" I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33, NIV).
This morning on the Christian radio station I usually listen to, a local pastor of the "church of the week" talked about the nature of the church. He said the teens from his congregation had written essays about the church, and every one of them used the word safe in their description. The pastor went on to say that this is an accurate portrayal of the church.
What do you think? Does safe describe the heart of Christ's church?
Safe or Dangerous?
Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. We do want people to feel like the church, and every small group within the church, is a safe place. They will be accepted for who they are and where they are in life. They will not be attacked or abused.
On the other hand, God's Word portrays a church that is dangerous. It is in a war for the eternal destinies of humankind. It is a place of extreme sacrifice, persecution, and suffering. Peace comes in the midst of all this, as we put our trust in Christ. We are eternally safe because of His suffering, but we are on the front lines of a battle every day.
I think that is the gist of what Jesus was trying to teach His followers in Matthew 10, when He sent out the 12 for ministry. He told them, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34, NIV).
That does not sound very "safe" to me. It has always fascinated me that here Jesus says He did not come to bring peace, and yet, over and over again in the gospels, He does bring peace: He is the Prince of Peace. He often told people, "Peace be with you" and "Go in peace." He said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27, NIV).
Perhaps that last verse holds the secret for small groups. The world defines peace as safety from trouble, but Christians know that in this world there will be trouble. We also know that Jesus has overcome the world. While difficulties and hardships will come, we do not have to let our hearts be troubled. As Christians, we do not need to seek safety and comfort. That is not the purpose of Christian small groups. We seek the mind of Christ—His purpose, His will, His peace in the midst of whatever may come our way.
What Is the Purpose?
The question for many small groups really becomes whether the purpose is to take care of its own members or to reach outward to the world. In his May 2003 column, SmallGroups.com director Dan Lentz wrote:
The drift in groups where relational intimacy and relative comfort are present is towards 'ingrowth' and not outreach. As Robert Lewis says in the Church of the Irresistible Influence: "These groupings often end up as perpetual 'holding tanks' where Christians become increasingly comfortable with each other and themselves, and increasingly disconnected from our world. Many churches create small groups to meet the needs of its members. And since so many people have such deep spiritual needs, there is much good in this approach, but often it also leads to unhealthy consequences. Needs soon turn to wants. A toxic self-absorption can easily develop. 'Us' becomes all that matters. Spiritual impact is rarely contemplated beyond the borders of the group."
Mark Mittelberg calls this drift "the second law of spiritual dynamics," which "warns us that all of us in the Christian community, left to ourselves, move toward spiritual self-centeredness. The evangelism value we are trying to reinforce must constantly compete with this gravitational pull inward." (Building a Contagious Church, p. 106).
When I look at what Jesus has called us to be as His disciples, the high cost involved in following Him, and what He has called us to do through His commission, I am convinced that small groups in His church are not called to safe and comfortable, but to self-sacrifice and mission. Most people, in America at least, already have lives that could be described as safe and comfortable. What many do not have is a sense of fulfillment and purpose in their lives.
What the Leader Can Do
One of the main roles of a small group leader is to keep a compelling vision in front of the people. To remind and encourage members that when we are involved in Jesus' mission and ministry, we will face trouble along the way. Ministry is not safe, but Jesus will provide us His peace, His comfort, and His eternal safety as we carry out His commission. Here are four things you can do as a leader:
- Remind and encourage group members frequently of our mission and your group's purposes. Use God's Word to teach the group about God's calling on the lives of Christians.
- Pray constantly together with the same kind of power and vision with which the early church prayed (e.g. Acts 4:23-31). br />
- Build a community that cares deeply for one another: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had" (Acts 4:32). br />
- Build a community which also boldly reaches out to the world. "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:33). Find ways to lovingly serve your community. br />
Getting out of your comfy armchairs and couches and into the world may be a different paradigm for your group. It may scare some. It may sound terribly dangerous. Some group members may waver or even fight you on this. As a leader, stay connected with your life source, Jesus, and His ways. Hang on His promises. Do not let your heart be troubled. Do not be afraid.