(adapted from Repent & Believe: Relying on God’s Power)
People experience community around shared values. That’s why there are book clubs, internet forums, and fantasy football leagues. But you don’t have to share multiple common interests to experience Christian community with people. Rather, Christians have a unique opportunity for community because we share our deepest value and highest treasure, Jesus Christ. We can experience Christian community when we connect with others who worship and follow Jesus. But we must do more than simply attend church services together to develop community.
Small groups are one strategy for developing Christian community. We hope that everyone who attends a small group experiences the wonderful benefits and joys of Christian community, but they might not. It takes time to develop community, and it takes more than just time to deepen community.
Here are some keys to develop and deepen community:
- Keep Showing Up
Community requires time. The number one reason people give for not being in a small group is the same reason given for not exercising: they don’t have time. When someone does determine to make time for small group, they sometimes have expectations that they are going to “get something out of it” every time they show up. But like exercise, the only way you get something out of it is when you make time for it and keep showing up. And yet just showing up regularly is just the beginning.
- Take Risks
Relationships include risks. Committing to show up at someone’s house feels like a risk. Getting together with new people, answering questions about what you think, and telling people what you believe are all risks. Disagreeing with someone is a risk. Sharing a prayer request is a risk. Praying out loud with others for the first time feels like a risk. There are risks in every relationship where there is love, respect, mutuality, and service. But these risks have rewards. Over time, trust deepens and opens the door to the biggest risk.
- Be Known
All people want to be fully known and fully loved. We want people to know our names, our stories, our hopes, our thoughts, our feelings – our innermost selves. But because we have been hurt before, some of us are not transparent enough to be known. Like Adam and Eve, we cover up our nakedness with fig leaves of image management. Thus, we don’t feel loved, because we have to be known to feel loved. Otherwise, when someone shows love toward us, we might think, “But if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me.” Developing and deepening Christian community includes the process of becoming known over time. Ultimately, when you are known and loved, you become the person God intended you to be all along. We tend to take this process of being known very slowly, until a catalyst accelerates the process.
- Run to the Train Wreck
A train wreck might be suffering, marital stress, a health crisis, a wayward teenager, or any number of other things. When a train wreck comes in a small group, it often helps the group get honest. But in the midst of struggle, the sense of community in the group grows deeper, faster. We might say that groups just meet together until the first train wreck in someone’s life, then they come together to experience real community. We are more likely to stop managing our image. Everyone gets real. The key seems to be that when the train wreck comes, the people in the group run to the train wreck. They don’t avoid it or throw platitudes at those suffering, because they know, love, and serve one another.
- Gospel First
In Christian community, instead of giving one another good advice in the midst of a struggle or personal challenge, we bring the gospel first. The first step to bring the gospel is reminding one another of how God longs to meet us in our sin and suffering with mercy and grace. So we turn to God in prayer as a group. We seek his wisdom in Scripture. We remind each other of promises from God.
- Serve One Another
When we experience Christian community in a small group, we grow in our ability to serve one another. In community, it’s not all about us. At times, our sole purpose is to serve one another. According to Hebrews 10:19-25, we continue meeting together so that we can stimulate one another to love and good works and encourage one another. When our group demonstrates the commitment to truly serve one another in a way that we are all growing closer, deeper, and stronger in our love for God and others, we get to experience the rare and beautiful gift of community in the way God intended it.
- Have Faith
We must believe what God says about community. The church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5). He is in the midst of his people (Luke 17:20-21). Where two, or more, are gathered in his name, he is with us (Matthew 18:20). We believe together, grow together, and endure together. And if we believe that Christian community is a vital part of worshiping and following Jesus, we will rearrange our lives in order to experience it.
My prayer for you is that you experience the kind of Christian community described above. As community deepens and ages, it becomes one of the greatest gifts we receive in this life. While it’s a gift from God, we contribute to the development of this community too by the way we treat one another.