It's been transformational for us. Once upon a time the church culture called it small groups, then it was community groups, now sometimes I see the same thing being sought in the American version of missional house churches. It can all just be meaningless words, but the heart behind those ideas are the same. In every case what people are really getting at is finding an intimate group that truly knows each other and is able to transformationally love each other and push each other towards God. When you just sit in a pew and listen it may or may not affect your life. When you are face to face with a smaller group that is consistently talking real life, well, you change together and eventually there's no hiding those dark corners of life.
When we moved to Dallas and joined our church here we joined a community group of young married couples and it was the first time we'd done this sort of thing in a mixed group that didn't start out as friends first. It wasn't an easy beginning. It took a lot of time to really feel like friends and actually be intimately in each others' lives the way we wanted to be from the beginning. Since then we've had tears and drama and heartache and conflict, we've walked through life stages together, we've grown close, and we're better because of it. It's been so worth it.
I think this whole "community" thing can be done a variety of ways. In our setting, people come to big churches, but they still need the intimate connection of a smaller group that actually knows them and lives life together. I think my church has worked out pretty uniquely how to balance being a very large church but still fostering real community. It's unique in many ways.
- The church requires all members to be in a community group and in some form of service in or out of the church. Every year at the beginning of the year membership goes back to 0, and we all indicate again that we're all in, still committed to a group and serving. That means that all members are really committed to this body, known by some other people in the body, and connected. It is what convinced us to stay at a church that's huge (we wanted a small church), because there was still this intimate connection through the small groups. It also means the church truly doesn't put a value on numbers, because any church that wants a huge membership isn't going to drop it down to 0 each year! The emphasis on serving in some way makes sure that church is not simply for building ourselves up but also for pouring out - an outward focus of putting feet to this faith.
- There is a "Community" department that helps organize community groups. Each group has a leader (often it's someone that helps administrate the details of the group and stay connected to the church, rather than being someone "in charge" of all of our functions) and mentors are responsible to meet semi-regularly with the leaders under them to see how the group is functioning, help if there are problems, encourage, etc. Those mentors are led by the Community pastors. This system means the groups still are accountable to the larger church. It's also super helpful when, as a group of lay people, we're overwhelmed by something going on in our group. Twice we've had some major life issues that we've been overwhelmed by and we've gone to the Community leadership team for their guidance and help. It's great because we would have floundered without their guidance, but they still asked us to be the ones actively living it out - always having the body take responsibility instead of sluffing off the hard stuff to the leaders.
- Group demographics totally depends on the preferences of the group members. I think generally people end up with groups of people in their life stage and often people look for a community group in their geographic area of the city. In our case, though, once we were in a group, that group is who we are committed to. So, when we were the first to have a child people asked us if we would join a group of families with kids and we were taken aback by that suggestion. Because of a divorce, we ended up with a single woman in a group of married couples. Thing is, we weren't a "married" group or a "pre-kids" group, we were just a community group, committed to walking through life together, and life happened and life stages changed, but we still wanted to walk together, and did, beautifully.
- Group organization - We meet weekly. One week we meet all together as couples, then the next week the men and women would meet separately. In our big group time we'd do some sort of study or book as well as an update from each couple. Everyone assumes that the more intense discussion happens in the separate girl/guy groups, particularly on things like sexuality, and that is mostly true. However, the longer we met together the more we truly knew each other and our struggles, and we began to learn to be more honest in the big group. There's huge value here once you reach this stage, because when the women are meeting together you only hear the woman's side of the story, and the other way around. To be able to hear both sides, to get to the point where couples can walk through a disagreement in front of the group and allow others to give gentle feedback - well, that's really cool. It takes having a lot of trust built up first, though! The last couple years of having that ability built into the group have been a huge encouragement.
- Commitment. This is just huge. I don't thing there's any value of a group meeting with the hope of having accountability and intentional community without there being a real agreement that we are in this together, we are going to meet, we are going to be authentic about our lives, we are going to challenge each other and own up to our faults. Because so many in our group have moved away (and we will soon as well), our group has just merged with a few other people. As we met to talk to with these new members, we left it up to them to say if they wanted to say "yes" and agree to continue on together. One guy commented that as far as he was concerned, the answer was yes. He didn't need to know about interests, personality fit, etc. No group would be perfect and we'd never get along perfectly, that's life, and the point is to live in community and be unified in Jesus, not because all the externals line up. I love that mentality and commitment level.
- House Church? I had someone challenge me to push our group to be a house church rather than just a small group. Well, ultimately I don't think that's a necessary distinction, but what he was really getting at is for each of us to take personal responsibility for our spiritual growth and worship as a group. We do meet in homes. We started taking communion together on occasion. When my husband and I decided to head overseas, the larger church leadership asked our own group to be the primary "senders" for us, to hold us accountable and stay in touch, etc. In many ways, community groups take on the functions of a church, and generally the more of these functions they take on, the more likely they are to really take responsibility for their own growth.
- Growth and multiplication. Multiplication is a huge theme in missiology right now, and I hear a lot about groups not being healthy if they aren't multiplying. I know some other churches (Austin Stone) that emphasize groups that are trying to multiply, intentionally open to new people, seekers and unbelievers. The model we've worked in is more of an intimate accountability for only the committed. So, if we are intimately accountable, where does intentional outreach happen? The assumption is that if each of us is passionately following our Jesus, His transformation in our lives flows out and others will come to know Him through us, ultimately resulting in the growth of the church but really through individual action rather than through group multiplication? I'm okay with that, but I do wrestle with how we could more intentionally "multiply" ourselves.
- Fun and relaxation. Because we are a culture of busyness, we don't have a ton of extra time. Since we have a structured meeting each week, it's hard to plan other time to get together just to relax and have fun. However, that's really important. We don't want to be a group of people meeting about heavy, structured things and never simply chilling out together. That fun time is bonding and definitely helps the emotional connection in the group.
- Kids - Like I said, Judah was the first kid in our group. So, we just brought him with us and that was easy at first, but gradually as he got older and we've added other kids to the group, the level of chaos has grown. Now we have to work hard to keep Judah quiet and nondestructive enough that we can really engage in the conversation well. We've officially reached the point where some of our big group meetings are kid-free and we all look for/share baby sitters.
- Community isn't easy. It's beautiful, but it's not easy. When life is really hard or marriage is tense, you walk with people through that tension, and that means it's draining for all, not just the couple or individual themselves. When one person is going off the rails, well, the group bears the responsibility of having those hard conversations, and we have been there a few times. You have to walk through conflict. You have to engage with people that are different personalities that you don't click with. Honestly, community sounds awesome but there are many times in the middle of it when it feels like, "I really want to do this? It's not easy or fun right now." I really believe that truly good relationships always walk through that stage, and I also really believe that that's what the body of Christ is supposed to look like. Welcome to church as it should be.
It's funny, I talk about this model with people all the time. I find many people long for this type of group and few have it. It's hard to describe the long-term effect that this group has had on our lives, and will continue to have. I love these people. I am so thankful for them, for who they are, and for the time we've spent together.