"When he had said this he knelt down with them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him." (Acts 20:36-37)
In Acts chapter 20, as Paul is bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, there is an intense display of love and intimacy. When it became clear that the elders would never see him again, they were moved to the point of weeping. Paul and the elders prayed together. The elders embraced him and kissed him.
Does this sound foreign to you? Does this kind of connection with others, even in the church, sound impossible? Would you be shocked if this same kind of thing happened as you were leaving your small group to move to another city? Do you feel like you wish you could leave your small group - not because you are moving - but just because you wanted to sit at home and watch TV? Do you feel like there is no real communion with others in your group anyway?
Yesterday I began to write about disillusionment with the church. If you have not yet read that post, I recommend you start with it (Disillusioned with Church) and then come back and read this follow-up. Today I wish to take up the topic again, and consider the second major concern I mentioned in the first post: "There is a lack of true community at church. Even small group meetings (intended to build fellowship) are frustratingly shallow. There is no actually deep, human connection taking place. Moreover, service done on behalf of the church (even service done intended to help others in the church) feels trite and lacks meaning."
Sadly, my personal experience is that this concern is often justified. The kind of intense care that Paul enjoyed from the elders is hardly present in many of our churches. The Body of Christ seems like it could hardly be classified in the category of "friendship," much less "family." One often thinks, "This simply does not come close to meeting my needs!"
Today I suggest to you that there are two reasons why we may feel this way. One is good, the other is bad. Let's start with the bad.
There are two sides of "the bad." Let us think of them as the head and tail of the same bad coin. If I do not address your concerns in the head, perhaps I will in the tail. The head of the coin desires a direct intimacy with others, having little (or only incidental) connection through Christ. The tail desires fun, with little or no acknowledgement of a need for an emotional connection. Both are wrong.
Contrary to convention - tails first: I think one of the reasons that we feel like our needs are not being met is because we have expected our small groups to do something that they were not meant to do. We want them to serve as a place where we can find others with common interests. We basically wish for our groups to be "social clubs."
Perhaps you would say to me, "Seth - I feel disenfranchised with church, even small groups, because getting together with other people when Jesus is the only thing we have in common doesn't cut it. I want to have fun. I need people that I can relax with. If all we can talk about is Jesus, well, then that just isn't enough to make me want to get involved." Or you might say, "I feel frustrated with my small group. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the people. But I wish we could shake the pretense. It is really a book study - and no one is reading the book seriously. But we feel like we have to at least discuss it briefly. Why not admit that none of us are reading and that we just want to hang out with each other? I could get on board with that."
Social clubs are good. Book clubs, and dinner clubs, and support groups, and kickball teams, and block parties are all fine. But when the sort of connection we are seeking is primarily comradeship and human friendship we are not looking for something the Church was intended to give us. And, church groups that refuse to give us such a thing are quite right to do so. It would be better to just join a club apart from the church, rather than turn the church into a place that is supposed to provide this kind of connection.
I am reminded of a group I was a part of in Boston. It was sponsored by a megachurch that in my opinion was a truly excellent house of worship. I still look back on my time there with great fondness and admiration for the leadership. But, it became known in Boston that one of the best ways to meet women was to go to this group. It was a dating hub. There isn't anything wrong with this of course. But, to the extent that it was one's intention to "go to church to meet women" - well - meeting Jesus there would have been an accident, or at best a side bonus.
No - the Church was not meant to be a dating platform, or a venue to find the club that is right for you, or a place to make golfing buddies. We are wrong to go to church in hopes of finding such a thing. Frankly, local churches should guard themselves vigilantly lest groups intended to foster "The Communion of Saints" end up becoming common interest societies.
Now let us look at the head of the coin. There are those among us who are seeking something more - and we know it. Yard games, and potlucks, and movie nights...and book clubs and even shallow Bible studies...simply won't do. We really do want a deep connection with others. We are the "NF" types - and we want intimacy. But, it is not the sort of intimacy that is provided in Christ. Oftentimes we have confused an "enmeshment of soul" with Christian fellowship.
And so - we look to our groups to be counseling sessions. Or we expect them to be places that will meet our deep emotional needs. When those in the group fail us, rebuke us (whether rightly or wrongly), and don't return our enthusiasm for relationship we are hurt and turn bitter. For, what we were seeking is human affirmation, not Divine communion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this as an evil in his time. He thought that it greatly jeopardized real Christian intimacy. In "Life Together" he asserted that authentic Christian community must be "through and in Jesus Christ." He saw that many wanted an emotionally charged relationship with others, and that they were looking to the church to get it. They quickly became disillusioned. But, far from thinking their disillusionment bad, Bonhoeffer wrote, "God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community."
