Cultivating Community through Small Groups

On the High Street and in the shopping malls, at sales time you find merchandise at greatly reduced prices. Items usually have a blue cross or a red tag which may say: “sold as seen”. This is a euphemistic way of saying: “These are damaged or irregular goods.” The store is giving you fair warning: “You are in the department of Something’s-Gone-Wrong.” There will be a reason why this item is in the sale. Is it an unpopular extra-large size or extra small size? Does it have a stain that might not come out? A zipper that won’t zip? A button missing? There will be a reason why this item is in the sale. Retail stores only exist if they make a profit. They are not altruistic charities.  The sign “sold as seen” is a way of saying, this item is flawed but the catch is, we’re not going to tell you where. You’ll have to look for it. So when you find it—don’t come whining to us. Because the rule when dealing with merchandise in this corner of the store is simple: No returns. No refunds. No exchanges. Without of course infringing your statutory rights… If you were looking for perfection, you just walked down the wrong aisle. If you want this item, you must buy it as is.”[1]

And the reality is, if you haven’t found out already, when we deal with other people, we have come to the “as-is” corner of the universe. Think for a moment about the person you know best, the person you love most, the person you are sitting next to.  The closer you look the more you realize they are slightly irregular. Aren’t they? We all come with a little tag: “There’s a flaw here. A streak of deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper.” It is as if God were saying, “I’m not going to tell you where it is, but it’s there. So when you find it—and you will find it—don’t be surprised. If you want to enter a relationship with this person, there is only one way. “As is.” Now look in the mirror and look for your tag. Were easily tempted by the illusion that somewhere out there – are people who are normal just like us. If only we can find them we will be happy.

In the film, As Good As it Gets, Helen Hunt is wracked by ambivalence toward Jack Nicholson. He is kind and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic, an obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive: if rudeness were measured in square miles, he’d be Yorkshire. In desperation, Helen finally cries to her mother, “I just want a normal boy friend.” “Oh,” her mother responds in empathy. “Everybody wants one of those. There is no such thing dear.”[2] When we enter relationships with the illusion that we are normal and out there is someone perfect like me, sooner or later we will become very disillusioned. And when the infatuation wears off, we try and fix people, control people, and eventually manipulate people. It is one reason some people cannot maintain long term relationships. It’s why some Christians cannot stick for long in the same church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that … community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”[3]

So, how can we cultivate genuine, authentic, community, recognizing that nobody is ‘normal’? How can we help one another become mature in Christ realizing that to some extent or other we are all damaged goods? In our 2020 Vision we affirm that loving relationships should permeate every aspect of church life. This includes the principle of servant-hood and commitment to relationship building.  We also believe that this life-change happens best in small groups. This is the reason for our commitment to small groups to facilitate fellowship, teaching and ministry. Our Vision is that small groups be safe, inclusive and welcoming places for quality bible study, life relevant learning, nurture, support and mutual accountability. Simply attending Sunday services or church events will never enable us to achieve our full redemptive potential. The Apostle James explains:

“You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.” (James 3:18 Message)

Rick Warren insists, “Community requires commitment.” You cannot, by yourself, create the real fellowship that God desires without the Holy Spirit. But He cultivates it with the choices and commitments we make together in community.

Paul points out this dual responsibility when he says:

‘You are joined together with peace through the Spirit, so make every effort to continue together in this way.’ (Ephesians 4:3)

“It takes both God’s power and our effort to produce a loving Christian community … If you are tired of “fake” fellowship, and you would like to cultivate real fellowship… you’ll need to make some tough choices and take some risks and where better to do that than in a small group of caring friends. Lets turn to our Bible reading from 1 Corinthians 5 and observe three essentials, three non-negotiables, three prerequisites for cultivating genuine community here at Christ Church.

1. Cultivating Community Requires Honesty

1I also received a report of scandalous sex within your church family, a kind that wouldn’t be tolerated even outside the church: One of your men is sleeping with his stepmother. 2And you’re so above it all that it doesn’t even faze you! Shouldn’t this break your hearts? Shouldn’t it bring you to your knees in tears? Shouldn’t this person and his conduct be confronted and dealt with? … I’m telling you that this is wrong.

You must not simply look the other way and hope it goes away on its own. Bring it out in the open and deal with it in the authority of Jesus our Master. … better devastation and embarrassment than damnation. You want him on his feet and forgiven before the Master on the Day of Judgment.
(1 Corinthians 5:1-5)

Strong language? Paul goes for the jugular. He realizes that if this behaviour is tolerated any longer it will destroy their credibility. It will tear the church apart. So Paul instructs them to publicly discipline the man by denying him fellowship. He will be isolated, tormented by his guilt and, God-willing, brought to repentance.  Rick Warren says, “You … have to care enough to lovingly speak the truth, even when you would rather gloss over a problem or ignore an issue. While it is easier to remain silent when others around us are harming themselves, it is not the loving thing to do. Most people have no one in their lives who loves them enough to tell them the truth (even when its painful), so they continue in self destructive ways.” Paul cared for this man and his step-mother too much to allow them and their church to tolerate immorality. And neither must we. In Proverbs God says, ‘An honest answer is a sign of true friendship.’ (Prov. 24:26)

