This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: Do I have to be a part of a small group to be a faithful Christian?
A: Perhaps it would be helpful to back up and ask, “What is the church?” There are ninety-five images for the church in the New Testament. Their sheer volume indicates the significance of the church, but what’s also interesting is that most of these images are corporate. They emphasize a life shared together: a body constituted by many parts, a temple comprised of living stones, a household composed of diverse members. While each metaphor draws out different aspects of the church, they all share a communal meaning. In fact, if we remove a body part, a stone, or a family member, we threaten the integrity of the whole. To be Christian, then, is to share life together.
We are not only called but also saved into Christ’s church. In the words of New Testament professor Joseph Hellerman, “We do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament . . . a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God . . . a person is saved to community.”1 While the church is more than a community, it is not less. This should lead us to ask: Do I act like a family member or a distant spectator? Does my participation in the church strengthen or weaken the temple?
The early church organized itself into small to mid-sized gatherings in homes, which Paul visited “house to house”(oikos, Acts 20:20). Sometimes they even knocked out a wall to accommodate up to fifty people (at least your small group isn’t that big!). These communities devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer (Acts 2:42). They were the very first “small groups.”
It is impossible to fulfill the Scripture's description of the church alone. We need one another. So while it is possible to participate in community by a name different than “small group,” the nature of the church, the commands of the New Testament, and gatherings in homes indicate a commitment to smaller groups of Christians is essential, not optional, to the Christian life.
Q: What does true Christian community look like?
A: The commands of the Bible are often plural not singular, presupposing our commitment to one another. For instance, the Beatitudes call us to meekness, mercy, and peacemaking (Matt. 5:3–11). None of these virtues can be lived in a vacuum. They require community. I need to be around people who require mercy, people whom I may not choose to befriend apart from Christ. I need to live close enough to others that I may offend (or be offended) and exchange the precious forgiveness of Christ with them. This kind of community requires more than a bi-weekly gathering. It is impossible to “bear one another’s burdens” or “love one another” from a distance (Gal. 6:2–3). In fact, living in committed community enables our sharp edges to be worn down to yield more of Christ. And that, though painful at times, deepens our joy and blesses others.
Scripture says that God comes to dwell in the church he makes a temple, “Do you not know that you (plural) are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). What does this verse tell us about church? The focus of the church isn’t the people; it’s their God. A household that functions properly has God, not community, at its center.
If we are God’s household, we ought to reflect God’s character.
If God was more central to church, how would it change our approach to community? We would conduct ourselves like we live in a temple. This means striving for personal holiness and encouraging holiness in others. Do you encourage others towards holiness? Do you ask questions, challenge assumptions, speak Scripture, and pray for your community’s transformation? Do you welcome this from others, or do you avoid challenges to holiness? If we are God’s household, we ought to reflect God’s character.
Holiness can sometimes come off as stodgy rule-keeping, but it is so much more. True holiness isn’t just getting away from sin; it’s seeing how close we can get to God. While God’s holiness does confront us, it also woos us to Christ. As we read God’s word, we are faced with our sin; but as we repent, we turn to a merciful Savior. Jesus invites us to find forgiveness, understanding, and spiritual joy, something that eclipses what sin can offer. How would this understanding of holiness change our approach to community? If our holiness aims at closeness to God—an experience of his love, joy, acceptance, mercy, and forgiveness—then those qualities will follow us into our relationships. We will be less concerned about finding meaningful relationships and more concerned with making them. We will drive to small group thinking about how we can give not just take, serve and not judge. We will find ourselves inviting others into our homes to extend the hospitality we have received from Christ. If living stones embrace the confrontation of holiness and take up the invitation of Christ, then when the stones get together the whole temple will reverberate with satisfied souls bursting to bless one another.
Q: What if the church has disappointed me in the past?
A: I once met a man for coffee who described how he had been hurt by the church. It’s important to listen to and sympathize with these hurts. I listened to his hurt and peppered our conversation with compassionate counsel. Toward the end of our time, he asked me, “Will your church disappoint me?” I thought about his question for a minute and then said, “Yes, we will disappoint you, but we will do our best to continually point you to a Savior who doesn’t.” If community is our main objective in church, we will be perpetually disappointed. But if we put our faith in Jesus, the only person who lives up to his own standards, we will be continually satisfied.
In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes a “wish dream” that everyone brings into community. This definite idea of what community should be is our ideal of community. Bonhoeffer says we must become disillusioned with our ideal of community before we can enter into real community. God wants to “shatter our illusions of community” so that genuine community can begin. If we refuse, we will become a destroyer of community, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”2Much as God accepts us in Christ, we have to learn to accept people as they are not as we would prefer them to be.
- Hellerman, Joseph H., When Church Was a Family, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2009), 123-24)
- Bonheoffer, Dietrich. Life Together, (New YorK: Harper One, 2009), 27.
Jonathan K. Dodson is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship.
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