In 2010, I was hired on as a small group pastor at Rock Church, the largest church in San Diego. Those four years on staff in the small group ministry was exciting and trying at the same time. I loved being able to connect people into a ministry that I absolutely loved, and was passionate about seeing people grow in their walk with Jesus while living in relationships with each other.
But as people would join and leave a group after about three to six months I began to notice something striking about how people generally viewed small groups. They enjoyed the idea of meeting with people and studying the Bible but were always hesitant to the idea of committing themselves to “joining” a group, specifically areas of spiritual accountability. The reason for this hesitancy was somewhat understandable. Their time was valuable and their daily activities needed to be strategically planned out and prioritized, and most of the time meeting with a bunch of random people once a week was on the low end of that priority scale. Additionally, being vulnerable enough to share some life’s complexities with other people can be a daunting concept.
I can honestly understand and sympathize with this way of thinking. Our culture demands all of our time and attention. We have work, school, kids, family, friends, extracurricular activities, vacations, etc. All of these things and more require so much from us. Then on top of that we go to church on a Sunday morning where the pastor encourages us to join another group during the week. It is exhausting!
But hopefully we can identify how the life-giving benefits of a small group can be ignored when viewed through the lens of “another thing” I am supposed to add to my daily routine. When life gets difficult, the first thing to drop off is usually our church-based program involvement.
After seeing countless people leave their small group over the years I can confidently say the reason is due to a lack of value. This really applies to anything in our lives that we ultimately place to the side. If something does not have any value in our life (however one measures value) we will eventually get rid of it.
The value of work?
The value of school?
Education. Find a job. Pursue our dreams.
The value of family and friends?
Provide support and companionship.
The value of going to church?
Fulfilling religious obligations.
But what is the value in going to small group? Can any of the needs that a small group could meet be found somewhere else in my life?
Generally speaking, yes. Absolutely!
Therefore, the problem is not that groups are unimportant. The problem is in our theological vision and understanding of why groups exist and how they contribute to God’s mission in the world and through his people. But before we can answer the “why” of small groups we need to answer the “what” of church.
The Western Church has been predominately reduced to a building we go to on a Sunday morning. Furthermore, we already have our expectations of what the Sunday morning experience should consist of: some powerful music, an impactful sermon that is relevant to my life, maybe some announcements about church programs, hopefully some more music, then some coffee and refreshments, which is all accomplished in about an hour or so. Most people will bounce from church building to church building in order to find “the right church” or “the church that best fits my needs” (whatever that actually means).
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that the way our Sunday mornings are done is necessarily bad. Often they are actually quite good and God-honoring places of worship. At Communion Church, our Sunday morning worship services fits the typical American Church template mentioned above. The problem is when we believe this is all that “church” consists of.
But the Bible seems to have a different understanding of what “church” is.
The best place to start is in Acts 1:8, where prior to Jesus’ ascension he tells his first few disciples (now identified as “apostles” in v. 2),
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
For Luke (the author of Acts), this was the unleashing of the church. The church had a distinct function in bringing the good news of God’s kingdom throughout the known world at that time. Therefore, after the Spirit comes upon them (2:4), Peter preaches a sermon which resulted in over three thousand people being baptized and “were added to their number that day” (2:41).
So what happened to those three thousand new converts to the Christian faith?
Immediately after Peter’s Spirit-filled sermon, we see in Acts 2:42-47,
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
It was more than an issue of self-preservation, where they were merely making it a priority to look out for each other’s welfare in the midst of a hostile situation. Rather these early followers of Jesus were radically impacted by the details of a good news that involved the dawn of a new kingdom through Jesus the Messiah, and now was the time for this kingdom to take shape in the form of a people (2:37). The text does not prescribe the response of this particular early church to be replicated throughout different nations, cultures, and people groups across human history. Rather, it does describe how the message of the gospel transformed their interactions with each other, namely other individuals that consisted of this new organic community called “the church.”
