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It all started in 313 A.D.
The early church lived in community every day (Acts 2:46), encouraging one another daily (Hebrews 3:13). The New Testament reveals the relational nature of the church in that day. In times of both peace and persecution, the believers did life together as a matter of course.
But the life, or lifestyle, of the church changed drastically with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 and the eventual legalization and political proliferation of Christianity. One of the more obvious changes was the new ability of Christians to meet publicly without fear. The construction of official church buildings (basilicas) followed, and the subsequent differentiation between clergy and laity transformed the "church"—the Body of Christ living in relational community—into a place-based, meeting-centered religion.
And what started in 313 A.D. still lives in much of today's church.
Meetings themselves are not the main issue. The importance of "meeting together" has been a high value from the beginning. Hebrews 10:25 says: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing." But this command was given in the context of—and never separated from—how the believers lived in community together: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (vv. 24–25).
The church today needs more than small groups and small-group meetings. We need a new reformation—a restoration of the original fundamental nature of the church: relationship. In his excellent book The Relational Way, Scott Boren says: "The American church has to learn not only how to do small groups, but also how to do relationships." We need to learn not only how to meet in community but also, and even more importantly, how to live in community.
How? That is a big question, and one I can't answer completely in this brief article. But I do want to suggest several ideas I think are key for this reformation to take place in the church today.
Leaders Model Relational Community
Every move of God that I can think of has started with a leader who has heard from God. Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Alexander Campbell—the list goes on and on.
So who will God raise up today to lead this restoration of the relational church? I believe he is already at work, calling men like Joseph Myers, Scott Boren, Larry Crabb, and Randy Frazee, for example. This restoration will also take men and women in local churches everywhere to hear from God and to commit their lives to his relational kingdom—living in community.
Leaders in local churches can lead a revival of biblical community by modeling it. That means making relationship-building a top priority. But that does not mean just "being in a small group." Small-group participation may be a good vehicle for building strong, deep, real relationships, but it does not necessarily mean the leader is modeling what radically real relational community looks like.
I believe church leaders should start not with getting into a small group, but in building strong relationships. If you are a church leader, begin with prayer. Ask God to send you some people with whom he wants you to develop relationships. Ask him to open your spiritual eyes so you know those people when they are right in front of you. Then spend time investing in those relationships. Eventually, these relationships may lead to a small group, but the important thing is the relationships themselves.