Note: This has been adapted from Community: Taking Your Small Group off Life Support by Brad House.
In their book Total Church, Steve Timmis and Tim Chester begin their discussion on the community as a central principle for how we do church with this quote by Sinclair Ferguson:
The church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history. On the contrary, the church is God's new community. For his purpose, conceived in a past eternity, being worked out in history, and to be perfected in a future eternity, is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness but rather to build his church, that is, to call out of the world a people for his own glory.
They argue convincingly and biblically that community is central to our identity as Christians and crucial for the mission of the church. Community is a gift of God's grace and essential for the Christian life. As Timmis, Chester, and Ferguson have suggested, this idea should transform our lives and inform the way we function as a body. Community is not a peripheral ministry. Our communities should be the most palpable expression of the gospel within the church.
Putting Our Energy Elsewhere
As culture reflects the values of its citizens, community groups reflect the value of the church. If our church does not place a high value on community, then we are already disconnected from God's design for human beings. My experience has been that most churches consider community a value, but many have a hard time living out that value in a way that is visible and recognizable.
The church is constantly pulled to do so many things that it can be easy to neglect or devalue community groups within the sea of programs the church provides. If, however, we are going to breathe life back into the community of the church and see it function as God designed, we need to start thinking differently. Social justice, over-seas missions, youth programs, food banks, sports ministries, and so on are acceptable programs, but they are not the center of God's mission, as Ferguson points out. They are support tools through which a gospel-saturated community can intentionally engage the world.
If we put all our energies into the tangential and neglect the center, we have no fertile ground where people can land and grow. I have heard such tangential ministries described as a funnel, drawing people into the church as they swirl toward the center. Ignoring the visual similarity to being flushed, the problem with a funnel is that it has a hole in the center. Fittingly, this has also been my experience when we neglect building the body of Christ. In order to breathe life back into your small-group ministry, you must have a clear sense of its value and importance to your church. You cannot hope to gain momentum and life in such a ministry while simultaneously marginalizing it through resource allocation or ministry dilution. Elevating community groups to the proper (and balanced) level of significance is critical for breathing life back into your small-group ministry.
If then we agree that community is essential for disciples of Jesus and that it is at the center of God's purpose, then we must expect implications for the church in form and function. If community is vital, then it should have a prominent role in the life of the church. Making community groups a primary ministry within the church elevates them above the peripheral ministries and will be key to creating momentum.
Employing Small Groups
Unfortunately, though, I am not sure the church at large knows what to do with community groups. Most have some conviction that they are necessary but relegate them to a form of social day care. We have been content with having community groups rather than employing them to advance the kingdom of God. It is no wonder that many in the church today find community groups obligatory and a waste of energy.
I have recently noticed a trend of churches giving up on the notion that community is an essential component of church life. Many are deciding that community is an optional experience that is helpful but not elemental to being a healthy disciple of Jesus. I think this is a significant mistake. There is no biblical support for personal, autonomous Christianity. If we want to truly make disciples that advance the gospel, we must not only see the importance of community, we must understand it to be essential to the church.
How Are We Doing?
So how are we, the church, doing at championing community as a primary ministry within the church? The National Study of Youth and Religion (2008) reports that among young adults in the United States ages 18 to 23 years, 15.2 percent of them say that they are currently involved in any organized religious group, such as Bible study, prayer group, or other religious group, not including regular worship service attendance. Among this group of young adults who identify as evangelical Christian, this number increases to 25 percent. Let me reiterate this point: Nationwide, only one-quarter of young persons, 18 to 23 years of age, who identify as evangelical Christian and/or attend an evangelical church are currently involved in a community group or Bible study.
Furthermore, among those evangelical Christians who are currently involved in a community group and currently attend religious services at a church, more than one-third (36.6 percent) report that the religious small group in which they participate is not a part of that church. Calculating this all out, this equates to the fact that among young evangelical Christians ages 18 to 23 in the United States today, only 17.3 percent of them are currently participating in an evangelical Christian community group or Bible study that is hosted by a church they attend. And among all emerging adults ages 18 to 23 in the United States today, only 5.8 percent are currently participating in an evangelical Christian community group or Bible study that is hosted by a church they attend.
This is debilitating to the church and reflects the true value that we place on living out our faith in community. Neglect breeds apathy and leads to death for a small-group ministry. Life can only be regained when we reestablish the appropriate value within the church. Let's elevate community groups to the proper level of significance and help young adults—and seasoned adults—understand that community is central to our identity as Christians and crucial for the mission of the church.
—Taken from Community: Taking Your Small Group off Life Support by Brad House, copyright 2011. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.