For as long as there has been a church, God’s people have gathered in multiple ways—both in large groups numbering in the thousands and in groups small enough to be counted on one hand. The vast majority of those reading this gather together on Sunday mornings to worship Jesus as part of their larger church community. They also, likely, gather together in smaller groups throughout the week.
These smaller gatherings run under different names: In some churches, they’re called small groups. In others, they’re called Bible studies. Others still call them everything things like fellowship groups, life groups, home groups, or community groups. And more often than not, these names are seen as entirely interchangeable, though they may function very differently.
I’ve been a part of some groups where the focus has been clearly on working our way through a book of the Bible. They were a proper Bible study group. Others have been far more oriented toward fellowship—building relationships with one another than any sort of intentional discipleship.
And then there’s the kind of group I’m a part of now. I’m a community group leader at my church. I started leading my group midway through the pandemic, which gave me a lot of time to consider the purpose of these types of groups.
How do they add to our worship of Jesus? How do they assist in fulfilling our mission as a church? Are they gatherings for fellowship and building relationships? Are they Bible studies? Or are they something else altogether?
To avoid burying the lede, I do believe that community groups are something different in function and value from a Bible study and a fellowship group. They’re incredibly valuable to our mission of making disciples. But before I define what I see a community group as being, let’s consider what a community group is not.
A community group is not focused primarily on friendship.
As beings made in God’s image, we are social creatures by nature (Gen. 2:4-25). We cannot not exist outside of community, regardless of the size or sort of that community. Humans develop communities based on affinity (shared interests and experiences) as well as proximity (in our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods). The church is where, in theory, both of those come together: our affinity for Jesus and proximity to one another lead us to become a community, an expression of the local church.
But a local church is not a social gathering like a rotary club or anything like that. It is a gathering of people celebrating the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. And community groups, likewise, are not a social gathering. While they are a place where relationships, friendships, develop, community groups are not a place where we are simply developing friendships. Our relationships are the fruit of our shared commitment to the gospel.
Community groups not Bible studies.
Christians love the Bible. There is no book more important to our lives than this one. This is why it plays such a key role in so much of our lives and our worship. But community groups are not Bible studies. They are not the place where we systematically explore books of the Bible, even as the Bible plays an active role in discussion. Community groups are a place where we bring the Bible to bear on our lives, applying truth of God’s Word to our particular situations. It grounds our conversations and serves as our ultimate source of truth, wisdom, and guidance.
A community group is a practical expression of gospel culture.
So if community groups are not social gatherings, and they are not Bible studies, what are they? Community groups are a practical expression of gospel culture. They are place where the rubber of gospel, safety, and time meets the road of real life, as we live out our mission of making disciple-making disciples. (Read about the ingredients of gospel culture here.)
Community groups are places to experience the fruit of the gospel
John Calvin and his contemporaries in the Reformation said that salvation comes through faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. Saving faith leads to a changed life. We see that change happen in the context of community. In community we have the opportunity to put our gifts to work for the good of others and the glory of God. We get to encourage and build up others in their faith, sharing words of encouragement and offering correction where needed—and we get to experience the same as well.
Community groups are places to experience safety.
Safety comes as we develop trust for one another. Therefore, part of our commitment as community group members is that what is said within the group stays within it. Discussions in community groups are, within certain limitations, confidential conversations.1 They are a place for us to safely confess sin and struggle, to share our doubts and fears, our joys and triumphs, without concern of judgment or gossip.
Community groups are places that give time to grow.
The gospel changes us in the context of community, which requires time. Time to develop trust. To foster the sense of safety that is needed for us to be appropriately vulnerable, to reveal our struggles and weaknesses, and to share where we see God at work in and through us. That means that we need to foster patience, that most difficult virtue, in ourselves and others. Grace doesn’t have a time table. It doesn’t have an expiry date. So we need to let people to take the time they need. We don’t want to rush them to be open in a way they may not prepared to be yet. Instead, we can model and pray for the openness we hope all will embrace, trusting that God will, in time, help them to do so.
- Confidentiality does not apply to the disclosure of criminal activity, abuse, and other serious issues that require the involvement of the elders and/or law enforcement.