Relationship comes down to the depth at which we share our own story.
I was born the son of a seminary student. Two years later I became the son of a preacher man as our family left the confines of Ft. Worth, Texas, to plant a church in the rain of Vancouver, Canada. Late one night a few years later, while the snow was coming down I started asking questions about the Church and about Jesus. Inevitably my parents broke it to me that I was a sinner. That’s pretty heavy to hear when you’re 6 years old, but I think I took it like a champ. That is, until the topic of Satan came up. The moment I found out I could spend eternity with him in hell, I immediately wanted on the Jesus train. The closest image I had of Satan was Darth Vader, and I couldn’t imagine having him breathe down my neck for all eternity. From that point my parents decided to do what loving Christian parents often decide to do, which was homeschool me. What I didn’t know until it was too late was that when you’re homeschooled, you basically become amazing at whatever your mom is good at. I wish my mom had been a wrestler or a wakeboarder, but unfortunately, my mom was amazing at arts and crafts.
So I spent the better part of middle school making wreaths and loving it. I would wander the aisles of craft stores looking for the perfect wooden mallard that I could paint. And when I finally got a pocketknife, the first thing I set out to do was whittle a whole army of disciples carved out of soap. Then, when my parents thought that I was ready to be thrown into the big bad world of high school, they enrolled me in a small private Christian school.
If I were telling you my story like this over coffee, I’d tell you more about the dark days that I’ve known in the last five years. I’d tell you about the season of life where I didn’t know if my wife and I were going to make it. We’d talk about the days I didn’t like the man I was becoming and I felt lost and alone. I’d share about the countless late nights where I wondered if I was actually moving anyone closer to Jesus as a result of being their pastor. But after that, we’d talk about how I found hope as a result of going to counseling. You would be leaning across the table from me asking about what life is like now, and I would tell you that the clouds have lifted. That I’m living days that I never thought I would see. If you asked me about the future, I would say I don’t really know what’s going to happen next. But I do hope that redemption continues to play its song in my soul and that love continues to lead me to becoming the man I was created to be.
I’ve told you a piece of my story because experiencing community hinges on story. Relationship comes down to the depth at which we share our own story and the way in which we respond to hearing the story of another. I believe at the core of my being that community is discovered in the questions we ask one another. Questions that are meant to initiate a response that moves us toward interpreting the activity of God in our lives. I love watching how questions have played a role in the lives of people in Scripture.
In Genesis 16, Hagar is pursued by an angel after fleeing a dicey situation with Abram and Sarai. The angel says, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8, TNIV) The angel knew her face and called her by name, but understood that she had a story that had sent her running into the desert. In that one verse the angel is asking about her past, acknowledging her present and asking about her future. If we were ever able to look outside of Acts 2 to understand true biblical community, we would know how to speak into one another’s lives about where we are running from God. Consider the Garden scene from Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve have fled from God and He calls out to them, “Where are you?” The idea that God pursues us when we are hiding behind our guilt and our shame is the picture of relationship. It calls us to come out from the places where we hide and step into the light of accountability.
I’m also moved by the question Jesus asked of the blind man in Mark 10: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) The idea that the blind man had to admit that he was blind for him to be able to see is such a powerful image of vulnerability that produced the miracle of him receiving his sight. What might we learn about true relationship and community if we asked questions like these of one another?
What’s inspiring for me is that this seems like a good starting place. It feels like the perfect doorway to open and invite others to walk through. Because I see community as a doorway where you are invited in; its very nature should be defined as inclusive. Unfortunately, this kind of experience doesn’t seem available to all. For many, the Church lives on the outskirts of culture with walls too high to climb, and no doorway to be invited into community, if you’re different or new.
Because of the significant oppression of the Israelites from 586 B.C. by the Babylonians all the way up to the Roman occupation of Israel starting in 63 B.C., the people of God had to determine their cultural response to life with people who were different than them. The Essenes were a group of people in the days of Jesus who were so fed up with the culture of Rome and their history of being oppressed that they completely withdrew from society and built their own compound of Jewish community.
This would be an old-school response to modern-day Christians creating their own subculture of exclusion and calling it Christian community. The very thought of Christian community seems to be an oxymoron because it screams of a separated group of people who aren’t living in relationship with the rest of the world. Jesus most definitely took time away from the crowds to spend with His disciples. But what separated Him (and His disciples) from the Essenes is that it seemed to be the exception rather than the rule to huddle up and live life distant from people who were different. Though fragments of the Church have become more commune than community, it isn’t about what we are not—it’s about what we could be. I have so much hope these days as a pastor that people genuinely desire deep and meaningful friendship. We’re living in great days where biblical community is possible.
But the further question I have to wrestle with is, what is my pastoral responsibility in creating and facilitating community? Large group gatherings or worship services are the place where the largest number of people within a church are typically gathered in one place, and yet it’s the least relational experience and environment in a church.
In the church, when things don’t happen organically and naturally, we feel the need to create it organizationally. As an example, small groups are the result of someone looking around and feeling like there is a lack of community happening between people. But we can’t allow our only method of moving people into intentional relationships with one another to be a case of making people dependent on the church. If the church remains responsible as the gatekeepers of community, where everyone is dependent on the church putting them into groups to find relationship, we will never achieve the depth of community we were created for. My hope is that we could model authentic community in a group-life structure that is so meaningful and refreshing that it would help move people to know how to live out all of their relationships. Everything for me as a pastor is about creating environments for the Holy Spirit to move people along in their journey so that they become dependent on the life of God and not the organization of the church.
I like to think of small groups as bicycles. Imagine your first bike, the one that you got for your birthday. The one with training wheels. The one that you rode around the neighborhood on, looking down on all of the others who were still riding tricycles and big wheels. It never occurred to me at the time, but a bike with training wheels is a weird thing. You have a bike, which is meant to be ridden with two wheels, that has these odd attachments that look more like they were crafted for a Boy Scout boxcar than a bicycle. The way I see it, small groups are training wheels for community. My hope and dream is to one day be a part of a community where we can take the training wheels off and ride the bike the way it was intended. Imagine an environment where friendships are deeply spiritual and challenging, authentic and inclusive, inspiring and intentional—because that is the way of the people. I believe small groups are the vehicle, not the destination, of biblical community.
Last night I was up late into the early morning hours with my leadership team trying to rebuild the doorway of community for our ministry. We began the night looking at John 15, reminded that we are not the vine. That the true vine we are ultimately seeking to connect people to is Jesus Himself and not a church or organizational structure. We’re moved by the work of God when relationships are stirred by significant questions that result in changed lives drawing upon life from the one true vine.
May we be moved by the stories of one another. May we be inspired to ask the right questions. May we be discerning in connecting the stories of our people to the story of God. May we ultimately become explorers of friendship and community in a way that blurs the line between who is an insider and who is an outsider. May we all live to see the day where the training wheels come off.