We’ve been talking the past few weeks about essentials for 21st century living. These are the essentials – the absolute bare necessities – that you need to know and build into your life. They’re the reasons that God created you. We’ve talked about the first two essentials for living the life you were designed to live: to share God’s heart for people, and to be able to tell God that you love him. Today, we’re going to look at the third essential for 21st century living: connecting with people.
If you’re going to survive and thrive into the 21st century, you’ve got to connect with people. In Genesis 2, when God created man, he said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God wasn’t just talking about marriage here. God was talking about a fundamental principle: we were designed for relationships. You were meant to connect on a heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul basis with other people. God designed you to get connected with others. Scientists are constantly discovering new benefits – psychological and even health benefits – to people who connect with others. You’re wasting your life if you don’t connect the way that God designed you to.
Now, God not only designed you with a need for relationships. God has also designed a place for you to get your relational needs met. That place is called the church. God designed the church so that you wouldn’t have to walk through life alone. You may be single or married. You may have lots of friends or just a few friends. You may be an introvert or an extrovert. But God designed the church to be a place of relationships – of safe relationships – with you.
But one of the greatest obstacles to being that kind of church is the way that we do church. If I were to ask you, “What does going to church mean?” what would you answer? For a lot of us, going to church means that we go to a big building and sit in rows. The closest relationships that you develop are with the back of other people’s heads. For some of you, you could close your eyes and mentally picture the shape and color of the person’s head in front of you. Because for you, going to church means sitting in rows and looking to the front. Church means that when I’m done, you’re done. You sit in rows and you leave in rows. That’s what most people think of as church.
Now, listen: a lot of you measure how good a Christian you are by how many times you come to church and sit in rows. The main problem with this is that nowhere – not even once – does the Bible command you to do this. I’ve searched the entire Bible, and I’ve found not one command that tells you to do what you’re doing right now. Not one. And that’s a big problem if it’s the main measuring stick of your walk with God. You were designed for more than this.
Not only were you designed for more than this, but sitting in rows is a very poor way of holding on to people. It’s like having season’s tickets to the Toronto Raptors. You sit in the same seat every game. But then you get sick and stop coming to games. People say, “I wonder where the guy with the foam finger that says #1 went?” But nobody calls you. Nobody has a relationship with you. You’re just a person in a seat, and when you’re not there all that it means is that there’s a vacant seat.
Maybe some of you have been in churches like that. The truth is, a lot of you stopped going to churches like that, and nobody noticed. And you spent a lot of years away from church feeling that nobody cared for you. That’s not what church is designed to be.
Before you get up and leave, thinking that I’ve told you to stop coming on Sunday mornings, I want to remind you that there is some value in what we do here every Sunday. There’s some value, or we wouldn’t be doing it. But it’s not enough. It’s not even the main thing that we’re supposed to be doing. You were designed for more. And this morning we’re going to look at how you can experience all that God wants you to experience in church by getting connected to others.
How should we connect with others? There’s a passage in Hebrews 10 that says:
Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming is drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
“Let us not neglect our meeting together.” Let me tell you how I’ve usually heard this interpreted. “See, the Bible says not to stop coming on Sunday to sit in rows. Whatever you do, don’t miss the main worship service of the week. That’s what some people do, but don’t you dare do that!” If you’ve ever heard someone preach on this passage, you’ve probably heard them say that it’s talking about church service attendance. But let’s look at what the passage really says.
The passage says, “Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds…encourage and warn each other.” How? By not neglecting to meet together. The writer is saying that we should meet together with the purpose of encouraging and warning each other, and thinking of creative ways to provoke others to outbursts of love and good deeds. That doesn’t sound like Sunday morning to me.
