It never fails; there are always people who just insist that they do not need to be part of a small group. No matter how much cheerleading we do from the pulpit or platform, some people are simply resigned to attending church on Sunday and not risk personal involvement by going any deeper. They have heard all of the valuable reasons for getting into a small group; and they have all of their replies ready to counter and defend their resignations: I have my family to provide "pastoral care" when it is needed; my Bible study is personal; or I receive my personal study and growth through television teachers during the week;I'm just too busy with work and family to commit any other time to attending a small group, etc. Surely you have heard these and others!How can we motivate these people to involve themselves in a small group?
One tool to arouse interest in a small group is to focus on a common need for community. We all have this need but we accept the fact that is just another of our many needs not being fulfilled; either that or we simply deny it exists. From the very beginning of time humans have existed in community. However, in the past fifty years American society has managed to undo what had existed since creation. We may all deny it on the surface, but a human need exists within each of us and when we do not have it we internally long for community.
Throughout history, life has revolved around the community. Families, both immediate and extended, resided with one another or in close proximity to each other. All of life's basic necessities could be acquired within the community and what needed to be attained from outside was done so as a group (e.g. hunters). Cities and towns were built with the concept of not only having the needs provided within the limits but also with a particular amount of dependency upon one another. No individual or family could be completely self-sufficient; they had a part to play in meeting the needs of others.
American society, in the effort to "advance," managed to weaken and break us of this dependency upon one another. To illustrate this, let me share a few examples of what has changed in residential communities over the past half century:
- homes are built off the street with large front yards providing huge spaces between the home and the sidewalk, if there even is a sidewalk
- front porches have been replaced by backyard decks
- garages and garage door openers allow for individuals to enter their home without ever having to acknowledge their neighbors
- walks to the store for simple purchases are impossible due to the design and construction of roads and locations of "convenience" stores
- children are spending entire days at school and childcare, their schedules are filled in the evenings and weekends, allowing no time to play with other neighborhood kids, which also eliminates opportunities for parents in the neighborhood to connect
- climate control or air conditioning eliminates desire for people to gather outdoors; in some areas of the country people use to sit their on front porches just to catch a breeze or two and cool off
- lack of career opportunities forces most individuals to commute from their "bedroom communities", sometimes 2 hours each way, to their places of employment
These are just a few examples of how community has changed. I am sure if you brainstormed, you could come up with many more examples maybe even some that are specific to your region. In the name of progress, we effectively disassembled our communities. In our post World War II euphoria and desire to "have it all": large homes, women entering the work force, super highways, homes in more desirable rural locations, etc., we have found ourselves unfulfilled.
How many times have you heard someone complain about not knowing his or her neighbors? Think about the most popular place on earth—Main Street, U.S.A. The most successful television programs of the past decades: The Honeymooners, The Lucille Ball Show, The Andy Griffin Show, all have central themes of community. Now, in case you are thinking that because these are shows from the 50's & 60's, our desire for community has changed, let's consider a few of the more recent successes: Seinfeld, Friends, Reba, Everybody Loves Raymond, and many others whose primary theme is focused around neighbors and relatives living in close proximity. We love all these shows because they make us feel good, they give us a glimpse into something we do not have yet long for. Our innate human need for community and the disappearance of it's once common existence is causing internal conflict in each of us.
Three barricades currently exist and interfere with our inner need for community. They are Self-Focus, Self-Sufficiency and Self-Indulgence. These obstacles block our willingness to "get to know our neighbors" and mask our desire to be part of a community. It is not that we have chosen these things in our lives, in most cases we are inadvertently taught to be this way. Mixed in with a little human pride we have withdrawal from togetherness.
Being self-focused comes in this simple saying:"What's in it for me?" We are born with this self-focus and in most cases we are taught to fuel it by looking out for number one. However, all successful societies and communities at some point decide to look beyond the individual and focus on a common purpose or common good. When the instinct for survival kicks in we see this overriding principle occur. We witnessed brief periods of the Self-focused-ness being suppressed during the days, weeks, and months that followed the 9/11 attacks; following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; and during World War II. While these examples occurred on the National level; we all have similar experiences within our own families, neighborhoods, and churches. Living in community will at times mean putting aside the "What's in it for me?" and thinking about how you can contribute to the greater good. In Acts 2:44 the first century church of believers overcame being self-focused by looking out for the common good of all:"All the believers were together and had everything in common." This does not mean a loss of personal identity; it simply means looking beyond ourself.
Self-sufficiency is the disease of taking care of ourselves by ourselves, never needing anyone's help. This obstacle can be heard in the saying, "I can do it myself!"Wonderful things can happen on our own and self-sufficiency is very important, however, the danger to community and to ourselves comes when we never allow anyone inside. At one time or another we all need someone's help. In Exodus 17 we read about the battle of the Amalekites and the Israelites. Moses and some others were atop a hill to witness the battle, although not directly in battle themselves, their part was important. They discovered that whenever Moses kept his arms up in the air (showing reverence to God), the Israelites were winning the battle, but when he lowered his arms they would begin losing. Moses was human, his arms became tired just as ours do, in verses 10-12 we read that Aaron and Hur helped Moses by sitting him upon a rock and holding up his arms. Moses was an empowered man of God, yet even he needed help from others at times. What makes us think that we never do? Overcoming self-sufficiency means setting aside our pride and allowing others to help. In community it also means that we must be willing to help others, and not assume that they can always do it on their own.
Overcoming the third obstacle, self-indulgence, is about overcoming consumption, not of our daily needs for food, but our gluttony of perceived needs. Our self-indulgence is heard in the sayings, "It's mine!" or "I want it!"We have become a society of perpetual gratification. We go out and purchase whatever we want or desire. There is never a need to ask a neighbor to borrow a ladder, or a snowplow, or even a cup of sugar, we simply go out and buy it for ourselves. If we see a neighbor or a co-worker with a new gadget or new clothing, we tell ourselves we need it too and then feel inclined to match it or go one-step above. Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of acquiring exorbitant amounts of debt. The first century church gave us a model for overcoming this obstacle in Acts 4:32:"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." This does not mean it's a "free for all" but a willingness to share and borrow, it almost sounds like something we all should have learned in kindergarten.
The loss of community in American society is being felt in many areas. In the church, the loss of community is simply not acceptable. Jesus was part of a community. Our Bible is full of the importance of community, a few of which were referenced here. If we are to be the church Jesus intends for us to be, community must be of utmost importance. What part are you playing in Jesus' community? Do you recognize the common purpose as believers and are you working to overcome being self-focused? Do you see that none of us are completely self-sufficient, if both Jesus and Moses needed help at certain times so will we. We are also expected to be available to help others. Finally, are you obsessed with "keeping up with the Joneses?" are you able to share what you have and borrow when in need? As believers we are a witness to others when we overcome our self-indulgence remembering that it is God who gives it all to us anyway.
Where can we begin to take back community? We start in our churches, where we are safe to practice overcoming the obstacles of being self-focused, self-sufficient, and self-indulgent. The perfect practice ground is found in small groups. Whether we believe we need small groups or not we cannot argue that we need community. The first step to practicing may be in recognizing your need to get involved not so much for what you personally will get out of it, but what others may need from you. Have you ever stopped to consider that by not being in a small group you could be keeping a blessing from someone else who may need you?