In his most recent book, What Makes Us Tick?, Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay observes that “from the family to the workplace, from the school gate to the local coffee shop or pub, and from religious, political or sporting affiliations to friendship circles, both online and offline, we are as socially interdependent as ever. Our default position, as humans, is together, even for those of us who cherish time alone … We need to belong.” He goes on to say that “this desire to belong drives our attachment to two kinds of groups: herds and tribes … The herd, typically comprising seven or eight people linked by friendship, a common interest or purpose – nurtures our confidence and self-respect, and wraps us in the kind of security blanket only membership of a small group can provide. The tribe gives us a larger-scaled, more corporate, more public – and sometimes noisier and more passionate – sense of identity and belonging.” As followers of Christ, we believe that this desire to belong was placed in the human heart by God. It is a reflection of the image and nature of God, who is a community of three persons living in loving relationship to such a degree that they are truly ONE. God IS love and we were created just like him – to love and be loved; to belong … somewhere.
There are many ways and place in which we can experience a sense of belonging, such as our family, with our friends, and in various groups we are a part of. One of the most important groups God calls us to be a part of and to belong to is the church. The church is the one thing Jesus said he would build (Matt.16:16-18). It is a community of people called together for a common purpose. Being a disciple of Jesus means entering a relationship with God and then becoming a member of his family, where we do life together with other brothers and sisters in Christ. Church is NOT primarily a place you ‘go to’ or an organisation you join. It is a family you become a ‘part of’ and ‘belong to’ (read Acts 2:37-47).
A Program Shift
Back in 1995, I was inspired about the need for churches to embark on a “program shift” – a shift from events to relationships. People need to belong not just believe. Rather than sitting in a large church gathering a few times each week (in rows), it's better for people to attend ONE weekend church meeting, be involved in ONE small group (sitting in a circle), and then serve somewhere. I believe that this approach, along with personal devotional time, positions a person for growth in Christ. After all, THE mark of a mature church is LOVE (John 13:34-35), something that cannot best be experienced in crowds of people.
God desires that we experience meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging, especially in a world increasingly characterised by individualism, loneliness and isolation. In a large church, the best environment for this to occur is within a small group. That’s why healthy churches have adopted some kind of small group strategy. Of course, merely gathering a few people together doesn’t guarantee close relationships or a sense of belonging. There are some factors that are vital for genuine community to become a reality for any group – whether that be a small group, a family or a work team.
1. GIVE something to your group. Approach your group with the intention of ‘giving’ something to the group rather than just being focused on ‘getting’ something out of it. This is a kingdom principle taught by Jesus who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).” Our life is most full and most joyful when we are busy being a blessing to other people rather than when we are totally centred and focused on our own needs. Any group made up of individuals who are simply in the group for what they can get out of it are bound to become dysfunctional. We need to embrace kingdom values – it’s in giving that we receive (Luke 6:38). Commit to making a contribution to your group.
2. RESPOND to the needs of others. The apostle Paul tells us, “Don’t look only for our own interests, but take an interest in others too” (Phil.2:4). The overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament teaching about church community is a mutual responsibility between believers to look out for “one another” and then respond to one another’s needs. Great groups are not made up of a leader who is desperately trying to pull everyone along to a meeting and then trying to meet all their needs. They are a place of mutual friendship where the entire group is committed to each other. This requires that we look and listen to those around us, being attentive to what is happening in their lives. See a need and then do your best to meet it or at least be a support to them.
3. OPEN your life to others. The level of intimacy or closeness in any relationship or group is directly related to the level of openness. Paul modelled a life of transparency and authenticity (see 2 Cor.6:11), continually being open and real about his struggles and the challenges he was facing (see 2 Cor.4:8-9, 16-18; 6:3-10; 7:5-6; 11:23-29; 12:7-10. 2 Tim.3:10-12), and Jesus did the same (Matt.26:36-38). Share how you are really doing (Jas.5:16). Our need is often a gift to someone else who may find joy in meeting that need or at least helping us through. Obviously, there are levels and degrees of openness and we need to discern what is appropriate in each relationship. Greater openness should only occur where we feel ‘safe’ and where we have established ‘trust’ with other people.
4. UNDERSTAND that relationships are essential to personal growth. Life change takes place best in the context of relationships. Character qualities such as patience, kindness and forgiveness are best developed in real life interaction with others. It is in the very process of doing life with other people that we grow and mature. Even a challenging relationship can be powerfully transforming (Prov.27:17). Every group has people who are different than you. These kinds of relationships provide the opportunity for us to grow. They draw us out of our comfort zones and stretch our loving capacity.
5. PLANT your life in the soil of God’s love. Groups are imperfect, as are the people in them. If we don’t recognise this reality, we can set ourselves up for disappointment. Don't put too much pressure on any one group to meet every need in your life. Ultimately, we need to build our lives on God’s love. His love provides us with acceptance, security, significance and value (Eph.3:14-21). God desires us to be rooted and established on his love – not our performance or people’s opinions of us.
Everyone wants to belong. Church is a family where people can experience meaningful relationships. Each one of us contributes to that becoming a reality. Small groups have the potential to be a place of loving relationships characterised by care, discipleship, ministry and outreach. Let’s work together to create environments where the Holy Spirit can move and bring about change and growth in our lives.
1. Reflect on Hugh Mackay’s comments about the human desire to belong, and especially his observations about “herds” and “tribes.”
2. Read Acts 2:37-47 and imagine what church life was like in the 1st century. What would it have felt like to gather in the temple area and then in homes?
3. What are some barriers people have in joining a small group? How can we help overcome these?
4. Review the five principles of great groups. Which one spoke to you the most?
5. How would you rate the level of openness or vulnerability in the groups you are a part of?
6. Think of a conflict or difficult relationship that helped you grow as a person.
7. How does our view of God and his love for us affect our relationships with other people?
"None of us can do what all of us can do … together." Max Lucado
"Your true belongings aren't possessions; they're your relationships." Leonard Sweet
"The future of the church depends on whether it develops true community. We can get by for a while on size, skilled communication, and programs to meet every need, but unless we sense that we belong to each other, with masks off, the vibrant church of today will become the powerless church of tomorrow." Larry Crabb
"The development of meaningful relationships where every member carries a significant sense of belonging is central to what it means to be the church." Randy Frazee.
"Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful – Christian community is the final apologetic." Francis Schaeffer.
"When it comes to fellowship, size matters. Smaller is better. You can worship with a crowd, but you can't fellowship with one." Rick Warren
"You are members of God's very own family, citizens of God's country, and you belong in God's household with every other Christian." Ephesians 2:19b. LB