Part of my role at my church is to help foster community within our church family. The ethos of our church is (rightly) centered on corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, but we often find it a challenge to live consistently with our status as the communion of saints – members of a community who “share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts” and who “consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 55).
Our church does not have organized small groups or community groups as they are practiced in some churches, but when Brad House’s book Community: Taking Your Small Group off Life Support (Crosssway, 2011) was recommended to me, I decided to give it a read. I appreciated House’s comments on being careful to distinguish between the hoped-for results of small group ministries, and the bigger goal for such groups:
In order to have a vision for community, we need to understand the purpose of community. In my experience with community group ministry, I have heard many purposes for joining community groups, including but not limited to: belonging, making big church feel small, learning the Bible, pastoral care, fellowship, friends, closing the back door of the church, evangelism, and so on. Each of these purposes has merit and can be argued as essential to the church. I would suggest, however, that these “purposes” are in fact the product of community rather than its ultimate goal.
When retaining people becomes our goal, we inadvertently communicate that our purpose is to grow the church rather than glorify God. We become more interested in building the church rather than advancing the kingdom. We lift up the church rather than the name of Jesus.
As well, when fellowship, care, or belonging becomes the focus of our communities, we elevate people and their needs over the kingdom. In doing so, we create people who begin to believe the purpose of the church is to meet their needs. In essence, we create consumers.
Jesus tells us that we know a tree by its fruit and that a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. If we produce disciples who are navel-gazers or are obsessed with the growth of the church at the expense of the gospel, then the tree is bad. Trying harder won’t make it produce fruit. We need a healthy tree. Every time we elevate the fruit of ministry above the purpose to glorify God, we turn the fruit into an idol….
At the end of the day, our purpose in community is to receive the grace of God and respond by imaging him and lifting up the name of Jesus. [I]f community is about imaging God for his renown and his worship, then community groups must be in the business of creating disciples.
Though many of the themes and ideas in this book are unique to the author’s church and don’t translate directly into confessional Reformed churches, other themes and ideas do. Though I would speak differently of the purpose of corporate, Lord’s Day worship, and would try to better integrate what House envisions for community groups into corporate Lord’s Day observance, I am still grateful for what I’ve learned from this book.
Above all, the unashamedly God-ward and Christ-centered focus of this approach to community is most welcome. Many community “how to” books exist which simply borrow material from market-strategies or consumer-research. House’s theological emphasis, however, give a richness to what he proposes. Though my church will never look like House’s, I believe we can grow as the communion of the saints by thinking along some of the same theological lines that he suggests in this book.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)