Creating a Life Giving Community

This is a guest post by Luke who has been leading a number of Care Groups (much like our Life Groups) in recent years at his church in Hong Kong before moving back to London. This post was written for the Island ECC Care Group Leaders blog.

Why more socials don’t help
It’s intriguing that one of the most popular TED talks of all time comes from a shame and vulnerability expert. 20 million people have heard Brene Brown, a researcher at the University of Texas, tell her audience to embrace their vulnerability: “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen”.

Brene Brown is onto something. In our quest to build Christian community as Care Group leaders, we can overlook the fact that life-giving community is not the norm. If being really seen is the secret sauce of connection, we would do well to remember that we’re inclined to do the exact opposite. Adam, Eve and the fig leaves highlights our natural inclination to hide, to mask and to save face. A community of mask wearers is not only not frustrating but sucks the life out of a Care Group.

Some wine might help
We strive for the holy grail of authenticity in our Care Group communities. Yet so often we fall short: awkward circles, holiday chat, mobile phone distractions and poor attendance. When all you remember from the last Care Group meeting is that you did all of the speaking, the appeal of a break from the normal Bible study becomes clear. I remember that after yet another painful study with plenty of tumbleweed moments, I resolved that I’d bring a few bottles of wine to loosen things up next time!

However, it’s easy to fall into the trap that deep relationships come from organising more socials or group activities. Socials have their place but I’ve found that they are usually not the appropriate remedy for the problem that home groups often face.

Community is not the norm – loneliness is
We must first acknowledge that sin serves to isolate us from God and from each other. Bonhoeffer puts this well:

Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.

We do not face a neutral situation where we are inches (or a social) away from connecting wholeheartedly with each other in deep fellowship. It is not the ice that needs to be broken, it is our sin. Our Care Group communities should be places of light, refuge and solace from the cover-up we desperately try to preserve.

How can Care Groups help?
If sin is the poison, how can small groups help with sin? Sin is often confessed privately between ourselves and God. Yet God also invites us to go further and confess our sins to one another (James 5.16).

Bonhoeffer makes the argument that private confession has the potential to leave the sin still in the dark “but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light… A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”

In a nutshell, it’s only in community that we can fully experience the assurance of forgiveness and freedom from sin. Bonhoeffer writes, “The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power.”

Seen, really seen
A life-giving community is one where your people feel free to be really seen.

One of my group members recently described this beautifully: “Community is part of this faith. God created Adam and Eve, naked, vulnerable, unashamed, and that’s how we can be in Care Group”.

Keep on planning great socials but also remember that soul-satisfying communities exist where Jesus Christ is at the centre of them and where there is a healthy emphasis on the confession of sin.

Five ideas to try

1. Study the Bible and pray every time you meet
Consider making the Bible study the focal point of your group meetings and always leave a good chunk of time for prayer. Do this every time you meet and resist the temptation to replace your Care Group meetings with socials. You’ll be surprised how fast bonds form when you study the Bible and pray together regularly.

2. Meet on a weekly basis
Meaningful relationships are hard to develop on a fortnightly or monthly basis – try to have weekly Care Group meetings. Ideally stick to the same venue if at all possible. Also try to supplement this by creating a rhythm of sitting together during a Sunday service – these brief touch points are surprisingly helpful for deepening relationships.

3. Share testimonies
No one is comfortable to admit they are sinners but testimonies are a great way of giving an opportunity for your group to open up. Each week, have a group member share their spiritual journey testimony in 10 minutes or less and have people in the Care Group ask them at least three probing questions.

4. Leaders, be specific!
If your group tends to share stories or confessions on a more theoretical level (“my friend experienced xyz” or “what if” scenarios), encourage them to dig a little deeper for a personal experience or reflection. Leaders should set the tone for raw and honest sharing.

5. Be patient
We are fighting against a culture of saving face. Becoming unguarded doesn’t come naturally to anyone and this is particularly true in a culture like Hong Kong. Don’t worry if it takes some time.