden. Comiskey writes,
“Cells are groups of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples, which results in the multiplication of the cell.” 
Similar things are stated about what leaders want to see from the groups that are commonly called missional communities. Mike Breen writes of the Up-In-Out dimension of group life. Reggie McNeal summarizes it this way:
“The up dimension includes worship and efforts toward helping members maintain a dynamic and growing relationship with God, including a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. Typical in-dimension emphases of community life are the nurture and care of each other, praying for one another, encouraging one another, and attending to the physical, social, economic, and spiritual needs of other members. Out-dimension expressions of service and witness vary from group to group, depending on the particular mission of the community. Some communities target the homeless and others minister in night clubs, some in gated communities, and others convene Alpha groups in their living rooms and office conference centers.” (Missional Communities, 45)
There are a ton of opinions and perspectives on groups. There are statements by thought leaders that they have found the most effective way to do groups. There are promotions that their perspective unlocks the biblical methods of first century church life. There are declarations that we don’t do small groups anymore because they are inward-focused and therefore we need outward-focused missional communities. However, when you survey what each perspective actually espouses, it is easy to see that we all want groups that live out the same things. I summarize them with the words Communion, Relating and Engagement.

This is the bull's-eye.

What We Want: Communion with God
Right before Jesus went to trail and then to the cross, he prayed for this kind of life together in this way:
I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me. (John 17:20-23)
The connection with God that we were made to experience cannot be manufactured by our efforts. The oneness of Jesus’ prayer is oneness that is only realized as we are one in the life of the Father, Son and Spirit. And this is related to how we relate to each other. We cannot be connected to one another without communion with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:
Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Life Together, 38)
We only connect to one another as Christ by the Spirit stands between us. If we lack an upward communion with Christ by the Spirit, then connecting to each other will only be something we manufacture via our efforts.

What We Want: Relating with Each Other
Jesus prayed that we might be one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. Our communion with God unites us in love to one another. This manifests creatively like a great painting. I’m a fan of the Impressionists. Prints of Monet, Renoir and others bring life to a room. However, upon seeing the real thing in person, I entered into and experience that no print can reproduce. Prints, being flat cannot replicate the brush strokes or the depth of the paint on the canvas. The light bounces off the paint in such a way that the images come to life. The characters sitting around the tables looked as if they were inviting me to join them. I stood mesmerized. I didn't just view it. I did not see it. It saw me. It engaged me. It's beauty moved me.

The experience we long for in our groups is like a work of art. Each one is a masterpiece, but none are the same. Relating is not a cheap print replicated from a past experience or a formulaic concoction promoted by another church across the country. Relating cannot be copied, replicated or mimicked. Every connection experience is unique, a one of kind expression of God's love.

What We Want: Engagement with Context
According to the prayer of Jesus in John 17, the way that the world will come to believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God is through our connection with one another as we commune with God. Our love for each other demonstrates to the world that we belong to Jesus, that we are his disciples (John 13:35)

Jesus prayed that we might live in unity, in oneness with one another as we are one with the Father which results in being “witnesses about” Jesus. This is not about developing an evangelism program so that we can get converts to join our groups. This is about living in such a way that our lives are a witness, so that we put on display the beauty and love of Christ in the midst of the world.

What We Want: The Way of Jesus
Simply stated: The bull's-eye is groups that live out the way of Jesus. At least that’s what we confess. But what do we get? That's for another time. 

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