One of the five VITAL aspects of church health which will lead to church ReVITALization is Authentic Community. That’s the “A” in VITAL that we teach in our ReVive! workshop. The principle is that there must be genuine love for one another in the church if it is to be healthy and grow. I’ve learned that two of the most basic needs that every human being has are to 1. Be loved, and 2. Belong. And if you think about it, Jesus’ Kingdom, experienced through the local church, provides both these needs.
We all know John 3:16 well which tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” There is no greater affirmation of being loved than that God himself gave his life on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins that we might have a personal relationship with Him forever – especially since we don’t deserve it and can’t earn it. It’s amazing love.
Most of us are probably less familiar with 1 John 3:16 which says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” “Brothers and sisters” makes it clear we belong to God’s family (the church) and in that family, we are to love one another as Christ loves us. That would mean genuine, sacrificial, love for each other.
Simply put, the church is where we put into practice The Great Commandment: to be loved by and love God and to love and be loved by your eternal family. Of course, that love is to spill out into the lost world. Praying for the church that loves God and each other, Jesus prays, “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” (John 17:23 NLT) So, Authentic Community is a vital component to a thriving, revitalized, church.
Okay, you probably already knew we “ought to,” have authentic community, so the real question is “how to?” How can we create an environment where this kind of love for one another is seen? The best answer I know is Small Groups. Sunday morning worship is great but is not enough to create authentic community. Most of the morning the people are facing front and not each other – as it should be for worshiping God! The passing of the peace is good but even for those of you who let it go on waaaay longer than it should (in my humble opinion), at best it doesn’t allow for deep abiding love for one another. A coffee hour or some fellowship between or after worship is important and recommended, especially to welcome and connect with newcomers, but again, it’s not enough to have the kind of love for each other that Jesus’ calls the church to. So, small groups.
I always found the administration of small group ministry to be one of the more challenging aspects of revitalizing the church. We tried and failed and tried again many times to get more members in small groups. However, knowing they are vital to creating authentic community and health in the church, we never quit trying. Although I was never satisfied, we regularly had over 50% of the church active in some mid-week small group.
I’ll write more on small groups in the coming weeks but with Lent coming very quickly I want to encourage you to use this yearly season as a great time to get people into small groups. Seasonal transitions are helpful opportunities to plug people into groups. If people are asked to join a group for a six-week season, they are more likely to give it a try. If they have a positive experience, and you then follow that up after a break during Holy Week with another six weeks of groups during Easter, it might cause people to be willing to keep going with it. I saw that work often. Using seasonal transitions is an excellent way to build small groups in your church.
Much of what I’ve applied about small groups I learned from Steve Gladen who is Pastor of Small Groups at Saddleback Church, which sees over 30,000 people gathering weekly in 5,000 small groups. He’s the founder of SmallGroups.net and travels widely to speak on the topic of small groups and healthy, biblical community. Below are several other times of transition that are conducive to getting people into groups along with my comments. You might want to give these a try.
Significant events: Baptisms, Confirmations, Pre-marital counseling, etc. The church engages with people in all these significant times and we can encourage them to take a step deeper in the faith with groups.
Struggles: Pain motivates people to get connected with other people. Finances, grief, single parenting, blended families, addictions, and many more. Groups can form around these issues. You can also use stage-of-life struggles as an entry door into small groups.
Spiritual steps: People are much more willing to join small groups when they are already making other significant spiritual steps. For example, when someone joins your church, they are obviously in a prime position to join a small group. If you have a new member class, make sure you talk about small groups and offer opportunities for people to join them during the class.
Starts and Stops: Starting up new studies with new curriculum can be a great way to launch new groups (like during Lent), particularly if the new curriculum hits a felt need in your community. I had my most success getting people into groups using various 40 Day campaigns that I either bought or created.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching for the American Anglican Council. Contact Canon Mark at MEldredge@AmericanAnglican.org or go here to learn more about our ReVive! Church Revitalization workshop.