For many years on any given Sunday after church, I'd feel like Lisa Simpson, the daughter on the TV sitcom The Simpsons. As the Simpson family opens the door to their home after church, they breathe in deeply and declare Sunday afternoons the best time of the whole week. "It's the longest possible time before more church!" Lisa exclaims.
When I was younger, nothing beat the feeling of freedom as the organ postlude began because nothing was worse than the stifling boredom of my church experience. It was the same every week: get up, argue with my family about going to church, arrive late, doodle on the bulletin for an hour, stand up, sit down, and then shoot out the front door dodging anyone who wanted to "visit" after the service. I put nothing in; I got nothing out. I knew no one. I was very happily a church outsider.
So no one was more surprised than me when, despite years of empty church attendance, I finally had a relationship with God and couldn't get enough church! How did God change my stubborn mind? While he used several influential individuals and teachable moments to cause me to commit my life to him, he brought the real change through a women's small group that I fell into.
To get me into church, all it took was one friend. She was outgoing, interesting, and we liked the same music, so I said yes when she invited me to attend a Super Bowl party. It seemed like a non-threatening and commitment-free event. And while I didn't receive any burning messages from heaven that night, I did enjoy myself and decided to join my friend at her next small-group meeting. The next week I went back. And the week after and the week after. After a few months I couldn't imagine myself not attending. I realized that although I was a Christian in some sense of the word, I lacked a connection to the body of Christ and his community, which left me feeling lonely and defeated. I'd heard about the Acts 2 church—those early Christians who were a tight-knit community and who thrived on service to God through aggressive kindness—but I'd never experienced it. And even if it did sound scary, my heart longed for that kind of connection with other believers.
So I took the risk of doing life together with this small band of believers. And I found community. Here's what else I discovered.
1. Other people are often God's way of helping you recognize and pursue your gifts and passions. Soon after I started attending that small group, the leaders announced a missions trip to the Dominican Republic. I immediately wanted to go simply because I wanted to travel to as many countries as possible. Through my small group's discussion and prayer, however, the leaders helped me identify my delight in international cultures and passion for justice. What began as a pleasure trip turned into a life-altering encounter with God, and I committed my life fully to Christ once and for all in the Dominican Republic. And this wasn't a "mountain-top experience" either: I have since been to more than a dozen countries on missions and poverty-relief trips, several of them as staff. If it wasn't for the prayer and prodding of my small-group friends, who knows if I ever would have viewed missions beyond Christian tourism. They helped me discover why God really put that love of the nations in my personality.
2. God desires us to be real with one another. Every one of us desires to be known for who we truly are—and loved anyway. But it's a risk. In my small group, I often experienced that "holy discomfort" when I felt the nudge to confess something deeper and darker than I'd have liked to admit. Sharing shortcomings and past mistakes was fine—I could appear humble by admitting those. But last year I was pressed to admit something to my group that brought fear to my soul. What if they judged me, shunned me, or kicked me out? I finally admitted that after looking for a new church for two years, I was tired of the whole search. I was disillusioned with all churches everywhere and had grown cynical about the American church's ability to fulfill its biblical mission. Our consumer-driven church is fundamentally headed in the wrong direction, I thought. I was simply too disappointed by the search to continue.
Instead of gasping in horror at my godlessness, my small group listened, prayed, and helped me understand where God was in all of this. Even more remarkable was that I discovered another couple in the group had been feeling the same way. This deepened our friendship even more, and that small group helped me fill the spiritual void during that tough time. It was a safe place to work through those negative emotions.
3. No question is off-limits. Have you ever wanted to stand up during the middle of a pastor's sermon and ask for more clarification on a Scripture passage? Most of us have, but (thankfully) few of us have actually done it. Small groups, on the other hand, are the perfect environment for asking those nagging questions and going on divine tangents. In addition to discussion of Scripture, small groups enlightened me about other theologies and cultural ideas. In that first small group, it came out that one member was a Calvinist. This was my first encounter with the theology of predestination or the Westminster Confession, and it blew my mind. Instead of discussing that night's planned topic, we spent the whole evening thinking through our own beliefs about Reformed theology, and I continued to do a lot more research on the subject. It helped me understand what I believe and why.
4. The way to truly know God's heart and to live biblically is to do life in community. If small groups are all about self-service and feel-good therapy sessions, they're nothing more than social clubs. Contrast that with Micah 6:8, which describes the tasks of Christ-followers: "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (TNIV). These are action words, focused not on puffing ourselves up but reaching out. Successful small groups engage in other areas of church ministry or community service because they are motivated by real encounters with the Living God. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the relationships and maturity I gained in my small groups directly lead me to do everything from clean homeless shelters in Tennessee to sit in on AIDS support groups in South Africa to now working at Christianity Today International.
The vehicle that God has used so many times throughout my life to fill that void of community is a small group of like-minded people simply "doing life together." Spiritual and physical needs can be met, which equip us to go out and share the gospel message with others. This is how the body of Christ is supposed to operate.
Hollie Baker-Lutz is marketing coordinator for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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