Spiritual Formation: A Sense of Belonging
Most spiritual growth does not come as a result of a training program or a set curriculum. Spiritual growth does not come through a “homerun” sermon or a harmonized praise team. Spiritual growth comes as a result of what Larry Osborne calls “need-to-know and need-to-grow” situations in his book, Sticky Church. He defines need-to-know moments as happening when we find ourselves in a predicament where we need to know God’s viewpoint on an issue we’ve never dealt with before. A common question goes something like: “Does God speak to this issue? And if so, what does it say?” The need-to-grow moments are similar, but they are usually accompanied by a tough trial or a stretching experience. The pain of a broken heart, the frustrating boss who will not give you the time of day, or the financial burden that weighs you down week after week. Each in its own way calls for a deeper and more obedient walk with God.
Small groups take this haphazard learning-and-growing process into account, for they are perfectly fitted to the way spiritual growth actually takes place. The focus of small groups is not necessarily on the curriculum, though it is provided and offered, but rather on the process. There is not a set amount of points that must be covered over a certain amount of time. Rather, the small group is simply to velcro people to the two things they will need most when faced with a need-to-know or need-to-grow situation: the Bible and other Christians.
Before the conversation of small groups can go any further, some language must be explained. People are complex beings, and they socialize on different levels. Some situations involve being one of many in a large crowd, perhaps going to a ball game or listening to an influential speaker. Other situations involve only you and a few of your closest friends sharing secrets over a coffee or having a book club meeting in your living room. We socialize with people in different ways through different levels of relationships. There are four major categorized spaces that people operate: public, social, personal, and intimate. These will be expanded on in further detail in regards to how the church operates in these spaces, for it is crucial to understand the importance of each of these spaces and how they fit in with one’s spiritual growth.
Public Space. The first major space where individuals can experience growth is in a public space. This space is most commonly defined for having 20 or more people, with plenty of space in between each person. This is the space where guests usually reside until welcomed by active members of the space. Within the public space, there is usually a focal point that all the attention is drawn towards, such as a teacher or lecturer, who communicates to the group as a whole. For Christians, the most common public space is the church building.
Social Space. People are then funneled down to the social space which also offers them opportunity to grow. The social space offered anywhere between 10-20 people with individuals more comfortable being closer to one another. Names are usually shared within this space, though personal information is limited. The beauty of social space, and importance to individual growth, is this space is the most conducive environment for getting to know new people. For Christians, this is usually a fun event at the church building or conducted by the church (Easter Hunts, Trunk or Treat, Summer Bash, etc.). It is within this space that people are beginning to open up and form relationships between one another.
Personal Space. The next space is where this essay will spend most of its time, and usually consists of 5-10 people. This space has been recently marked in churches as “small groups,” and is a more personal space where names are known along with more personal details of life. This space is usually filled with friends, family, and peers with no leaders needed (though for the small group setting this is not necessarily true). It is harder for outsiders to enter this space, but it allows relationships to flourish when members are accessible to it. It is within the personal space that people feel more comfortable in opening up with one another and vulnerability becomes a key phrase.
Intimate Space. In an intimate space, there is usually only 2-3 people present. This is the smallest space, and usually the deepest and most vulnerable. People in an intimate space go beyond personal or business matters, but usually know each other's secrets. They know one another better than anybody else, and this is where a person’s trust fully resides. This space usually consists of romantic partners and closest friends.
One of the beautiful principles to realize about these four spaces is that a person is capable of growing spiritually and connecting with others in them equally. A common example of this is in the public space which is obviously the least intimate of the four, however nobody can deny that people are able to grow spiritually in the teaching of God’s Word in the assembly. The trick, and this is something that Nelson Searcy points out in his book, Active: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, is that the “goal is not to have balance in all four spaces but to have harmony between the spaces.” For example, churches will have far more people in their social space than they will in their intimate spaces, and that is okay. It was the way it has been designed. The important part is to have people active in all four spaces, rather than only a select few.
