What’s the Problem?
When I was a kid I got it in my head that getting a remote control boat was going to be the coolest thing ever. I worked some side jobs and saved my allowance to buy one I saw in a catalog (feel free to Google what a catalog is if you are under forty). The intensity of the anticipation was soon eclipsed by the disappointment. Despite the action-packed pictures on the box, my boat was no match for ripples on the pond and it putted around like a bath toy rather than the zippy water rocket I had imagined.
Community can sometimes feel like this. Not every small group zips along the water, and that can leave us wondering what the problem is and if we should keep trying.
If this is you, I want to offer some thoughts that may help you get the most out of your community experience.
Reset Your Expectations
When we say community isn’t working, what we are really saying is that our expectations were not met. We had hopes and desires for community that were unfulfilled by the experience. My disappointment with the remote control boat was not with its ability to float or steer or even its paint job. In those respects, it was a perfectly fine boat. But I had unspoken expectations which doomed my experience. In order to enjoy life-giving community, it is imperative that we have Spirit-driven expectations for community.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, talks about this with the idea of a wish dream. He suggests that we will never experience meaningful community until we give up the idealistic dream of what we want community to be. This is a profound truth, as our striving for a perfect community experience blinds us from the opportunity that an imperfect, messy community affords.
A redeemed vision of community must hold two truths in tension:
- Community is a gift.
- Community is not easy.
A community of messy people in the process of sanctification is going to have its highs and lows. It will mean times of rejoicing and times of weeping. We will never experience meaningful community if we are only in it for the first and not the latter. Ironically, it is often the experience of carrying one another’s burdens (which we tend to try to avoid) that brings the deepest moments of joy in community. God has intentionally built into our design the ability to experience relationships, as well as a foundational need for one another. While we chafe at our limitations, they are precisely designed for a built-in dependence on others that keeps us in humble relationship.
Embracing such expectations for community frees us to be surprised by the blessing that community can be in our lives.
So how do we do that?
Think Family, Not Club
If we approach community as a commodity or service which we consume, we will forever be disappointed. For example, when we join a gym we have certain expectations based on the fact that we are paying for particular services. Good gyms are smart to build a sense of community, but if the gym doesn't provide adequate programming and gear, you will eventually move elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is how we often approach community in the church. We can see our group as a service to meet my needs. In contrast, community is intended to function like a family rather than a business.
In a family, it would seem out of place to consider your return on investment in your sibling or your children. In a healthy family, you sacrifice for one another out of love and interdependence. In such a family, the benefits of support and love far outweigh the sacrifices made for others.
Unfortunately, not all of us have had such a healthy family experience. But that is why the reconciling work of Jesus is such a gift. As we see in Ephesians 1, God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will . . .” (Eph. 1:3–5).
We have been adopted into a family, not invited to join a club. In order to experience life-giving community, we must do the internal work of orienting our hearts toward one another as God has intended, and which Jesus made possible through his life, death, and resurrection.
What Do I Bring?
My experience in community can often be derailed by a desire to “have my needs met” or to “get fed.” While I want those experiences for you, they are a very self-oriented way to approach community and will lead to disappointment. If we can approach our small group with the question of What am I bringing to this group?, it will reorient our hearts toward others. It becomes an invitation to participate in community rather than be served by it. This, in turn, creates a culture where we are serving one another, and our needs are met.
Additionally, one of the biggest tensions in community is the intrinsic desire to be known, in conflict with the fear and shame of being known. Our disappointment with community can often be traced to this feeling of not being known even when we ourselves are working hard to hide. If you want community to “work”, you may need to let down your guard and let others into your internal world.
This can be scary and may even lead to some of those hard moments we discussed above, but it is vital for a meaningful community. The promise is that as our identity has been made new in Christ, we have nothing to fear from being known. We are fully known by God and fully loved. Our small group may not reflect that perfectly as we allow ourselves to be known, but it certainly will not be possible if we continue to hide.
Community is intended to function like a family rather than a business.
Up to this point, we have discussed issues of the heart. If we have aligned our hearts and expectations with that of the Spirit, it frees us to take a thoughtful look at the small group experience itself. Disappointment with community can also be a function of the experience itself. Whether it is the awkward circle or the time that a group meets, we often feel obligated to propagate the same experience week after week.
While I affirm that we are created for community, that fact does not limit us to one version of a small group experience. We often feel beholden to a model of community because we lack imagination for what community could look like, or we feel we don't have permission to experiment. If community is getting stale, try something new.
Experiment with different rhythms of meeting together. Do your best to align your community with the natural rhythm of your life and that of the group's. Provide opportunities to be together, but don’t make them obligations. Here are a few questions to ask:
- What would make this group more life-giving?
- What do we like to do together?
- Is there a different time or duration of meeting that would work better?
- How can we invite kids to participate with us?
- How are we serving our group members who are single?
- Would meeting at a different location change the group dynamic?
- What is one thing you would change about this group?
An honest conversation around the questions above, while giving yourself permission to try new rhythms, should yield some great innovations to your group experience. Couple this with hearts that are oriented toward one another, and you are well on your way to redeeming your small group experience.
Brad House is the author of Community: Taking Your Small Group off Life Support.
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