Much of church life remains superficial because we never get close enough to each other. Membership of a small group meeting weekly or fortnightly for bible study, prayer and fellowship enables us to get to know one another well and to be a support and encouragement as God intends. Rick Warren says, “Real fellowship, whether in a marriage, a friendship, or our church, depends on frankness. In fact, the tunnel of conflict is the passageway to intimacy.” Until we care enough to confront and resolve underlying barriers, we will never grow close to one another. “When conflict is handled correctly, we grow closer to each other by facing, and resolving our differences. In Proverbs God says, “In the end, people appreciate frankness more than flattery.” (Proverbs 28:23). Now please remember that before you experiment over coffee frankness is not a license to say anything you like. Frankness is not the same as rudeness. “Thoughtless words leave lasting wounds. God tells us to speak to each other as loving family members.” Paul writes,

“Don’t be harsh or impatient with an older man. Talk to him as you would your own father, and to the younger men as your brothers. 2Reverently honour an older woman as you would your mother, and the younger women as sisters. (1 Tim. 5:1-2)

John Ortberg says “Every one of us needs a few people to tell us the truth about our hearts and souls.  We all have weak and blind spots that we cannot navigate on our own.  We need someone to remind us of our deepest aspirations and values; we need someone to warn us when we may be getting off track.  We need someone to help us question our motives and examine our consciences.  We need someone to perform spiritual surgery on us when our hearts get hard and our vision gets dim.  We need a few Truth-Tellers.[4] So, cultivating community requires honesty.

2. Cultivating Community Requires Humility

6Your flip and callous arrogance in these things bothers me. You pass it off as a small thing, but it’s anything but that. Yeast, too, is a “small thing,” but it works its way through a whole batch of bread dough pretty fast. 7So get rid of this “yeast.” Our true identity is flat and plain, not puffed up with the wrong kind of ingredient. The Messiah, our Passover Lamb, has already been sacrificed for the Passover meal, and we are the Unraised Bread part of the Feast.

8So let’s live out our part in the Feast, not as raised bread swollen with the yeast of evil, but as flat bread, simple, genuine, unpretentious. (1 Cor. 5:6-8)

The church had tolerated the man because they thought they were morally superior and could decide what was acceptable behaviour. Rick Warren observes, “Self-importance, smugness, and stubborn pride destroy fellowship faster than anything else. Pride builds walls between people; humility builds bridges. This is why God says “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Peter 5:5). The verse goes on to give another reason why cultivating community requires humility. “because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5).  If God opposes the proud, it is foolish and self destructive to try and get away with it. Rick Warren says, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others. Humble people are so focused on serving others, they don’t think of themselves.” Cultivating community requires honesty. Cultivating community requires humility.

3. Cultivating Community Requires Holiness

9I wrote you in my earlier letter that you shouldn’t make yourselves at home among the sexually promiscuous. 10I didn’t mean that you should have nothing at all to do with outsiders of that sort … You’d have to leave the world entirely to do that! 11But I am saying that you shouldn’t act as if everything is just fine when one of your Christian companions is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory.

You can’t just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behaviour. 12I’m not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? 13God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

To be holy is to be dedicated – set apart for the Lord’s use. To be holy is about becoming more and more like Jesus. Distinctly different but close enough to others to have an influence.   But it must be the right kind of influence. In Corinth they thought they should separate from those outside the church and tolerate anything inside. Paul shows the opposite is true. If we are aware of sin in our own lives or in someone in our church fellowship, with honesty and with humility and holy fear we need to take responsibility and deal with the sin personally. The temptation instead is just to talk about it – to other people.   But God hates gossip. That is why he says in Proverbs 16, “Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendship.” (Proverbs 16:28). Rick Warren says, “Gossip always causes hurt and divisions, and it destroys fellowship. God is very clear that we are to confront those who cause division. They may get mad and they may leave but the fellowship of the church is more important than any individual.” God’s solution is straightforward.

“no more lies, no more pretence. Tell your neighbour the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.” (Ephesians 4:25)

Cultivating community requires honesty, it requires humility and it requires holiness. So what was the impact of Paul’s letter? Deep and profound for the church in Corinth and also for this individual as well.

4. Cultivating Community Results in Healing

“I didn’t write it to cause pain; I wrote it so you would know how much I care—oh, more than care—love you! Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you. So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love. The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. (2 Cor. 2:4-9)

The church leaders in Corinth took Paul seriously. They disciplined the person. They put him out of the fellowship. He repented. Now Paul instructs them to forgive him, love him, reaffirm him and restore him. Cultivating community requires honesty, humility and holiness and by God’s grace it will result in healing.  If you agree, then I invite you to help cultivate community at Christ Church, in our small groups, through our serving teams, with our leaders, as singles, couples and families, together. If you are not presently in a small group please talk to Paul or myself. In conclusion, here are nine characteristics of biblical fellowship:

  • We will share our true feelings (authenticity)
  • We will encourage each other (mutuality)
  • We will support each other (sympathy)
  • We will forgive each other (mercy)
  • We will speak the truth in love (honesty)
  • We will admit our weaknesses (humility)
  • We will respect our differences (courtesy)
  • We will not gossip (confidentiality)
  • We will make community a priority (frequency).

As we near the season of Easter and think of what the Lord Jesus went through to reconcile us to God, lets covenant together to cultivate our church community around these principles. As we reflect on what a biblically functioning community looks like, we realise how awesome community can be, yet at the same time why genuine community is so rare. Because “it means giving up our self-centeredness and independence in order to become interdependent”.

“speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16-17)

Lets pray.

[1] Illustration taken from John Ortberg’s Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003), pp13-15. This brilliant book is about how imperfect people like you and me can pursue community with other imperfect people. This is a book about how porcupines learn to dance. So you will have to start with the actual porcupines right there in your life.

[2] Quotations taken from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002), pp. 145-151.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Translated by Daniel Bloesch and James Burtness, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996), p.9.

[4] John Ortberg,  Everybody’s Normal., p.3.