One of the great challenges of the church is how to build community in our individualistic culture. Our culture has increasingly progressed toward individualism in such a way that any effort for collective and communal relationships becomes increasingly difficult. Cultural commentator Mark Sayers said it like this, “We fear commitment and don’t want to be bound, preferring instead to travel relationally light. Thus we have more freedom, but the cost is a sense of lostness, isolation, and an absence of meaning.”1 We don’t want to be tied to anything and choose to go alone instead. Even when people take a step toward community, we tend to play everything close to the vest and never fully engage.
So how do we foster fellowship with strangers who prefer to be strangers? I believe the answer is simple. We all were created for community the same way a seed was created to grow. But both take hard work to get the fruit. The hard work to build community starts with being intentional with a small group of people about who we are, where we are, and where we are going.
WHO WE ARE
Think about your friends from the past. How did you become friends? You shared something in common. There was a tie that bound you together. In every great story of unlikely fellowship, those people came together through some common bond and then were changed by the journey. Some shared experience or moment allows the relationship to grow. The key to growing community starts with connecting this common bond and using that as the foundation to build the structure of a deeper relationship. That is why I am a big proponent of life-stage small groups. It gives people the elemental bond of being able to say to someone else, “You know what it’s like to be me.” I have three kids under eight years old and another on the way. I know that every time I meet people who have three or more kids, I am immediately drawn to them and want to seek wisdom on how best to sneak a nap in and what it looks like to thrive as a parent. This is true of most life stages. We want to be with people in similar situations that we are in. That is the “who we are” part. The next part is where the leader has to dig a little deeper to find out “where we are.”
WHERE WE ARE
When people enter a small group, they bring with them a collection of memories and experiences. They bring their story. In their story, they are all in different places of spiritual growth and maturity. Small groups that are based on similar life stages allow stories of strangers to cross at the place where relationships can flourish. As a group leader, your task is to tie the different narratives together into a shared story. This means helping people discover where they are in their stories, meeting them there, and journeying forward together. When people start to realize that their stories have purpose and that they matter, they begin to invest in knowing more and being more.
WHERE WE ARE GOING
People need vision. They want to know where they are going and if it is compelling enough to invest. But vision isn’t enough on its own. You have to have a strategy on how to get there. What this means in a small group is that once you initially connect on life stage and then excavate stories of where people are, you then have to help them see where the Lord wants to take them and how you are going to help them get there. The goal of a life-stage small group is to help people make sense of their lives (who they are and where they are) and figure out where they are going by the Spirit through Scripture. This is where we all want to go as followers of Christ—to be more like Jesus. Leaders have to help people see that the journey is not about getting to the next life stage; it’s about becoming more like Christ. We are not trying to move from single to married or married without kids to married with kids. We are trying to be more like Jesus in our current life stage, and that will prepare us for the next.
Here are some practical ways to be intentional about who we are, where we are, and where we are going.
- Acknowledge who we are.
Build the initial bonds of community on the shared life stage by simply being together and experiencing life together and then build from it. Our goal is to help people make sense of their life stages while realizing it is only a part of the holistic journey. That means not minimizing it but helping them have a healthy view of what it is. It is the ground but not the ceiling. Deep community starts with a group knowing that they have each other, but that is only the beginning. Once you know you are not alone, you don’t fear finding out where you truly are.
- Guide them to discover where they are.
This is a much harder task for you as the leader, but in the end, you are only helping them see what God is already doing. The best way to do this is to incorporate the habit of daily Bible reading into the group. I know this sounds like an easy answer, but think about it this way: the Bible is a window to view the world, but it is also a mirror to truly see ourselves. Every time you read the Word, you learn more about who you are and more about Christ, who you want to be like. There is no greater practice that God uses to reveal these types of truths to us than through His Word.
PRACTICAL STEP: Choose a reading plan that the group can read together, and use the first few minutes of the group to talk about it together. Ask the question, “What did God teach you about where you are from the reading?”
- Cast a strong vision for where we are going and give the next step to get there.
You want to help your people see what it can look like to be a follower of Christ who is single and flourishing or married and flourishing or [insert any life stage] and flourishing. The best way to do that is to keep the central focus of your group on the awe and beauty of Christ. He is the perfect picture of human flourishing. When we see a clearer picture of who He is, then we see a clearer picture of what flourishing can look like as a single adult, married couple, older adult, and so forth.
PRACTICAL STEP: As you are reading together as a group, ask the question, “What did we learn about God and Jesus from what we read?”
As a group leader, you know this is not an overnight task. This is a journey. God wants to meet you in this. He deeply desires to use you to do this work. It won’t always be easy, but it will always be worth it.
1. Mark Sayers, Strange Days (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017).