The formation of community is often not rooted in the gospel of Jesus’ death for sinners. Small groups can draw together on a multitude of bases: personal needs, political agenda, stage of life, interests and so on. But groups of Christians are built on one distinct and unique foundation, being children of god through faith in his Son. If the gospel is not at the heart of the group, it may be a group of Christians but it is not a Christian group.
Groups preoccupied with community tend to become problem-centered. They become highly introverted, focusing on their own needs. If community is the aim, the ideal group is open, accepting and affirming—a haven for broken, alienated lives. It is very attractive, because we all have times of hurt, grief and disappointment living in this sinful world. A group that will put its collective arm around us and give a reassuring hug is not a bad idea. But such a group becomes problem-centered. The energy of the group is directed toward those with problems, and we all have problems all the time!
Christian groups are not primarily about helping people with their problems. You probably can’t believe you just read that! It sounds positively unchristian. But it is true. The focus of Christian groups is growth, not problems. …
Take the case of someone in your group who is unemployed. In a problem-centered group, she will feel free to talk about this, the group will listen and empathize. They will ask at appropriate times how the job hunt is going and even join in searching out employment for her. They will be aware of associated problems such as self-esteem, and try to talk this through. When her cash flow gets really tight, they discreetly pass round the hat and but a week’s groceries. Others who have [lost a job] in the past become particularly helpful.
What a great group to be in! Who could ask for more? You could. Such a group, although made up of Christian people, is not distinctly Christian. There are many support groups in the community which would do the same things—some better, some worse.
In a growth-centered group, all of this will be done, and more! The distinctly Christian element is to pursue growth in the knowledge of God and obedience to him. So prayers will be offered, not only for a job, but for faith in Christ, patience, endurance, avoidance of self-pity and so on. Through group and private discussion, the unemployed woman will be strengthened in the great truths of God’s providence and taught to see her situation through God’s eyes. In other words, she will be helped to grow as a Christian.
If community is the goal, the small group has become the end rather than the means. Instead of meeting to hear and respond to God in his word, the functioning of the group is central. True Christian ministry will see small groups as a means to an end, in the best sense of the phrase. In relationship with each other, we teach the gospel and pray and spur each other on toward godliness of mind and action.
To summarize, our primary reason for joining a Growth Group must not be to get closer to each other, but to grow in Christ.