Back when the Bible was written, people didn’t come to a big building and sit in rows. The churches in those days met in house churches. They came in small groups of people to meet in someone’s house, and they enjoyed food, prayer, teaching, and relationships. Every church that existed in the New Testament was a house church. If you want to experience church the way that the early Christians did, it means that you have to change your seating pattern. You’ll have to change it from sitting in rows to sitting in circles, turning your chair toward other people in somebody’s house. When this happens, you can get to know a group of other people, you can creatively think of ways to encourage the others in that group to outbursts of love and good deeds.
You’re thinking, “Great, where can I find a house church? The Yellow Pages? Do I look under C for church or H for house?” You don’t have to go that far to find a house church. You can find them here at Richview. What I’m talking about as a house church you might know by other names – small groups, growth groups, cell groups. And it’s what the Bible has in mind for you so that you can build the relationships that you need to thrive in the 21st century. It’s an essential for your life.
What happens when you join a house church, a small group? Three benefits take place, and we discover them in Acts 2:42-47, right at the start of the church. This is what church was like at the very beginning:
They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer…And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. They…met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.
In the environment of a house church, or a small group, some important things happen better than anywhere else. Three benefits that you can experience by being connected relationally:
1. RELATIONSHIPS ARE STRENGTHENED
Acts 2:44-46 says, “And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had…and shared their meals with great joy and generosity.” The early believers enjoyed relationships that were strengthened through food, through eating together, laughing together, sharing together. The early church was a place where the masks could come off and people enjoyed true community with one another. That’s what relationships are all about.
I have here a mask. We all wear them – not like this, but we do all wear them. Have you ever read the personal ads that are out there? Just for fun, I found some from yesterday’s Toronto Star. Listen to these:
A well-established professional male, intelligent, values honesty and empathy, and enjoys children, wants to meet an attractive female.
Attractive male, honest, caring, romantic, great sense of humor, seeks attractive female
Handsome white night, brown hair, blue eyes, seeking black Caribbean rose or Filipino flower
In fact, the only honest personal ad I found was this one: “A cute guy with no hair and no teeth seeks pretty lady dentist who sells wigs.” I’m not sure this guy’s being honest – he’s just got an angle! Nobody says, “Even my mom finds me ugly.” Nobody says, “Flabby and friendless.” Everyone is attractive, well-established, intelligent, and honest.
Truth be told, all of us are trying to present our best face to others. We don’t want others to see our flaws and our weaknesses. We’re scared that others will think less of us if they find out the truth. But the thing that you need to know about small groups – house churches – is that it’s a place where you can take the mask off. You can let your guard down. You can get to know each other beyond the surface level that takes place on a Sunday morning. And those relationships will sustain you throughout your entire life.
A second benefit is experienced when you get connected in a small group:
2. JOURNEYS ARE SHARED
Small groups are places where journeys are shared, and needs are met. Acts 2:44 says, “They shared everything they had.” These people knew the needs of others in the group. If there was a need, they
I have some flowers here. Flowers are usually given at two times: times of celebration, and times of mourning. Sorry, guys, they’re not just given when you have to say sorry. Flowers are given when something good happens – a baby is born, a promotion received, an anniversary celebrated. Flowers are also given at sad times: when someone dies, maybe when you’re laid off, when you’re sick.
The reality of life is that all of us are going to experience a lot of joys, and a lot of struggles. When you go through those times of struggle, whom are you going to turn to? Who is going to walk with you through the difficult times? Romans 12:15 says, “When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow.” You need to do this with someone. You need a group of people that can share your joy when you’re happy, and who can help carry the load when you’re down.
On my desk, I have a rock that says on it, “Never never quit.” You’ve probably seen one like it in a catalog or in a store. I bought it at a time that I wanted to give up. Things had gone really badly, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. But I had people to turn to. I remember the phone call I was able to make with a close friend who prayed and supported me through that experience. I remember the lunch appointment the next day with another friend who cared for me. I remember going to the house of a couple, friends of ours, in which we just hurt together. The reason that I didn’t quit is because I had people who walked through that experience with me.
