To catch up on the earlier articles that discuss small groups through the book by Wilder and Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.
In this article, we will be focusing on the covenant-like love that can be expressed within a person’s small group.
1 John 4:16 says that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (NIV). From what we understand as Christians, the very epitome of what could be considered unconditional love is Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for us. Yet the capability to express love is not reserved to just those who are religious; even if an individual is not a Christian, humans are able to express love towards other. Believers understand this phenomenon to stem from the understanding that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). So if we wanted to live our best lives and surround ourselves with the most enriching and loving relationships that we can possibly have, then what are our options? Based upon the research noted in the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, an individual’s small group within their church may be one of their best options.
When discussing the topic of relationships, the word “attachment” isn’t often used in positive terms. While Eastern cultures are more apt to take on a close-knit communal approach to relationships, Western cultures tend to lean more towards relationships that consider other individuals to be more like acquaintances instead of intimate friends. For a Western individual, to be “attached” to someone who is not a member of their immediate family can seem odd, perhaps even countercultural. However, Wilder and Hendricks help us understand the critical function of “attachment” within our brains:
Attachment is the strongest force in the human brain. It is not an emotion. Although we feel it strongly, an attachment runs much deeper in the brain below willful control. Attachment is the best word scientists could find for what glues people together and little creatures to their parents. It produces an enduring care for the well-being of another. Attachment is a life-giving forever bond with no mechanism in the brain to unglue us.
One of the more dangerous tools that the enemy can use against us is the state of loneliness. By getting us to feel alone or to feel like no one else understands what we are going through, the devil is able to convince us to pursue actions that we would have never considered before. However, when we are a part of a community that expresses a covenant-like hesed love toward one another, it creates what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as a “family structure,” an environment where we are able to experience the type of oneness that Jesus promotes in John 17:20-23. It is in a family structure, Wilder and Hendricks notes, that our perspectives change and the strong attachments we create will establish a flow of transformational power. They continue, informing us that “our brains draw life from our strongest relational attachments to grow our character and develop our identity. Who we love shapes who we are.”
When Fellowship Occurs Without Attachment
When small groups meet without an intentional roadmap to developing attachments, its participants who are seeking genuine fellowship within the church may still be left wanting. Wilder and Hendricks note that in the context of the overarching culture of the church, attachment-deprived fellowship can stunt relational growth within the community. In a “low hesed church,” they note that while a friendly community may not experience as much conflict in the short term, it struggles to accept the pain and character flaws that inevitably occur when individuals begin to grow closer together; “High-hesed” churches on the other hand are willing to accept pain and character flaws. Indeed, they expect the pain to occur. But because of the presupposed covenant-like hesed love that the community operates from, there is no shame or withdrawal from the difficult or vulnerable areas of our lives. Weaknesses are used as launching pads to help strive for the transformative character growth that is collectively pursued.
Yet Wilder and Hendricks remark that meeting with one another just for the sake of communal gathering is not enough. In one of the few occasions in the book where they actually do address small group ministries, they explain that hesed love does not automatically grow on its own within a small group. Rather, they argue for an approach where the church proactively trains up its small group leaders with a curriculum that “make[s] relationship-building a centerpiece of the group curriculum instead of an afterthought.” By incorporating these concepts into our scheduled meetings with leaders, the long-term effects can be largely impactful as small group leaders begin to operate their groups more through the lens of hesed relationships.
Hesed as a Part of Our DNA
So important is the concept of hesed love for these two authors that they claim that “until we restore our loving attachments to God and each other, we are wasting our time doing ministry, church, or anything else for that matter.” With this bold stance in mind, it must be our goal to achieve a clear understanding of love so that we are able to become living examples of hesed for those whom God places in our care. Perhaps some examples of this can include the launching of new small groups that focus predominantly on purpose-driven relationships, or perhaps more concerted efforts to build joy within the community, or maybe even surveying the community for suggested activities that would allow everyone to work together and interact more often. In a high-hesed environment, members of the community are confident that they can experience a loving fellowship that uplifts them and helps them in their journey. Wilder and Hendricks encourage us to restructure how we relate to one another and practice being a family until hesed actually becomes a part of our DNA. Let us express hesed love to one another in such a prominent way that it may multiply within our communities and set the stage for the next two key ingredients of Christian relationships: Group Identity and Healthy Correction.
Cover photo credit: https://echo.sid.adventist.org/spiritual-mentorship-a-call-to-all-christians/