I’ve called myself a Christian for a few years now, and I’ve therefore found myself in multiple small groups. Churches tag a thousand different names on them: Bible studies, community groups, prayer groups, discussion groups, but overall, they exist to serve a single purpose: to intentionally develop relationships. Yes, technically they are designed to help you study and interpret the Bible, but in an age where every theologian’s entire doctrine can be found with a few clicks on Google, I’d argue that primary goal has shifted. We live in a time where knowledge is easily accessible, but relationships are not, and small groups are today’s church’s attempted remedy.
Therefore, we encounter a problem when small groups aren’t fulfilling their purpose. Last week in my Bible study, our leader laid out four biblical principles for a healthy church, and she challenged us to consider which ones were not being met within our church family. Overwhelmingly, the response was that our community is lacking. As my friends argued about reasons our church “fails” in this area, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re looking at it all wrong.
Community isn’t about you.
When I became a Christian in high school, I honestly did it to make friends. My teenage logic concluded that if no one else wanted to hang out with me, the Christians would probably still take me since they were pretty dorky anyway. I started attending Young Life meetings, but I gave up after a few months when I hadn’t risen to the top of the social ladder. I then mocked the Christians for being both dorky and mean, and I avoided having a Savior based on disappointments caused by some high school kids. As evidenced by the fact that I’m currently writing an article for a Christian magazine, God eventually humbled me and brought me back around to Him, but it’s taken me years to shake my initial approach to community.
Community in the church doesn’t exist to make my life easier. In fact, I fully believe that true community makes your life infinitely more difficult. Thanks to our fallen nature, we’re programmed to focus nearly all of our thoughts and actions on ourselves, and it’s genuinely hard to shift that focus. When I’m drowning in sin, my community holds my head above water, but their dedication to me calls me to be utterly devoted to their lives as well. A burden shared is significantly lighter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I now help carry the load of many rather than one. If you’re looking to unload your issues and walk away feeling lighter, you should find a therapist, not a community. In a community, you’ll relieve a little of your own burden while picking up a handful more. It’s beautiful, but it’s messy.
Actually, it’s not so much about them either.
Living in community will always be difficult. I don’t have a single friend that hasn’t annoyed me at some point in our relationship, and I know I’ve pulled enough crazy stunts to isolate myself permanently from any of my social circles. Luckily for me, developing solid community isn’t only about building a Christian safety net. In John 13, Jesus ordered His disciples to love one another. Verse 34 has been heavily quoted in faith-centered circles as our mandate to imitate Christ in our relationships: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Unfortunately, not enough weight is given to the verse that follows: “By this, everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
We don’t live in community because we like to pat each other on the back; we live in community because loving each other brings glory to God. Our relationships are called to look different from those in the world because the world is watching. Brennan Manning said, “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle.” When we spend our time gossiping and judging, the world sees relationships that don’t look much different than what they already have. Christ warned us that the rest of the world will identify our allegiances based on how well we love those around us.
If you don’t have friends, it’s (probably) not the church’s fault.
I doubt I’ve made any enemies up to this point. It’s hard to argue that community was designed as a way to encourage and love our brothers and sisters while giving all the glory back to God. The problem arises when we look to the church to create an oasis of relational bliss.
Community isn’t the church’s job. I’m not talking big-C, all-the-believers-everywhere church; I mean the building you go to on Sunday is not responsible for your social life. If your church is anything like mine, the pastor probably suggests you greet the people around you at some point during your Sunday gathering, and in my opinion, that’s where his job ends. Many of my friends have floated in and out of biblically sound bodies of believers because “there just wasn’t any community,” but they never took the time to dig roots and build one. The church provides a safe place for people to meet presumably like-minded believers, but if the elder board is spending more time planning ice skating outings than feeding the hungry, then it’s probably not a church you should be investing in anyway.
It’s our job to build community, but unfortunately, most of us are lazy. There’s no doubt it’s far easier to say, “My church doesn’t have a strong community” than it is to say, “I haven’t really tried to make friends.” I have a friend whose parents were in the military, and she grew up in a dozen different hometowns. Every time she’d move to a new city, her mom would remind her that “it takes a call to get a call.” For some reason, we convince ourselves that everyone else is too busy to spend time with us, when in reality, everyone else is probably just as lonely. If we just stop waiting for the church to make the first move and pick up the phone, we can start moving toward the community God intended for us.
South Korea. You can read about her adventures, her faith and her
disdain for kimchi on her blog.