Note: This article has been excerpted from the Small Group Leader's Handbook (InterVarsity Press, 2009).
A Christian I know recently told me that he doesn't need to go to church to live out his faith in Jesus. He reads Scripture, prays, sees a spiritual mentor, and actively engages in mission, but he does not need to be involved regularly with other believers. I was sad for him because he was missing out on a meaningful group experience, but I also needed to correct him: Jesus does not only call us to himself; he calls us to be a part of a community.
Community has become popular in this faith generation. I think there is an unspoken rule that it has to be in every organization's mission statement. But it's not at all clear from organization to organization, from person to person, what we expect to see when that mission is accomplished. What exactly do we mean by community?
Why Do We Get Together?
The word community has its roots in Latin and means "common, public, shared by all or many." A community is a unified group of people who share common circumstances, beliefs and values, and who look for ways to embrace (or work through) their differences.
But we breathe the air of individualism. Modern society values independence above almost anything else. When I was a corporate trainer at a Fortune 500 company, I actually taught associates in the company to think in terms of WIIFM (What's in it for me?). In doing so, I contributed to this idea that life is for each individual, in opposition to being for one another. Community becomes a means to an end—more about what we can gain from one another than what we contribute to our collective experience. Such a distorted perspective demands a more compelling vision of true community.
A Christian community is a community because it is unified, though not primarily by circumstance or even by values or beliefs. A Christian community, as the apostle Paul suggests, is unified by our common life in Christ.
You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Paul uses collective language, giving the Ephesian church a picture of a beautiful building with Christ as the cornerstone—the most important weight-bearing stone in the building. This vision is vivid and exciting: we can imagine what we are becoming. We are together being built together as a people in which God's Spirit can dwell.
Have you ever envisioned your small group in this way? Small groups on college campuses and in churches are meeting in dorms or homes and becoming small palaces for the king of the universe as they are united by a common call to follow Christ.
I was introduced to small group community by accident. As a student at a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, I headed out to work out one day and stumbled across an InterVarsity small group. A friend asked me if I wanted to stay. It was the last thing I wanted to do at the time; although I was a Christian, I thought of such groups as something like broccoli—good for you but not particularly good. I had been operating under the unconscious assumption that a building could be built with just two bricks: Jesus and me.