For a person to have healthy spiritual growth, they need all four of these spaces. Consider these two situations and try to determine which is worst off. A single man in a cabin in the woods with only one person to talk to his entire life, or a single person in a crowd of hundreds with no friends or people who are close enough to build a true relationship. No matter how intimate the first relationship is or how many people surround the second person, these are not proper spaces to solely reside in. God creates humanity to interact on, and through, different social platforms. These platforms, or spaces as we have been calling them, are interrelated to one another; they are not separate from one another. For example, in the social space a person will meet many others who are experiencing the same thing, creating a connection (and hopefully a relationships) between the parties. These relationships soon become friendships, which can lead to deeper and deeper connections. It is a funnel effect that connects all the spaces together.
The final thought about these four spaces is people’s deficit of personal spaces today. In high school, and even in college, we have these spaces in abundance. Through forced proximity and innate coalition this space is born naturally, however after graduation these groups that once held identity begin to fade. Social gatherings become independent endeavors, and any form of personal or intimate relationship begin to lack. This could be one reason the world is seeing a rise is social media, online dating, and self-dependability. Small groups serve as an avenue the church can use in this regard. Small groups provide a space where participants can form relationships on a personal level, and hopefully build intimate relationships from this. This is the church’s tool to help mend the world’s lack of personal and intimate space. The best part about the small group structure is that it is exactly what people who come into the church are seeking. They are looking for social relationships where they can call each other ‘buddy’ and hang out with them on the weekends. Small groups then takes this space a step further so that people will have a group they can identify with and where relationships are not forced, but are naturally created.
The model Jesus gave throughout his ministry regarding discipleship was that not every person had equal access to him. He chose a team of twelve men, but even within that small body he offered a deeper level of intimacy to Peter, James, and John. Looking beyond the twelve disciples were the seventy-two who Jesus sent out, and finally there were the crowds that gathered and listened to his teachings. Jesus’ model of discipleship fits with the model of spaces discussed above. Put simply, only a few can live within a discipling relationship, which is why small groups are crucial for churches. Part of what made Jesus’ ministry so remarkable is his humanity. He ate. He taught. He laughed. He healed. He told jokes. He told stories. He visited friends. He fed thousands. He partied. He went to weddings. He went to the local synagogues. He went on retreat with his disciples. He cried. He went to funerals. He gave advice. He answered questions. And all of his comings and goings were intently watched by his disciples. They were immersed in a life with Jesus, because they lived in community with him. No matter how good the lecture is, or how influential the speaker, discipleship does not take place in the public spaces, or even social spaces. Discipleship takes place through relationships. When people know more than each other’s name, but their deepest fears and their happiest memories. When people can encourage and edify one another because they have come to live life together. Small groups go beyond a place of identity for members of the church for they serve as a communities where life is lived together. This is why small groups are important. Without them, we limit Jesus’ model of discipleship to his teaching in crowds and sending out the seventy-two, and what is lost is the depth of his ministry found in his personal and even intimate relationships with his disciples.
As Gerald Sittser points out in his book, this movement did not die with Jesus on the cross, but remained with his earliest followers. In Sittser’s book, he dedicates a chapter to the spirituality of the early Christians, and the significance they were able to find in community; this was a rare community that swam upstream of the norms found in a Roman empire. These Christians made no distinctions in rank and welcomed any outsider that wanted to be a part of their community. They lived by a different ethic, which impressed the very people who suffered the most as victim’s of Rome’s immorality and injustice. The love these people had for each other and the care they had for the broken world was evident in everything they did, which is why they serve as a witness to community for believers today. At times it is difficult for people today to resonate with circumstances that took places thousands of years ago. Most people in Western cultures live a life of privilege, having large access to power and cultural influence, which causes them to neglect themselves of living in a community that depends on others. It then becomes easy for people to ignore the fundamental truth that God calls the church to be a community of belonging for broken people. The church’s “life together” a Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, matters, for such a community is proof that the gospel still has power to transform people’s lives, to heal divisions and to provide a sense of belonging for rootless people.
The mission of the church is to develop committed followers of Jesus, and in fact this was Jesus’ own mission. In Matthew 28, Jesus says: “All authority is heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In this passage, commonly known as the Great Commission, Jesus gives clear expectations for his followers to pursue. For this reason, the purpose of the church is to carry out the very mission that Jesus originally gave to his church. The question left to answer is what happens in small groups that creates an environment for people to become disciples of Christ? What part do small groups have in Jesus’ command to make disciples of people? The answer to that question has been mulled over multiple times, and the simplest explanation can be found in six simple E’s. At Alameda Church of Christ, we have adopted the six E’s to focus our efforts as a church, to form a basis of what we expect from our members, and provide a barometer for spiritual growth. Most importantly, these six E’s provide an answer to what small groups offer to fulfill Jesus’ command to make disciples.
