“We’re a friendly church.” Ask people to describe their church and this phrase may be one of the first descriptions to enter the conversation. Though friendliness is important, group ministries should set their sights deeper when it comes to building relationships among their members. Community is a word that has been used in recent years to refer to the depth and quality of relationships that can be experienced through participation in a small group ministry.
Some have looked to the fellowship of believers in Acts 2 to find a model for what happens when believers are fully dedicated to Christ, His mission, and to each other. Characteristics such as teaching, prayer, meeting needs, sharing possessions, and seeing many added to the fellowship on a regular basis have been noted. Clearly, simply being friendly falls short of this type of group experience. Though building true biblical community takes significant time and intentional effort, some simple strategies can help create an environment in which community has the opportunity to develop.
1. Set Up Your Meeting Place to Encourage Community
Community happens face to face.
It is unlikely that a person will develop a close relationship with someone by looking at the back of their head. Whether you meet in a Sunday School classroom or a living room, make every effort to arrange seating so that everyone in the group can see the faces of the others in the room. If you have only large groups, consider having at least some part of the class time dedicated to allowing people to get into smaller groups for discussion and prayer.
2. Equip Teachers to Encourage Community
Community grows through conversation.
Discussion is essential in helping a Bible study group develop relationally. Provide training for group leaders to learn how to craft good questions that will lead people to faithfully find the intersection of Scripture truth and life needs. Group members should feel free to ask questions, share struggles, and ask for prayer. Refer difficult questions back to the group and insist on searching the Bible for an answer. Group participation gives the group leader insight into where the Holy Spirit is working and identifies opportunities for spiritual growth.
3. Organize Your Group to Meet Needs
Community is proven in crisis.
When natural disasters occur, cities rally together to provide relief, meet physical needs, and rebuild. When someone in your group has a need, the situation becomes a prime opportunity for group members to prove that the one in need belongs to them. Whether the action is providing a meal, caring for children, sitting in a hospital room, mowing a yard, loaning a car, assisting with a financial need, or a myriad of other responses, the recipient is assured that they have become part of a community that truly cares for them. Ministry at this level will require a certain amount of organization, such as forming smaller care groups within the class, so that needs can be identified and met in a timely manner.
4. Notice the Empty Chairs
Community extends to those who are absent.
Most classes could tell an inquirer how many people attended their last group meeting. But better than knowing who was present at the last meeting is the ability to identify who was absent. Those who were not in the group have already experienced a setback in their relational connection to those who were present, a gap that will only increase with every day that they fail to be missed by anyone. The fastest way for someone to feel on the outside of a community is to be gone for a period of time only to find that no one even noticed. If your group is too large to notice absentee members, identify needs, and have the ability to meet them, then the group is just simply too large and additional groups should be formed in order for community to develop.
5. Work and Play Together
Community deepens outside of group time.
Chances are, group members don’t tell many stories about how great point number three was from that lesson last summer. But people do talk about those unplanned moments from the church work day, the cookout, the softball game, the shopping excursion, serving at the food/clothing ministry, the kid’s Bible club at the park, or the trip to the help the church plant. Quality fellowship time need not always be planned out in advance nor does it have to be expensive. Our family has enjoyed great times of fellowship by grabbing fast food and going over to group member’s homes for a brief impromptu gathering after church.
6. Keep Your Group Centered on the Gospel
Community is realized fully in Christ.
Biblical community has an ingredient that leaves support groups, civic clubs, recreational groups, and sports teams lacking. Gospel-centered community offers redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, hope, and joy. This focus happens when leaders intentionally point group members back to Jesus as the reason for all that we seek to find in community. We love because He first loved, we serve because He served, we forgive because we have been forgiven, and we have compassion on others because He first had compassion on us. Community for community’s sake is not the point. We seek community with others because it is a picture of Christ seeking community with us.