Disclaimer: My journey with different community groups over the last decade has not been all bad. In fact, little of it has been bad. It’s been pleasant for the most part. But in the last few years, especially the college ones, I’ve grown more and more averse to the trendy-Christian query of, “Are you involved in a small group?”
For the most part, I find them to be counter intuitively falling short of their declared intention of being a safe space to find fellowship with other Believers. I’ve expressed this to a few other Christians in my life, and the response is either one of resounding agreement or pure shock at my tenacity for acting as if this aspect of Christian life is not integral for my salvation. Because it’s become so frequently publicized from the pulpit, often talked about more than communion or other practices of the original Church, the majority of church-goers seem convinced that being “actively involved” in a community/small group is not merely a suggestion. but a necessity.
I think the there are a few reasons for its budding popularity in recent decades. For one, the growth of mega churches whose weekly attendance is somewhere in the thousands does make it more difficult for attendees to find friends in the Sunday morning crowds. Secondly, the trendy branding of church and everything around it including the creation of a Christianese language has made far too many Believers buy into the marketing that “doing life” and “loving oh so well,” are real and normal things to be attained. And how have we been striving to attain the trendy, Instagram-worthy Christian life that includes posting pictures with your small group leader who is the same age as you but apparently has much more wisdom to bestow than you ever could? By succumbing to every requirement of keeping up with the times and, in turn, imposing more legalistic obligations on ourselves; and that includes the mandatory-ness with which we treat community groups.
While I can’t speak for everyone who has ever been part of a community/small group, and I know that my conclusions may be strange to some, I think they are worth sharing. Not because my personal experiences are truth, but because I find that when I share these thoughts with others, they feel more free to admit that they don’t like/don’t fit in to the new mold of church life that trendy Christianity has formed.
1. The Setup is Inorganic
Think about it. Community groups are generally a conglomeration of people from a church that is simply too large for people to easily get to know one another on Sunday mornings without smaller, more intimate settings being facilitated for them. They are then generally split up based on categories ranging from gender, to marital status, to age, or maybe a combination of all three. From there, this newly formed group is expected to make “real fellowship” happen by sharing struggles, receiving prayer and encouragement, and challenging one another with biblical insights. The theme? Vulnerability. If the phrase “doing life” has any actual meaning, I assume it would look like a vulnerable small group. But why haven’t more people realized how backwards this setup is? I’ve often drifted away from small groups because the conversation is stale, surface level, and far from authentic. People rarely share what’s truly going on, and crinkle up their nose in awkward confusion when someone opens up. It occurred to me finally when I was wondering why this staleness is so common that I don’t want to be vulnerable with these people either. Why? Because I don’t know them! Being thrust together in a group based on the aforementioned factors while then being directed to be immediately authentic is not how any real relationships form. Relationship comes first, then the trust. No wonder community groups often feel forced and plastic. The attendees show up week after week expecting their Christian cup to overflow by meeting this obligation they’ve been convinced will be beneficial to their spiritual walk and instead walk away having learned nothing new or grown closer to the people within it.
2. Nobody is Vulnerable
Because the setup is inorganic, people do not want to truly share what’s going on. I don’t blame them for that; neither do I. For me, guarding my heart is not simply keeping out the bad. It’s also not sharing the good with those who can’t be trusted. And in a community group that I’ve joined simply because the people in it are my same age or gender, there is no foundation of trust. There should be implicit trust among the body of Believers, but sadly, myself and many others have been burned by choosing to share our true selves. And if we can’t be vulnerable in a small group of Believers, we are either going to seek it outside of the church or leave the church altogether.
3. Its Contents are as Plastic as its Setup
Again, simply speaking from my personal experience of not bad community groups but mediocre/pointless community groups, the conversation and contents of these get-togethers reflect the legalistic doing model they were formed on. The concept of community groups has become an obligation rather than a suggestion. Christians now assume that every good church-goer must be actively involved in these groups, or better still, a leader of one. Believers both new and seasoned have recoiled in horror by my saying that I do not attend a community group. I’m not sure at what point along the way we started treating this 21st century phenomenon as a mandate from God, but as soon as it became seen that way, the gatherings of community groups became equally forced. As a result, whether they realize it or not, many community group goers discuss not what they are truly thinking and feeling but the things they think they should think and feel. The common format of meeting together to discuss a particular portion of Scripture or a chapter of a Bob Goff book facilitates a limited parameter of what can and cannot be broached. More often that not, attendees, either subconsciously or consciously attend and interact in these groups with the goal of appearing spiritual. It’s a practice usually enforced to please man and not God. My attendance to community groups began trickling away and finally diminished altogether when I realized my soul was never re-charged and my convictions were never challenged. Instead, I left feeling drained. And anyone will only feel fulfilled by something for a finite amount of time if they are doing it because man has prescribed it to complete their package of a perfect Christian walk and not because it gets them closer to the heart of God.
4. What’s the Point?
Trendy Christians say the point is to “be in community” with other Believers as the Bible admittedly does advise us to do. Okay, I always think. I have that. The vast majority of my friends are Believers. They range from new, to seasoned, to questioning, to rocky, to firm, to faithful Christians. The ones I have chosen to share my heart with are ones well worth the vulnerability. They are highly symbiotic relationships of mutual trust, mutual sharing, and mutual challenging. When I look around at my circles of friendship both near and distant I think, isn’t this community? Having friends I can call on for laughter-filled fellowship, tearful talks, and honesty hour at any time of day or in any phase of life, what is more reflective of community than that?! With great gratitude for these people in my life I always think of the friendship between David and Jonathan and the verse which says, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” I am richly blessed and emotionally thankful to have this community in my life. This community that stemmed from building relationships on the trust that we are all Believers who both sympathize with and challenge one another. A few months ago I visited a church and got caught up talking to a girl who was bubbly, funny, and kind. We seemed to be vibing. Then, she invited me to her community group. In perfect honesty, I replied, “You know, I think I’m done going to community groups for now.” The tone of our conversation quickly switched from one of joy-filled welcoming to shocked judgement. The confusion on her face was readily apparent. Whether she reacted that way because my response was unexpected or because she was concerned for my soul in that moment, it was a perfect representation of the “you need to be in a community group” brainwashing the trendy modern church has succumbed to. Her response showed it has become more normal than not to be enrolled in these groups. I was the outsider. She was surprised at my status as a Christian not involved in community group. All of this is indicative of an epidemic the modern church has fallen prey to of subscribing to practices rather than accepting the point of the practice as sufficient to growing in one’s faith.
In high school and middle school, I recall being part of many enriching small groups that formed some lifelong friendships. But somewhere along the way, as megachurch trendy Christianity became more mainstream and Believers got older, finding community in these environments became difficult and draining. I am open to re-joining these types of groups in the future because I know the point and not the practice is what’s important. For now, I am content, fulfilled, and secure to enjoy and pour into the community I find from different facets of my life. I’m so incredibly thankful.
I’m curious, what has your journey with community groups been like? Do you have experience with it at all? Why or why not?
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. – Matthew 6:33
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