Furthermore, Bonhoeffer saw this other side of the coin as a threat to true Christian fellowship because it was really a desire for interhuman connection. He wrote, "The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. The basis of all human reality is the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind. The basis of the community of the Spirit is truth; the basis of human community of spirit is desire. (...) Within the spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any 'immediate' relationship of one to another, whereas human community expresses a profound, elemental, human desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flesh there is the urge for physical merger with other flesh." Bonhoeffer warned that this was alien to Christ. Our real connection with one another is in, and by, and for Jesus. In real Christian community we love one another through Him, and not apart from Him. With this sort of love we can survive any number of emotional disappointments - for it was not emotional satisfaction we were primarily seeking in the first place!
So, the first reason for our disillusionment with small groups is a bad one. We are seeking from the church something it was not meant to give us. Jesus did not come to found social clubs, or to give us intense emotional relationships with one another, apart from Him. He came to found the Church - and in the Church to give us the "Communion of Saints."
What if we should go to church one Sunday and walk down to receive the sacrament? What if our expectation was that we would get a full blown meal of chicken and chips? What if we wanted a caffe latte instead of the cup of Christ? Well - there is nothing wrong with chicken and chips, or with caffe lattes. But, we will be quite disappointed when we are handed the elements. For what we ought to be given at the Lord's Table is the Body and Blood of Christ. Chicken, chips, and fancy coffee drinks are not more than this - but far less. We ought to be coming to the table to nourish our souls. And frankly - we should be rebuked for not discerning the body and blood of the Lord if we expect something else. The minister giving us the elements ought to say, "Be careful - lest you become sick by taking that which was meant to make you well."
And yet we so often go to our small groups with wrong motives, for wrong reasons, and with false expectations. We go not for "The Body of Christ" and "The Communion of Saints" - but for altogether other purposes. Let us then be disillusioned. And I agree with Bonhoeffer - the faster the better!
But, there is another reason why we might be disillusioned. It is the good reason. It is because we recognize that the right purposes for which such groups exist have been forfeited in exchange for counterfeits.
I began this post by looking at Paul's intimacy with the Ephesian elders. How did they get there? What fostered such a true, pure spiritual bond?
The beginning chapters of Acts are instructive. There we learn what the original small groups of the church used to do. In Acts 2 the church added 3,000 people. Therefore, the tight-knit intimacy the Church used to enjoy could only continue if it met in smaller units.
Acts 2 says, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (...) Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:42-46, NIV). The Church continued to meet in the Temple as a large group (apparently on a daily basis). The Temple grounds provided an appropriate meeting place for thousands. (So much for those who don't believe churches should ever be large). But, the sense of community was fostered by the groups that met in one another's homes.
Note the essential elements: The apostle's teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. Most of these are self-explanatory. So, I will only break apart the word "fellowship." It is the Greek word koinonia. I think that it is the mysterious something that we at least ought to be seeking in our small groups.
Koinonia does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the context of true teaching, and of breaking of bread (i.e. family-like meals together), and prayer. But, it is a distinct element - not to be equated with the others.
What is it? What is this koinonia to which the original church was "devoted." It means "sharing things in common." It means "we are together in this." It means, "I have your back - and if your life falls apart I will be there for you to help you pick up the pieces." It means, "I'll pray for you to help you overcome this struggle." It means, "If you need some money to get through a hard time, count me in." It means, "If your husband cheats, or leaves you, you have a place where you are still loved and you still belong. This is your family - in a very real sense of the word."
The same root word is used in I John: "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship (koinonian) with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His son, purifies us from all sin" (I John 1:7, NIV). The idea is that our small groups are to be a safe place to come and deal with our sins. They are to be a place where we can stop walking in darkness. They are to provide us with a venue for making a relationship where we can confess our sins one to another (i.e. bring them into the light of Christ). And there - in this fellowship - we can experience the purification of our sins through the blood of Jesus.
So what are we to do? How can we meet the real needs of our spiritual lives in our small groups? Let us put off the bad reasons and put on the ones for which small groups began meeting in the first place. Let us ensure that we reflect on the Apostle's teachings in our groups, and that we earnestly pray together, and that we enjoy family-like meals with one another. And, in this context, let us embrace koinonia - a relationship with one another that causes us to encounter Christ in deeper ways than we ever could alone. Let our service in these groups be not for ourselves - but truly to help others to find the Savior. Let us return to "The Communion of Saints" - and forget about "common interests." In this way perhaps we will find the kind of connection that those of us who belong to Jesus are ultimately seeking with one another in our mutual pursuit of Him.