“We’ve Filed for Divorce.”
That bombshell froze the room: hands stopped in a bowl of cashews; cups seemed glued to lips. Twelve wide eyes were fixed on Todd and Margo, who had just uttered those words. For a moment, everyone sat in stunned, staring silence. All at once, everything unfroze: unintelligible noise filled the room as everyone started asking disbelieving questions. Cashews were ignored and cups discarded as Todd and Margo’s friends hugged them, cried, and slowly shook their heads. For the next hour, the couple explained their decision to their friends and every variety of emotional responses gushed out.
Todd and Margo were two of eight people who were dubbed a “community group” by their church’s leaders. They had signed up to “connect” three years earlier and had been placed together by a church administrator based on proximity and life stage. They had participated in a “Group Launch” weekend at a lakeside cabin. They had decided that Ryan would be their leader, and that they would meet at Mark and Marci’s house. The group had gone through three months of getting to know each other, then had faithfully met in Mark and Marci’s loft nearly every week since. They had talked about the pastor’s sermon from each previous Sunday. They had asked if anyone had needs or requests; they had prayed together. They liked each other. They laughed together, and sometimes—like they would that night—they cried together. Over the years, they had celebrated each other’s birthdays and the birthdays of each other’s kids. They had watched Super Bowls together.
In other words, this group had checked all the boxes of “community.” But no one—literally no other person in the community group—knew that for over a year, Todd and Margo had felt discouraged in their marriage, had considered (and rejected) marriage counseling, had felt distant from each other, and had discussed separation. No one from the group had seen to the depths of this couple’s hurting life. No one from the group was close enough to see the cracks that, to Margo and Todd, increasingly grew. They had each made comments about the other to coworkers; they had both glanced disdainfully at the other during long and silent date nights; increasingly their words to each other were marked by irritation (at best). Eventually, Todd uttered the question about a divorce lawyer, Margo sighed and agreed, and the papers were drawn up and signed, the day before Todd and Margo announced to their community, “We’ve filed for divorce.”
The Cultural Problems with “Community”
What happened in this group? To be fair, trying to find a single diagnosis would be too simplistic. There are layers of brokenness in this community’s story. But the relationships between these couples had stopped short of the depth to which God calls His people. The very term “community,” popular in Western churches today, has come to mean everything and thus nothing. So, every church defines its own form and process of community, and every Christian chooses how much they involve themselves in their church’s form and process of community.
I lead training for a North American missions agency, which allows me to work with church leaders and groups across our continent and beyond, helping them grow in gospel-centeredness, everyday mission, and everyday discipleship. Since much of the Christian life happens outside of Sunday services, and since much discipleship and mission happens among smaller groups of Christians, I hear a lot about “small groups” (or home groups, discipleship groups, house churches, missional communities, city groups, or other labels churches come up with). It is not uncommon to hear that half of a church’s congregation is involved in some form of midweek community. In fact, a 2015 Pew Research study celebrated the fact that “three-in-ten religiously affiliated adults now say they participate in prayer groups or Scripture study groups on a weekly basis . . . up 3 points since 2007.” Only 30 percent of American Christians in 2015 were involved in a semblance of “midweek community”! But as we walk alone, so many of us wonder why our personal “quiet time” leaves us dry, why we cannot kick some sin habit, and why no one at church truly knows us. Could it be that we have the missing ingredient, but—out of fear, excuses, or rejection—keep ignoring it?
Freedom Along the Way
I want to remind you that the good news of Jesus is both the motive and goal. It’s through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we become members of God’s family at all. It’s through Jesus’ teaching and example that He and His followers showed us the type of relationships we can have, through the power of His Spirit and even across human common divisions throughout history. It’s through the perfect relationship among Father, Son, and Spirit that we know how deep God forms relationships that work together to accomplish His work in His world. It’s in the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice and service to others that we find the extent to which we can give ourselves for others. It’s through God’s love, forgiveness, and grace that we can love, forgive, and show grace to others—because family hurts sometimes.
In Christ, He has given us everything we need for all of life and godliness—and that includes all we need on a journey of seeing that there’s something deeper than our current view of “community.” God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness; His Spirit helps us when we are convicted, unable, or doubting. And perhaps someone in our close spiritual family is strong in areas we’re weak. Through His power and people, God can help us find new levels of dependence, obedience, and relationship—far better than the words of any book can!
At the end of the day, our relationships with each other are actually less about any human-to-human interaction. They are more about our relationship with God and are venues for sacrifice, sanctification, and discipleship. Above all, life in the family of God is a daily act of worship. So let’s find a group of folks to go with us, and let’s pray for the Spirit’s help in difficult steps on this journey. Then let’s take our first step together.
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