Growing up, I had friends who I liked being with. In elementary school, it was Mitch, who shared my passion for sports. When I was in middle school, I hung out with my basketball team. In high school, I dated Emily, who is now my wife. When I was in college, it was the guys in my dorm. After college, I built friendships with people I either worked with or volunteered with. And later, my friends were the people on my staff team.
I’m sharing these life snippets to prove I’m capable of making friends without the church’s help. Because of that, I’ve always been intrigued by the church’s apparent need to organize friendships. In every other area of our lives, we find friends just fine. But when it comes to church, we think the church needs to find us a friend. Churches organize Sunday school classes, small groups and various ministries. We create events and gatherings to help Christians meet fellow Christians. In the end, people eat, sleep, parent, work and meet with other Christians multiple times each week. That becomes the model for living out our faith, but we’ve unintentionally made people reliant on the church for putting them in relationships and for “growing them” in their faith. We’ve also pulled people into relationships with other Christians at the expense of their friends who need Jesus.
Isn’t it odd? Most people are very capable of finding friends outside the church. If the church created the right framework for relationships to happen, would people find their own friends? If we create the right environments, will people take that step on their own?
What would happen if we put less attention on organizing relationships and more attention on something people will organize around? For example, what if we focused on serving opportunities? Would people naturally gather around those initiatives to serve others? What if we focused on the content we were generating to help people better understand the Bible and its life-application? Would people naturally organize around that content for conversations together? And what if we embraced social networking to encourage people to find their own friends … like they’re already doing? Would people initiate their own relational connections?
I’m not recommending churches completely eliminate small groups. There are times when small groups can provide a healthy environment for spiritual growth, particularly for new believers. And there are instances when people gather around a topic for growth or support in a particular season of life.
Generally speaking, Christ-followers (and therefore churches) may be healthier if people were connected in serving roles rather than in small groups. People would still get into relationships with other believers, but it would be in the context of serving others. People would have a built-in affinity by serving on the same team with other believers who share their gifts and passions.
Additionally, serving groups would provide a natural leadership and accountability structure since most churches already have the leadership structure to support serving teams. Finally, they offer a place for people who are more mature in their faith to encourage others.
The push-back is that, for many churches, small groups are the primary way churches care for their people. When tragedy strikes or challenges arise, the small group is the first place people turn to for support. However, I’ve seen the same thing happen with serving teams. If ministry teams are effective in both carrying out tasks and building relationships, then those teammates will be the first to respond.
Another argument for small groups is that they’re a critical environment for helping people study the Bible. This could be true for new believers. Generally speaking, though, people tend to rely on Sunday’s teaching when they really need encouragement and training to study the Bible on their own. Then, beyond that, people should implement the principles they’re reading about in Scripture. Rather than just absorbing knowledge, people need to be impacting the lives of others. Part of that may be in serving and part of that may be in discipling other believers. That means the church must be intentional about helping people fulfill the Great Commission. Rather than the church organizing people into discipleship relationships, people need to embrace their calling to disciple other believers.
Whether it’s encouraging people to move into serving roles or discipling other believers, it’s our calling as pastors and teachers. Paul said, “our responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, NLT). What if we focused more on equipping people to fulfill that purpose?
We must decentralize the way people connect relationally while keeping the Gospel and a biblical leadership structure central to how we organize as churches. When people have the freedom to gather in community without relying on the church to place them, that’s when the Gospel will spread like a virus. When people can focus less on the church serving them and more on being the Church, then transformation will take place.
It’s clear God designed us for community. We need the encouragement, accountability and support of other people in our lives. We need to share life with others. The question isn’t whether we need community—it’s whether the church needs to help people find community.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Neue.