Small Groups as Community

Here is a deeper look at what it really means to live as "community."

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.

But for some reason, when my friend asked me to stay, I said yes. Through that small group experience I realized that a Christian small group—a community that studies the Bible, prays, and participates in God's mission together for the purposes of God's transforming work—is a gift from God.

Why Are We Together?

It is not enough, of course, to meet together and say, "Hey, we are a community because Jesus brings us together. Look at us!" Christians in community are meant to guide one another in the process of transformation, through the love and the grace of Christ, to become and behave more like Jesus. In community we have the exciting opportunity and responsibility to do life together.

Jenny was distressed and wanted to meet "right away." As she sat down to explain the problems her small group was having, I held my breath. Who knew what it could be?

"Well" she began, "Our small group is too big." What a problem! I thought. Jenny was leading a small group in a dorm that she did not live in. There was no Christian presence established there, and by mid-semester the small group of six freshmen she had hoped for had grown to twenty highly invested people. She had never expected the group to be so big. What had happened?

Group ownership had happened. Small groups are not "mine," they're "ours." At least they should be. You know you've developed group ownership when members begin to refer to the group as "ours."

Although there are many ways to develop ownership for a community, a few general categories have proven effective.

  1. Establish a group identity. Involve participants in choosing which passages of Scripture to study, setting ground rules for the community or deciding whether to be open to new members or visitors, or closed in order to establish a safe environment for greater vulnerability and intimacy in conversation.
  2. Ensure that people's passions and gifts are being utilized. In a group with high ownership, members will be encouraged to share the things they are excited about doing with the group. This may include leading worship, coordinating outings, sending e-mails and modeling evangelism.
  3. Create shared experiences. When I was growing up, my best friend's mom regularly told us that we were "makin' memories" together. Shared experiences—taking place both during group meetings and informally outside scheduled meetings—reinforces and deepens ownership. This happens as we socialize together, as we collaborate on serving projects and as we help each other with significant tasks. Our small group, for example, comes together to help every time someone moves into a new home.

Why Do We Stay Together?

A thing to keep in mind, however, is that different backgrounds—gender, culture, ethnicity—affect how we approach forming community and how we "feel" community. We had a small group for freshmen once called "Bagels, Bibles and Blab." It was successful in part because sitting around, talking, and eating together can make great memories for a group of women. I am not sure the same approach would have worked for the men in our fellowship.

Not only do the ways communities form differ, but a group's ongoing activities may not "feel" like a community-forming experience for everyone. One small group I started during the summer lived together, served together in the neighborhood, and studied Scripture together daily for weeks. One of the members complained about how we were not a community. "Community is really lacking," he said. "We really need to work on it."

I was confused! We had overcome some very difficult situations, such that I felt I knew these people better than some of my best friends at home. As he explained what was going on for him, I began to realize what he was missing: his idea of "community" was lots of socializing, through games and the like. He was right; we had not played any games. But what did games have to do with community?

It turns out he had grown up playing games and talking trash as a means of building a common bond in his church. This was not the church culture I had grown up in; I had to have him teach me. We incorporated some intentional "fun" here and there, and he felt much better about our community. I was glad I asked!

—By Sandra Van Opstal; excerpted with permission from the Small Group Leader's Handbook, copyright 2009 by InterVarsity Press.

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