That’s what you can experience in the context of community. You don’t walk through life alone. The events that happen in your life – both good and bad – are shared with each other. Relationships are strengthened, and journeys are shared.
3. GROWTH IS FOSTERED
Here I have some weights. These weights represent what happens when you attend a growth group. How many people here like doing free weights? I don’t. I’m an aerobic type of person. But weights are important. Weights build muscle mass, and muscle mass is important. As you age, you have to do weights just to maintain the muscle mass that you had.
One of the benefits of being in community in a house church or small group is that spiritual growth takes place. Your spiritual muscles are exercised. Acts 2:42 says, “They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer.” Two ingredients of a small group ministry are prayer and teaching. But in a small group, the teaching can be custom-designed for your needs. You can get your questions answered. It’s a safe place to ask tough questions. If you’re struggling with an issue or in an area, then the study can address that area. Sustained life change can take place.
I’ve learned a lot from sitting in rows and listening to preachers. But the greatest changes to my life have taken place in someone’s living room, as I’ve looked at God’s Word in relationship with someone else. Colossians 3:16 says, “Use his words to teach and counsel each other.” That’s not written to pastors. That’s written to you. When you’re in a circle, and you can ask your difficult questions, and discuss what’s happening in your life, and you can look at God’s Word with other believers, then spiritual growth is fostered.
WHY DO PEOPLE RESIST SMALL GROUPS?
With all these benefits of being in a small group, why don’t people get involved? What’s holding us back? There are four obstacles to getting involved, and your job for the rest of the morning is to figure out which obstacles are standing in the way so that we can work together in removing it. Why do people resist small groups?
1. THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND THE VALUE
For a long time, I grew up drinking powdered milk. Do you remember that stuff – you took some powder and mixed it in with water to make what sort of tasted like milk? I’ll never forget the day that I tasted real milk. I couldn’t believe the difference. But up until that point, I never appreciated the difference because I had never tasted what real milk was like.
Some of you may have never tasted what a small group is really like. For you, coming and sitting in rows is all that you’ve ever experienced. You have never seen the value of anything different. If this is why you aren’t involved in small groups, then I hope we’ve removed that obstacle today. I hope you’ve seen that God intended you to experience community in a small group. You’ve been designed to experience this, and the church was meant to be the place that you could experience it.
Another reason that people resist small groups is because:
2. THEY’RE AFRAID OF BEING KNOWN
Have you ever had a cleaning service come and clean your home? Do you know what some people do before the cleaning service arrives? They go around and clean the home. They would never want the cleaner to think that they were messy. They don’t want anyone to know their private business, especially if there’s a chance that they might form a negative opinion.
This isn’t just some of us. All of us are that way. We all try to put our best foot forward, to pretend that we’re better than we really are. We think that if we get involved with others, they will discover what’s really happening in our lives, and they’ll be turned off. We think if they find out that we have tensions in our marriage, that our teenage kids are rebellious, that our jobs aren’t going well, and to top it off we haven’t had devotions in two weeks – there goes our image. We’re afraid of being known.
This is as old as Adam. Adam hid in the garden, and we’ve been hiding ever since. But if this is the reason that you’re resisting small groups, then you’re missing out on one of the best things about small groups: discovering that everyone else is as messed up as you are! That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s freeing to sit down and find out that another couple has struggled through the same marriage issue that you’re going through, and has come out on the other side. It’s freeing to find out that someone else has dealt with an adolescent child, and that they’ve survived it. It’s exciting to see other people who are dealing with or have dealt with the same issues that you are, and that it’s okay. We can drop our masks. We can know and be known. We don’t have to hide.
