Life + Culture

Let Your Dream Small Group Die: Five Ways to Meaningful Community

Let Your Dream Small Group Die

You don’t have to be a Christian long to feel disappointed by Christian community.

Our high expectations are understandable. The church is the body and bride of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23; 5:25–27), heaven’s earthly outpost (1 Peter 2:9), God’s cosmic stage for showcasing his wisdom (Ephesians 3:10). But when we look at our own community — our local church or small group — the reality can seem to fall so short. We expected the friendships would be deeper. We hoped the people would be more welcoming. We thought the pastor would remember our name.

Sometimes, to be sure, we feel disappointed with our community because something is fundamentally wrong. We attached ourselves to a sick body, and then we caught the virus. Now, it’s time for us to recover somewhere else. But often, my own disappointments with Christian community have sprung from my unrealistic expectations. I walked into a church expecting to find an unblemished bride, and instead I found a wife-in-progress.

Jesus’s Bride-to-Be

Some of us take our community’s flaws as a license to flee. We flit from church to church, small group to small group, in search of a bride with fewer blemishes. Others of us may stay with our communities, but we’ve traded warm affection for mere tolerance, like a spouse whose love has cooled.

God has a harder but happier way forward for us when we feel disappointed by our community: we honestly admit our grievances, acknowledge our own deep flaws, and let our dream community die. Then, with a dose of hopeful realism, we labor to love the real community God has given us. We join Jesus as he removes every spot and wrinkle from his bride-to-be (Ephesians 5:27).

In my own small-group life, I have needed consistent reminders to reform my faulty expectations and send me back to my group with fresh resolves for good. And that’s what the apostle Peter gave me recently with these five callings to every member of a flawed community: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).

1. Lay Aside Personal Preferences

The first quality Peter lists is unity of mind. As much as possible, Peter says, the members of this patchwork called the church should share the same mind and attitude. Despite all their differences of culture and personality, they should carry the same vision into their gatherings each week.

As we think of the people in our small groups, the call to have unity of mind may sound like telling a field of wildflowers to all be yellow. How does a hipster college student have unity of mind with a middle-aged mechanic? How does an older black woman from south Chicago have unity of mind with a teenage boy from the white suburbs?

We can have unity of mind with one another because we have all been captured by Jesus Christ. Our communities, diverse as they often are, have one identity: sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11). We have one calling: proclaim God’s excellencies (1 Peter 2:9). And we have one grand ambition: to so speak and act that “in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). Every small group is a family of exiles who live for heaven’s King.

Often, disappointment settles over us because we have lost sight of this controlling vision and have smuggled in our own. So we begin to evaluate our small group based on how well it meets our perceived needs rather than how well it glorifies Christ, and we inevitably walk away feeling neglected. But as we remind ourselves of God’s vision for our community, we will lay aside a host of personal preferences in order to glorify him with one voice.

2. Enter the Emotions of Others

Second, Peter tells the church to show sympathy toward one another. Contrary to some modern definitions, biblical sympathy is not detached or merely cerebral. Sympathy is the ability to enter another’s emotional house, make your way to the living room, and sit with them for a while in their joys or sorrows.

Sympathy is what the Lord Jesus feels toward his people’s weaknesses, and what fellow Christians should feel when they see a brother or sister in prison (Hebrews 4:15; 10:34). In both cases, sympathy stirs up the emotions so powerfully that action follows: Jesus gives his tempted people mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16), and fellow Christians gladly associate with their imprisoned friends (Hebrews 10:34). Sympathy moves us to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, and then do what we can to soothe the sorrow or swell the joy (Romans 12:15).

Deep, sincere sympathy does not come naturally to most of us. We may listen for a time to someone’s story of sorrow or joy, but seldom do we linger there, put aside the impulse to tell our own tale, and allow their emotions to sink down into our own. Such tender care comes from God himself as he shapes us into Jesus’s image. As he does, we will gather more often with our communities on the lookout for people to listen to, and we will find that it is more blessed to show sympathy than to receive it (Acts 20:35).

3. Treat the Church Like Your Family

Next, Peter tells his readers to embrace brotherly love. The first-century world restricted the term brotherly love to blood relatives. But here, Peter takes that family affection and applies it to God’s family — all those who have been “born again to a living hope” and now have the same Father (1 Peter 1:3).

As with our biological families, we don’t get to choose the members of God’s family. God just welcomes us into this wonderful, unusual, and sometimes frustrating collection of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children, and then tells each of us, “Love each other.” Apart from the blood of Jesus that binds us together, many of us have little in common. But these are our family members, and like Jesus, we should not be ashamed to call any one of them brother (Hebrews 2:11).

Brotherly love, like all family love, will hurt. These family members will annoy us, offend us, and even wound us deeply. We will feel tempted at times to find a more normal family, one more like us. But precisely at that point, we have the opportunity to press into the glory of brotherly love — a love that stretches across seemingly insurmountable differences for Jesus’s sake, and finds on the other side a richer affection than any we could have formed in an affinity group. We were born again for this kind of love (1 Peter 1:22).

4. Move Toward the Hurting

The fourth quality Peter lists is tenderheartedness. Similar to sympathy, tenderheartedness is sensitive to others’ emotions. The tenderhearted are willing to put their own lives on pause while they enter into another’s emotions and linger there for a while. But more specifically than sympathy, the tenderhearted are particularly touched by pain.

When the tenderhearted meet the pain of suffering, they extend mercy, as when Jesus “had compassion” (the same word for tenderheartedness) on the harassed, the helpless, the hungry, and the sick (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Luke 7:13).

And when the tenderhearted meet the pain of sin, they extend forgiveness. Keenly aware of their own failings, these people are “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). You don’t have to take a battering ram to reach the compassion of the tenderhearted; a slight touch of another’s pain will prick them.

Many of our small groups include people who carry two tons of sorrow on their shoulders. Bent down beneath their own pain, they can appear cold, aloof, and anti-social. We can wonder why they aren’t more friendly and welcoming, not realizing that they lack the strength to move toward us. As our hearts grow more tender, we will feel less disappointed with these bruised reeds, and more prone to move toward them, praying that God would use us to bind them up.

5. Go Low to Lift Others Up

Finally, Peter tells the church to adopt a humble mind. Humility was a despised quality in the Greco-Roman world, the lot of slaves rather than self-respecting citizens. But Jesus Christ — the King who carried a cross — shows us a new way to be human. We go low to lift others up.

When Christians walk into our communities, we should want humility to be as characteristic as the clothes we wear (1 Peter 5:5). We believe the best about each other. We are slow to speak and quick to listen. We are more ready to cover over a sin than to expose it. We dream of how we might do our brothers and sisters good. We hold our rights loosely. And we never think anyone is too low for us to love, serve, and honor.

The people we go low for may be no one special in the world’s eyes; they may be weak, awkward, and poor — perhaps just like us. But if we will go low for them, God can give us glimpses of who they really are: Jesus’s beloved sheep, God’s own possession, heirs of the grace of life (1 Peter 2:9, 25; 3:7). One day soon, God himself will lift them up to become something new, something resplendent, something beautiful beyond imagination (1 Peter 5:6, 10).

These are the people in our community. They may disappoint us at times now, but they are destined for glory. And we have the privilege of helping them get there.

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