Exalt God in worship and giving. This is obviously done in the public space of worship, but something deeper happens when this is done in a smaller community. Members are encouraged to give as a small group to a certain mission, which allows them to feel directly involved in the mission. Through regular tithing, many members are simply trusting the money goes to God’s work through the church, and though this is good, giving within their small community allows them to see their contribution in action.
Encounter God in prayer and through his Word. Small groups are known for encountering God, for people begin to open up in conversation within personal spaces. Questions are asked that wouldn't necessarily be asked in a larger setting, and people are more receptive to wrestle with difficult questions because they know every person they are opening up to. Through this openness and willingness to wrestle with God, his Word, and his world, people grow in their spiritual health.
Encourage one another in fellowship. In small groups, you are meeting with the same people on a weekly basis. You are going to events together and creating memories as a unity. Life is no longer lived independently, but people begin to pick each other up and walk with each other through life. Ephesians 2 is lived out that unity begins to form, and it is through the unified body that God’s people are able to reach out to him.
Edify others through acts of service. Just as the early Christians stood out in the Roman empire, so today do Christians stand out. Through serving together, small groups allows people to encourage and help heal the broken world more effectively. Small groups can make a big impact in the world when the body is unified in one mindset of mission.
Equip fellow believers through teaching. It is inevitable that discussion will take place in small groups. Though not every person may speak, many voices pitch in to create an active dialogue. The beauty of small groups is it creates a space where voices who might never be heard in a public or social space have an opportunity to be heard. Opinions and perspectives that might have before been drowned out in a crowd are given the microphone and platform to make themselves known. This not only encourages people, but is also equipping them for when they enter into the rest of the world. They have taken on a sense of leadership through discussion, and therefore are more equipped to defend and articulate their beliefs.
Evangelize the world through proclamation and mission. This is the final point, and one of the most important. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it is difficult to encourage members to bring new people to church. Regardless if they are embarrassed of the church, or don't see the importance of inviting outsiders, people simply keep it to themselves. It has proven to be different with small groups. Though coming into a stranger’s house with a bunch of other strangers might be intimidating to some, being invited into a home rather than a church building is much more welcoming. Small groups allow for strangers to become family in the proper setting.
These six E’s give structure to the small group system that flows through Alameda Church of Christ. Though this system might not adapt to every church setting, it is important for churches to be providing opportunities to its members to grow spiritually through these different practices. Small groups allows for this to happen. The trick is not being a church with small groups, but rather a church of small groups. This concept is again from Nelson Searcy’s book, Active, and he explains the difference as being a church that simply is adding another program versus a church that is being transformed through small groups. Being a church with small groups is not using them to their fullest potential, but simply adding another burden for the church to manage. When a church is a church of small groups, they allow their identity to be seen through the involvement and good work that comes from the groups. In this case, small groups are not only serving the members who are involved in them, but the church as a whole.
The ultimate goal is to build disciples. As discussed, this is the command given by Jesus and the reason churches keep their doors open despite the push back they receive from the world. However, as seen through Mike Breen’s work in his book Building a Discipling Culture, and the example given through Jesus’ ministry, discipleship happens in the personal and intimate space, rather than the larger settings. Small groups then become an essential tool for churches to take part in to create proper disciples. As seen with the early Christians, small groups can make a big ripple in the world.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York: Harper & Row, 1954. Print.
Breen, Mike, and Steve Cockram, Building a Discipling Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did, (Pawleys Island, SC: 3 Dimension Ministries, 2011), Print.
Joseph Myers, The Search to belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), Print.
Osborne, Larry W, Sticky Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), Print.
Searcy, Nelson, and Kerrick Thomas, Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), Print.
Sittser, Gerald Lawson, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), Print.
Stetzer, Ed, and Eric Geiger, Transformational Groups: Creating a New Scorecard for Groups, (N.p.: n.p., n.d), Print.