This is scary! It requires openness. But it’s in our we akness and our brokenness that we are most a blessing to other people. Larry Crabb says
A central task of community is to create a place that is safe enough for the walls to be torn down, safe enough for each of us to own and reveal our brokenness…When we turn our chairs to face each other, the first thing we see is a terrible fact: We’re all struggling. Beneath the surface of every personality – even the one that seems most “together” – a spiritual battle is raging that will only be won with the help of community. (The Safest Place on Earth 11-12)
My message to you would be: don’t hide. You don’t have to hide. You can drop the masks. Small groups will be a safe place for you to do that.
Another reason why people resist small groups is:
3. THEY’RE DISILLUSIONED BECAUSE OF A BAD EXPERIENCE
Some of you are thinking, “I’ve been in a small group before, and let me tell you, it wasn’t that great! It may work that way in the books, but what you’re describing certainly isn’t what I’ve experienced!” The reality is that there are healthy small groups, and there are unhealthy small groups. You may have had a good experience, or you may have had a bad experience. But don’t write off small groups because you’ve had a bad experience.
It’s like food. Has anybody here ever had a bad sandwich? I’ve had sandwiches that have almost made me sick. I wonder how anybody could ever eat these sandwiches. But I still eat sandwiches. I just try to stick to the good sandwiches. Has anyone here ever watched a bad TV show? But I’ll bet you still watch TV. You need to give it another chance to experience what small groups can really be.
One of the reasons we are going to take our time in implementing small groups here at Richview is because we want it to be a good experience for you. We don’t want you to come back and say, “See, I tried it again and it still wasn’t good.” I hope you’ve seen today that it can be good. It’s where there’s the most potential for life change. You need to get involved.
There’s one more reason why people aren’t involved in small groups:
4 THEY’RE UNABLE TO FIND AN OPPORTUNITY
Some of you are saying, “Sign me up! I’m ready!” You’ve been waiting for this, or today you’ve realized that this is what church is meant to be. You don’t want to sit in a row any longer. You want to be part of a house church where relationships are fostered, journeys are shared, and growth is fostered.
The only problem is: you can’t find an opportunity. You want to get involved, but you don’t know how. It’s to you that I want to speak now.
We have made a conscious decision not to launch a small group program on a certain date. Why? Because we don’t want to manufacture small groups like a factory manufactures widgets. We want to grow small groups. We want to build the infrastructure. We want to do it right. But that means for a while we’ll be raising the value of small groups without providing an avenue for you to get involved. That’s okay; that’s part of the process.
But I do want to tell you three things today. First, you may be part of the solution. You may be a potential small group leader. You may have shepherding gifts, leadership gifts, teaching gifts. If so, you need to make yourself known to us so that when the time comes, we can do the proper training to get you plugged in where you need to be.
The next thing I want to tell you is: you can do this now. Even while you’re waiting for an official small group to begin, you can turn your chairs toward other people and start to connect relationally in this way. It may not be official, and it may not show up in our chart somewhere, but it can happen. Over a year ago, I began meeting weekly with a friend to do just this: to go beyond Sunday mornings, to have a safe place where I could know and be known. You can start doing this, with or without a structure, with a friend. If you need help in doing this, let us know and we’ll be happy to assist you any way we can.
The third thing I can tell you is this: if you want to join a house church, a small group, then you can take the communication card, write your name down today, and we’ll have a prioritized list of people who want to get involved. We will then be able to match you up the minute that we have a group ready for you.
God created you for relationships. He put you in a church because he wanted this to be a safe place for you – what someone has called the safest place on earth.
You may be new to Richview, or you may have been here for a while, but let me tell you something today: God wants you to be part of a family. When you were born into this world, he placed you into a physical family. Now God wants you to be reborn, so you can be placed into a spiritual family.
Would you like to join God’s family today? You can pray, “Father, today I want to be part of your family. Today I give my life to you. I admit that I’m a sinner, and I thank you that Jesus not only died for my sins but that he rose again to give me life. As much as I know how, I give my life to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Father, thank you for making us part of your family. I pray that you would help us turn our chairs toward each other, and experience community the way that you designed it to be experienced. In Jesus’ name, Amen.