It might sound strange to describe small group life as being “full-bodied.” For example, I like my coffee “full-bodied,” but what does it mean when applied to community? The big idea here is that within the soil of community our roots grow deeper in Christ than they ever would in our own individual experiences (Col 2:6-7). The composition of this soil is enriched when group members engage in a breadth of spiritual practices that allow them to live out their faith with one another. As a result, a small group will fully taste and see biblical community in the way we see it expressed in Acts 2: Rich, robust, strong, well-matured, and even flavorful!
God used the depth and diversity of the Early Church’s life together to put skin on His love for the world (1 John 4:12). Its full-bodied community made the disciples’ spiritual life ever-deepening and their Kingdom impact ever-expanding (Acts 2:46-47). This is the first article of two that will explore several key spiritual practices that can be exercised in community, result in life-transformation, and keep your small group and church family on mission. Emphasis will be placed on why community is integral to the nature and outworking of spiritual practices. Also, “growth tips” will be offered on how to strengthen the development of each one in your small group life.
- Fellowship – A “church” is a gathering of ‘called out ones’, as the Greek word (ekklesia) suggests, so it is both physical and spiritual in nature. It is why the reference to gathering in Jesus’ Name in Matthew 18:20 is viewed by many as the starting point for understanding the Church. Small groups help believers gather in Jesus’ Name and when they are gathered in His Name, He is present in their midst. When He is in our midst there is power to exercise all the other spiritual practices so that we can respond to God’s work in our lives, our group, and church. Fellowship encourages the growth of all the other spiritual practices listed, which is why we are exhorted to not stop meeting together (Heb 10:25). We find encouragement to persevere and live in a way that is pleasing to God when we have the support of other believers around us.
Growth Tip: Allow fellowship to serve as bookends to your small group meeting format. Pre-planned fellowship on the front-end helps the group time feel less agenda-driven and more relational because it takes the edge off the start time and allows people to catch up. Fellowship on the tail-end provides a time cushion and allows people to connect more and process through their insights and experiences in the group.
- Prayer – Prayer is communion with God. Like most of the spiritual practices, this is can be done in private or public. The best historical account of the Early Church gives numerous examples of believers praying together (Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:24, 31; 6:6; 8:15; 12:5, 12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5). Many of the psalms were private prayers in origin, which were recorded in order to be used in corporate worship. When we witness a believer’s communion with God, it can enrich our own. Furthermore, we need the prayers of others for our own spiritual well-being. In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.” Oftentimes, prayer provides glimpses of people’s heart condition in ways discussion does not always allow. Some of the most candid moments in community come during times of prayer together. Ministry is oftentimes embedded in this spiritual practice and group prayer helps to unearth it. Prayer prepares the way for holy moments where our fellowship deepens and we minister to one another.
Growth Tip: A couple of ways you can strengthen this spiritual practice with your group members is to introduce prayer during different parts of your small group meeting. For example, do not always have it follow your Bible study. Include brief prayers in your discussion time and express prayer in different ways (thanks, adoration, petition, and ministry). The more your group gets to know one another, the more freely you can ask different people to lead out in prayer.
- Worship – Most references to worship in the Bible involve a ‘community’ of believers. It is the expression of our love, reverence, praise, and thanks to God for who He is and all He has done by His amazing grace. As with the other spiritual practices, our own worship can be enhanced in the company of others as we witness the outpouring of their hearts to Him. Worship enriches my relationship with God, it encourages my spirit, and it can communicate God’s life-changing grace to a world that has yet to meet the Creator of heaven and earth (Acts 2:46-47).
Growth Tip: Before you introduce worship to your small group, learn which expressions are the most meaningful for each of your group members. This will increase the likelihood of successfully weaving this spiritual practice into your group life and expanding each member’s understanding of worship. Begin by asking them to share their definition of worship and what the most meaningful forms of worship are for each of them personally. For some it will be singing while for others it might be quiet thanksgiving, writing, or some other unique expression. Validate each and share a biblical reference on how it reflects the creativity of the Spirit.
- Bible Study – Most of the New Testament was written in the midst of two or more and was created to be read aloud and lived out together in the new churches being planted throughout the Roman Empire. The Bible study of the first century was communal in nature and provided a system of education and mutual encouragement for the emerging communities of believers. An example of this Bible study discussion can be found in Acts 20:7a, which says, “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion [dielegeto] with them…” (NRSV). Two of Jesus’ most prominent and extensive teaching monologues – The Sermon on the Mount and The Last Supper – were delivered to a community of disciples and within a community of disciples (Mt 5-7, Jn 13-17). Our learning of God’s Word is enhanced by the insights of others; their perspective added to our own brings things into sharper focus.
Growth Tip: Find a way to recognize each person’s input because this has a way of rolling out the mat for others to participate. Acknowledgement encourages involvement. The more free people feel to share, the more energy there will be to your discussions. Also, rotating leadership is empowering for the whole group and draws out the spiritual gifts of each participant.
Discipleship (learning and following Jesus Christ) is a plural activity. The disciples were always together in the Gospel accounts. In fact, in every instance a reference is made to the presence of a disciple…that person is with other disciples. There are 266 references of ‘disciples’ and 28 occurrences of ‘disciple’. Almost every reference of the word being in the singular notes how another disciple was with him or it is Jesus making a point in an illustration He is sharing. However, there is only one case when there is talk of a disciple being alone and that is when Peter was denying Christ. What do you think this says about the importance of community for believers?
In the next article, we will examine four more spiritual practices that will help enrich the soil of your small group life so that more people will follow Jesus whole-heartedly and impact others with His love and message.