In fact, the verb “devoted” in v. 42 is a participle, indicating that their devotion to the “apostles teaching” and “fellowship” with each other was not limited to a once a week meeting but something that was a continuous part of their everyday life. In other words, nothing in the life of the early church was programmatic, a list of things to check off, but everything described in Acts 2:42-47 was a matter of necessity. Their lifestyle was one that encompassed the full benefits of one who has the Spirit of Christ living and dwelling among them.
The Apostle Paul gave the church that met in Colossae similar instructions in Colossians 3:15-16,
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit…”
Not only does Paul remind them that each person is a part of the whole body (the church), he gives instructions of how the body is to remain healthy and vibrant. Just as the human body needs food and water to survive, so too the church needs “the message of Christ” to dwell among us, as we interact with Scripture, through singing and prayer together.
In other words, to be a follower of Jesus we must be one part of an entire body where she same shared values are embodied. At Communion Church, we acknowledge that we cannot fulfill this vision for what the church should be on a Sunday morning. It is impossible. Like many other churches we desire to expand the function and definition of church beyond the Sunday experience, and instead into harmonious relationships with each other. David Augsburger in his book Dissident Discipleship calls Christian community “stubborn inclusiveness. By this he means,
“The weak need the strong for support; the strong need the weak for balance and guidance. We dare exclude neither from community, or community dies; both must be included in mutual service and ministry.”
Each human being brings value to the life of Christian community. The fact that all in the church has died with Christ in his death, but has been raised to newness of life through baptism, puts every member on equal playing field. But the various experiences and life situations of all in the church make it possible for each other to thrive in a broken world as we follow King Jesus. This poses a fundamental question that all Christian needs to answer:
Would the church community that you are a part of fall apart if you were not in it?
I know most of us would say, “Absolutely not!” The reason we think that way is because we have allowed our “church experience” to be dictated by others, in addition to the fact that there has been no room for participation. But I bet if we were to submerge ourselves into a truly Jesus-centered, other-oriented community that values all of its participants, we would never dream of leaving it, and the others in our community would experience the brokenness of our absence.
Therefore, at Communion Church instead of “small groups” we call our small group ministry “family gatherings” for a few reasons:
1. It is no longer compelling enough to join a group in order to make "the big church feel small.” The church is the people, regardless of the size. Yes, I suppose it is true that if you attend a mega church of one thousand or more people it would be nice to shrink the size in order to fellowship. But this should not be the driving force behind why someone would join a group.
2. While “community” has become a popular word within the church over the last decade or so, the concept is extremely biblical. The focus is not “small,” the focus is "mutuality as a family.”
3. "Gatherings" instead of "groups" by definition is not program or event driven, but involves the participation of every active member of the church in order to survive. Furthermore, it is not defined only by the midweek meeting (which is naturally an important part of the group’s existence). The family aspect of the gathering extends into the other six days of the week. Whether through prayer, check-ins, or just regular fellowship and leisurely activities that friends and family do together, the gathering does not cease to exist when the meeting is over.
4. Gatherings have depth when various types of people are involved. Young and old, married and singles, various cultures and races, differing sexual orientations, and so many other types of people constitute a community of people on mission for the glory of God.
5. Family is the church! One of our core values at Communion is that the church functions as a family (cf. Mark 3:34-35; Romans 8:14-17). Families are in the trenches with each other throughout the ebbs and flows of life. Communion Church is a deeply Jesus-centered family. Therefore, in family gatherings, the objective is to create environments of true intimacy where each family member can thrive.
This post is just a scratch on the surface of what an incarnational family gathering consists of. But whether you are compelled to join a gathering or not, my plea is to stop going to church. Instead remind yourself that when you attend a corporate worship gathering on Sunday or attend a midweek gathering on Wednesday, or fellowship with other believers on Thursday, to view “church” holistically: each person is a valued part of an organic gathering of those who live in community together under the lordship of King Jesus, for the purpose of learning more about how to follow Jesus and interact with others in a broken world.
 David Augsburger, Dissident discipleship: A spirituality of self-surrender, love of God, and love of neighbor (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 62-63.