Small Groups: Intimacy, Service, and Diversity

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What follows is a combined/condensed version of bulletin articles I wrote in February for the Stamford Church of Christ (where I work), when our church was about to start up new small groups, as an attempt to frame theologically what our leadership team hopes small groups will contribute to our context. Those hopes center around three themes: Intimacy, Service, and Diversity. The leadership team decided to call our small groups “Life Circles,” so that is the name that is used throughout this article

The primary purpose of Life Circles is to build community. The importance of community is found throughout scripture. Community is an intrinsic human need; it is part of who God made us to be. God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone and created a companion and coworker for him (Gen. 2:18). Also, we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and God is “community.” In other words, God is Trinity, three in one, working and living together, in mutual love and submission, exemplifying within God’s very being the idea of “unity in diversity.” The nation of Israel in the Old Testament hardly had any sense of individualism; they are the people of God. Their people-hood (community) is set apart by a special story (of God’s redemption of them in the exodus) and special rules (Leviticus).

Jesus knew community was important and surrounded himself with a small group of disciples to minister together with him. And the New Testament is filled with “one another” passages, that is, passages that use a particular Greek word (allelon – “one another”) to describe characteristics of mutual Christian community. Followers of Christ should be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), love one another (Rom. 13:8), build up one another (Rom. 14:19), accept one another (Rom. 15:7), serve one another (Gal. 5:13), bear with one another (Eph. 4:2), be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32), submit to one another (Eph. 5:22), forgive one another (Col. 3:13), encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18), spur one another on toward love (Heb. 10:24), pray for one another (Jam. 5:16), confess our sins to one another (Jam. 5:16), offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9), fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7)…and that is only a small sampling!

Life Circles provide a valuable opportunity to connect with each other outside of Sunday morning worship. Acts 2:46 (in the midst of a section describing what life among early believers was like) says, “Day by day, as they continued meeting together in the temple, they (also) broke bread in their homes and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.” This seems to hint that very early on, Christians knew that there was something important about both corporate worship and intimate relationships based on hospitality. Based on the image of these early believers breaking bread together in homes, we are hoping that Life Circles will be more than just a program or ministry. We hope that Life Circles become a way of life, extending our Sunday-morning relationships beyond our time together on Sunday morning and outside the walls of our building.

As smaller groups of Christians who already have the larger congregation in common, Life Circles have the potential to be a springboard for even deeper relationships. Smaller groups are a safe space for vulnerability, honesty, curiosity, support, encouragement, forgiveness, laughter, accountability, transformation, connection, and a whole host of other things that – although certainly possible in the larger, worship setting – are not necessarily easy to do in a big crowd. Life Circles are a chance to mentor and be mentored, pray and be prayed for, teach and be taught, laugh and be laughed at, cry and be cried with, a chance to connect with a smaller group of people over months and years, in order to become more like Christ.

One aspect of the membership of Stamford that is somewhat unique to us is our regional distribution. That is, we are a “commuter” church – many of us travel longer-than-usual distances to be together. So when the leadership team was thinking about starting Life Circles again, the regional organization addressed a logistical need: People may not want to travel back into Stamford for a second or third time. Life Circles arranged regionally shorten the distance people would need to travel.

But also, more importantly, we think that Life Circles arranged regionally provide an opportunity for each group to join together in service to its respective community. The group knows best the needs of the community it works and lives throughout the week. Each group can connect with social service agencies or volunteer opportunities in its area. We are hoping this will happen organically, that is, that each group will find a service project or volunteer opportunity that is a good fit for the members of its group. Maybe a member has a neighbor in need of babysitting, or yard work. Maybe a member has a child with a sporting event that the Life Circle can attend to support that child. Maybe a member has a friend, coworker, or neighbor who is intimidated by “institutional church” but would connect well with a smaller group of people. Again, we are hoping that this happens organically, that your Life Circle’s unique passions and opportunities will become obvious to its members, and that you’ll act on those impulses.

I mentioned above the importance of “trinitarian theology” (that is, the idea that God is Trinity, three in one, working and living together, in mutual love and submission) for community. Trinitarian theology exemplifies community because within God’s very being there is “unity in diversity.” In that article, it was the “oneness” of God that was important. But the “three-ness” of God is also important; the fact that within God’s being there is “unity in diversity.” So when humans are in relationship with others who are different than them, they imitate the image of God by imitating diversity.

But we humans have a tendency to gravitate toward people who are most like us. There are aspects of this tendency that are beneficial – it is easier to begin a friendship based on things you have in common. Trust and jokes and the other things that make up a relationship come more quickly when you have similarities to draw on. Various aspects of church life lend themselves naturally to “friendship in similarity.” For instance, Bible Classes are arranged by age group, and these age-specific ministries are important. These are all good things! But once potential drawback of “friendship in similarity” is that people are so similar that they do not challenge each other. People see the world in such similar ways, that they are not aware of the ways they may be excluding others.

It is also important for members of the congregation to have relationships with people from different age groups. Growing up, the time that I felt the most connected to the church I attended is when my best friend and I (when we were in high school) started a Girl’s Bible Study for the middle school girls just entering the youth group. Or when another good friend and I started a Skit Troupe for the elementary age kids over the course of a Bible Class quarter. Since there was no youth minister at that church when I was in the youth group, the church arranged youth mentors, pairing each member of the youth group with an adult (who was not their parent). Each of these things is an example of intergenerational connection, giving members a chance to serve and be served, to connect, with people not in their age group.

Life Circles are another way to connect people of different ages, placing them in smaller groups alongside each other, where they can work together and learn from each other. And Life Circles connect people with other kinds of diversity too. Often, Life Circles that are not “assigned” end up developing along homogenous lines. (For instance, “Young Adults,” “Married with Children,” “Golden Oldies.”) The leadership hopes that arranging Life Circles regionally will put us all in relationship with people that we may or may not have been naturally drawn to, people who are different from us, who challenge us, who help us to think about things in different ways. And this “friendship in diversity” makes us more like God, who has “diversity” built into God’s very being.

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