Building communities within our church is hard work. It shouldn't be hard work, since God created us for community. But we live in a broken world that has altered and inhibited the relationships God created us to enjoy. For that reason, it's helpful for us to examine the different road blocks that often prevent communities from being formed, and that damage communities that used to be healthy.
In my experience, here are four of the biggest community killers that we as church leaders have to overcome.
The Challenge of Time
The first challenge to cultivating relationships is also the most valuable commodity in our western world today. People talk about this commodity in the U.S. like some people in the developing world talk about food or water. You know what it is, of course. It's time! We simply don't have enough time.
I was standing in the atrium of my church a year ago handing out cards about our small groups. A young couple came up to me and began to chat. They were newly married. When I asked if we could connect them with a group, they explained that they would like to do it down the road, but they were really busy right now. I almost laughed in their faces. I have three kids, a demanding job, and a home to maintain. Busy? They don't know anything about being busy. But it's a common song today, isn't it?
Do you know what most people are busy doing? In a typical week, people spend most of their time at work. The second biggest consumer of time is sleep. Both of those are necessary. However, do you know what the third most time-consuming activity is? Watching television.
According to the Nielsen Media service, the average American watches nearly 5 hours of TV a day. That's 35 hours a week and over 1,500 hours per year. Let me break that down another way. The average American watches 1.5 days of TV per week. That turns into 78 days per year—which is 1.6 months out of every year watching television! So, an average person who lives to be 70 will spend 5,460 days of their life watching TV. If you're not so good at math, that's 15 years. Fifteen years!
If churches and small groups are going to deal with this community killer, we must challenge people to really look at what is keeping them busy. Randy Frazee addressed the craze of the busy life in Making Room for Life. As developers of community, part of our mission will be to help people find the time they need to make relationships a priority.
The Challenge of Avoidance
The second challenge to cultivating relationships is what I would call avoidance. This happens in a relationship when you know you need to deal with some conflict or problem, but you just can't.
My first real job is a good example of this. Right out of college I served on staff with a man named Fred. Fred was a championship talker. You could mention any subject and he'd wax on about it for minutes that felt like hours. Fred had a thought about everything. Now, I'll be transparent for a minute here—I'm a talker, too. I come from a long line of talkers, ramblers, and conversation dominators. (But since I'm writing this and not Fred, I will say that Fred had my talkativeness beat hands down.) Anyway, Fred and I pretty much controlled all the words on our staff of eight people. This went on for months. Every staff meeting, every lunch was like a ping-pong match between Fred and me. Every now and then we'd take a breath and someone else would talk, but then we were back at it.
I didn't know this was a problem. (I was too busy talking). But after several months, our boss pulled me aside and asked, "Did you know that after meetings Sara goes back to her office and cries?" I couldn't understand why. Then my boss explained that Sara—who was a bright seminary graduate—couldn't get a word in edgewise thanks to Fred and me. For months our group had avoided the ugly truth that two talkers were killing the dynamic. But it took just one courageous guy to step up challenge us. I'm glad he did! Our group was dramatically better after that. If my boss had avoided the problem, our group would have continued to suffer. And I wouldn't have grown as a person and become more reflective about how I contribute in a group of people.
So this is a challenge to small-group leaders. Does a problem exist in your group that regularly damages the people, relationships, or interactions within it? If so, you've got to deal with it. Avoiding it will only make things worse.
The Challenge of Strange People
The third challenge to cultivating relationships is what we in pastoral circles are often tempted to call "weirdoes." Some call them ECR (extra care required) or EGR (extra grace required) people. Some gently refer to them as Emotional Black Holes. But to put things simply, they are strange. We don't want to give these people our email addresses or cell phone numbers, much less spend time in a group with them.
Most of us have a weirdo or two in our lives. Maybe it's End Times Larry, who sees the imminent return of Christ in every newspaper headline. Or it could be Needy Ned, who "just wants a special woman to share his life with." Maybe it's Steve the Bible Expert, who always knows more about the intricacies of the Bible than anyone else in the history of humanity. Or it could be Bill the amateur comedian (okay that's me). Some of us have the weirdo in our small group. And as the saying goes, if you can't identify the extra grace required person in your group, it's probably you!
I think John Ortberg said it best in his book Everybody's Normal 'Til You Get to Know Them. Ortberg writes that we all have an "as-is" tag. Like the seconds rack at the back of a department store, we are all slightly imperfect. We are all weird.
But you know what? Odd people have a lot to teach us. Jesus says that "When you [take care of] the least of these my brothers and sisters you were doing it for me" (Matthew 25:40). It's the castaway people that often provide the best opportunity for us to learn to love. In fact, the more we love them, the more we love God.
John puts it this way: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:20-21). The strange people are a gift to your group. They are a gift from God. Part of our job and developers of community is to help group leaders learn from the strange people in their groups. Yes, some unique people might not fit in a group. But most odd folks can be part of a group—if the group learns to love like Jesus loves.
The Challenge of Unreal Expectations
The fourth challenge to cultivating relationships and building community is unreal expectations. Let's face it: we all have expectations—we just usually think ours are reasonable. But here are a few of the expectations often placed on small groups: intimacy, accountability, evangelism, deep fellowship, deep worship, emergency service personnel, and so on. Sometimes our church leadership expects a small group to take a person from unbeliever to missionary in two years—in a group that meets every other week and takes summers and holidays off!
But perhaps the biggest challenge is the expectation of intimacy. Let me ask you: how often have you tried to "sell" small groups based on intimacy? You know, you promised deep friendships; you told perspective members that if they joined a group, they would grow closer than a family. Does this happen often or rarely?
In his book The Search to Belong, Joe Myers points out that human beings only need a few intimate relationships. We need lots of social and personal relationships, but intimacy isn't required to enjoy a relationship. In fact, intimacy can deter it. Imagine you're in a couples small group and one of the men shares that he really struggles with lust. He tells the couples circled around the coffee table how difficult it is not to look at women and take a sensual snap shot. That's an intimate level of sharing! But do you think that would help the group or harm it?
It's not that a small group shouldn't be intimate, but when people expect a certain level of intimacy they will usually get ticked off if the group stays on the surface. Some people expect their small group to be an intense Bible Study, for example—especially people who have a background in Bible-Study Fellowship or Campus Crusade or The Navigators. If you expect a typical small group to morph into an in-depth exploration of biblical texts, you will be disappointed. It's not that we want "shallow," it's that we can't agree what deep is!
In order to address these unreal expectations, it's important for a group to honestly talk about what each member hopes to experience in the group. And when a member voices an unreal expectation, it is more than okay for the leader to set expectations that are more reasonable.
One final thing concerning community killers in our small-group ministries: there are no barriers that can't be overcome with the help from God's Spirit and the willing hearts of group participants. So go out and knock some down.
—Bill Search is the author of Simple Small Groups (Baker, 2008) and writes regularly at www.simplesmallgroups.com; copyright 2010 by the author and Christianity Today International.