Do you remember how Pastor John ended his sermon last week?
There is an old story about a man who stopped coming to church. The congregation called and visited and sent cards, but the man did not return. One day the pastor went to visit the man and followed him into his living room where a coal fire was burning brightly in the fireplace. They sat for a while, neither one saying anything, just watching the fire.
Then the pastor got up, took a pair of tongs, removed a burning coal from the fire, and set it on the hearth. The two men watched as the lump of coal flickered, grew dim, and finally burned out. Then the pastor picked the coal up again and placed it back in the fire, and they watched as it began to burn bright and strong again. The pastor looked at the man and said, We miss you at church.
There is no such thing as solitary Christianity. We cannot grow in Christian discipleship all by ourselves. We are called a community of faith for good reason.
When we become members of the church, we pledge our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Last week and this week we are focusing on our pledge of “presence.” When we pledge our presence, we are promising to participate in the community of faith. We are not just adding our name to a list of members; we are promising to actually show up and be part of the community. In the church there are two ways for us be in community with each other.
Pastor John talked about the first way last week. The first way we participate in community is by being present in corporate worship – by coming together each week to praise God together; to experience God’s presence together; to pray, to sing, to listen to God’s word – together. Together being the operative word. It is no accident that we are called a community of faith.
The second way for us to be part of the community is through small groups. The importance of small groups in spiritual formation goes back to the beginning of Methodism. John Wesley was a big fan. When he was at university at Oxford, long before he became a preacher, he was determined to live a holy life. So he found some like-minded friends and together they formed small groups that met regularly to encourage each other in faithfulness.
It worked so well that after he started preaching, Wesley used the same system and organized people into three kinds of small groups – societies, class meetings, and bands. Societies were larger groups, of people gathered for worship. Class meetings were smaller with both men and women belonging. Bands were smaller yet and were either all men or all women.
Wesley noticed that people who just came to worship and didn’t belong to a small group often fell away, but that those who participated in a small group grew in their faith and stayed connected to the body of Christ. The same thing is true today. People whose only contact with a church is worship are much more likely to lose touch and fall away than people who also belong to a small group in the church.
Why is this true? Why are small groups so important? Why should we join one?
Maybe the simplest and most obvious reason is that a small group gives us an opportunity to be directly involved in the life of the church, to be a real part of the stuff that goes on around here – the fancy word for stuff is ministry, by the way– a chance to be not just a watcher or a listener but also a doer.
We talk a lot about “going to church.” But church is not like a store where we go to get what we need each week. And church is not like a theatre where we go to watch a show. The truth is we don’t really “go to church” at all. We are the church. We come to a sanctuary, but we are the church. If we are not involved in the life of the church, there will be no church – for us or anyone. Small groups are a great way to be involved.
But small groups provide more than a way to be involved. The real blessing of small groups is that they provide a way for us to connect with one another – connect in a deeper way than we are able to do in worship on Sunday morning.
Think about it. Community of faith is a big idea, isn’t it? Big enough that it stretches beyond our congregation to include congregations all around the world. So big a vision that we might wonder What does it mean for me? Small groups are a way to put that big idea into bite-sized pieces that we can relate to and swallow. Kind of like communion bread. We are united in the whole loaf, but none of us eats the whole loaf. We break the bread into pieces that we share. In the same way, in small groups we experience – or taste – what it means to be part of a community of faith.
The benefits of small groups are many. Small groups are both a place to connect and also a place to grow. In small groups we find fellowship and a sense of belonging. A place to be our true self, where people know our name and our faults and foibles and accept us. A place where we are missed if we don’t show up. A place where we find support when we need it and offer support to others when they need it. A place where we share and laugh and cry and pray together.
And where we study together. Small groups in the community of faith are also a place where we are challenged to grow spiritually. A place where we are encouraged to grow more faithful in our Christian discipleship. A place where we are lovingly but firmly held accountable when we stray from the path.
John Wesley developed a list of 22 questions for his small group at Oxford to use to hold each other accountable. Questions like: Am I honest in all my acts and words? …. Can I be trusted? …. Do I grumble and complain constantly? They are still a very useful guide today. If you would like a copy, there is a stack on the Welcome Desk in the lobby.
To sum up, in small groups in the community of faith we will find: Fellowship. …. Support. …. Spiritual focus. …. Accountability.
In these groups we can discover and truly experience what it means to be part of the family of God. As we grow closer to one another we also grow closer to God, and as we grow closer to God, we also grow closer to one another.
As it says in Ecclesiastes, we are stronger together. If you take a pencil from the pew pocket in front of you, you would be able to break it quite easily. But if you put several pencils together, breaking them will be virtually impossible. (If you want to try this at home, you can use toothpicks instead of pencils.)
If you do not belong to a small group, Pastor John and I both encourage you to join one. We have many already established – Disciple Bible Study, Sunday School, Women’s Bible Study, Prayer Group, UMW, a Men’s Group, The Chancel Choir, and others. Or perhaps you have an idea for a new group. Come and talk to either of us.
If you do belong to a small group, I encourage you to consider how your group is doing in providing Fellowship, Support, a Spiritual Focus, and Accountability. Again, if one of those areas is undernourished, Pastor John and I will be glad to sit down with the group and offer some guidance for the future.
And lastly, we have a lot of groups in the church that meet regularly that we don’t think of as “small groups” – groups like Ministry Teams and Committees – like Children’s Ministry, Nurture, Trustees, Missions, Church Council and so on. I challenge all the members of these groups to consider whether or not your gatherings might become more “small group minded.” How could Fellowship and Support and Spiritual Focus and Accountability be included? How might it transform your meetings?
Even Jesus belonged to a small group – a group of twelve disciples. If it was good enough for Jesus, surely it ought to be good enough for us. I hope and pray that all of us will become part of a small group and experience the true joy of community in this community of faith.