Do I Need to Be in a Group?

February 12, 2023
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Fulfilling the mandate God has for his church requires every member to be in a group of fellow Christians where you are known, fed, led, and protected.

Well, this is our final week in our intentional and biblical series, where we have been exploring the structure of the church as we find it in Scripture. I hope this has been helpful to you. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this. I know this has been a different kind of series, but I think every once in a while it’s good for us to look at what God says about how He has designed His church. Our proposed shepherding model is an intentional choice to be as biblical as we can be in how we care for our church. We are proposing a team of elders, sometimes called a plurality of elders, comprised of our staff pastors and elder board and a broader team of shepherding elders. And this group will have responsibility to know, feed, lead, and protect the members of our church as we have outlined in the Membership Covenant. I highly encourage you to spend some time on the Comprehensive Shepherding Model page of our website. There, you’re going to find lots of resources to expand your understanding of the changes we’re proposing.

Today, I am going to explore with you one final question, which for some is the biggest concern regarding these changes. And the question is, do I need to be in a group? Specifically, we’re talking about a small group of people that is part of the shepherding structure. It doesn’t seem like a big question, does it? But it is. Believe me, it is. And not just here at Calvary. I’ve been a pastor now for 18 years, and I do not think that I have faced a structural challenge that has come even close to the question of groups. I don’t think I’ve faced anything bigger than this question. Does that surprise you? That might surprise you. I bet if I asked you today, what is the greatest challenge facing the church today? You wouldn’t have come up with small group participation. But it would be right near the top of my list. Let me lay out for you really quickly why that is. As you read through the New Testament, and you see the church described, and you hear the commands and duties prescribed to the church, you will see that nearly everything the church is told to do has to be done in community with one another. Nearly everything that we’re told to do, as a church, has to be done in community. We’re going to look at these passages today, and actually that’s what we’re going to explore is the passages where we are commanded, where the church is described. But this is a challenge today because over time, the church as an organization has slowly moved away from a community mindset to a programmatic mindset. Instead of seeing a church as a large, interconnected family, we see the church as an organization of programs that are available. Now, I am not against programs. Programs are a good thing. Programs are just the way we structure and organize the church to accomplish our mission. All churches have programs. This worship service you are in right now is an organized program. People rehearsed this week for it. It’s an organized program. But a system of well-designed programs should be there to support the growth of disciple making relationships and spiritual care.

From my perspective, here’s what I think has happened. Somewhere in the last hundred years, maybe further back than that, but I think it was somewhere in the last 100 years or so, people let go of the interconnected spiritual bond of the church family and began to see the programs of the church as optional events for personal spiritual growth. Not entirely, I’m overstating that. That’s not how everybody sees the church today. But that’s the direction in attitude that I see. And you can hear it in the way people talk about church. Let’s do a little thought experiment, okay? I’m going to show you two sentences, and I want you to tell me which one of these two sentences you have heard and said more. Here’s the first sentence. Which church do you go to? Second question. Which church are you part of? It’s the go to one, isn’t it? It’s the go to one. And I’m not mad at you. That’s what I always talk too. I’ve been asking people which church they go to for like my entire life. It’s fine. That’s just how we talk. But understand the reason for that is because we are far more apt to see church as an event we attend, than an interconnected spiritual community of which we are a part. You see that? So, when we turned to our question for the morning, you can see now why I consider it to be evidence of one of the greatest challenges facing the church. Asking the question, do I need to be in a group, is like asking, can I be part of the church without actually being in community with the church? I’ve known people over the years who are deeply resistant to the kind of church that the Bible describes. They don’t want to be known. Not really. They want people to know their names. They might want to go to events. They don’t want to be known. Or they don’t want to be responsible for other people. Or they’d rather use their time doing something else than attending a service once a week, is really all they want because they don’t have a high view of the spiritual interconnectedness of God’s people. And frankly, in response to this trend, many churches have decided not to fight it, but to lean into it and cater to it. They focus on their programs. They just hope people will attend. Calvary, I want so much more for our church than that. I want so much more for our church than that. I want for us to be able to open God’s Word and see the church, and then look at our church and say, that’s how we’re living it out. I want us to be able to open God’s Word, see the church and go, that’s my church. That’s my church there. My church is being described here in the Bible. And if that’s going to be a reality, then the members of this church have to be tightly connected to each other, other than just being in this room.

Fulfilling the mandate God has for this church requires that every member be in a group of fellow Christians where you are known, fed, led, and protected. We’re going to approach this a little bit differently this morning than we do most weeks here at Calvary. I’m going to take us to a lot of different passages of scriptures, and we’re going to jump around to verses, and I’m not going to be able to give you the full context of all these verses. So, if you want to write down the verses we look at, then you can go and read them in their fuller context. I really encourage you to do that. These are all commands to the church or descriptions of the church, and I want you to see how important being in a group is to be faithful to God’s design for the church. Let’s start in James Chapter 5. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” This is a great passage on the power of prayer and confession of sin. I’m not going to get into all the details here on how that works or the ways this passage has been misunderstood and misused. But what I do want to point out is how impossible anything in these verses would be for someone who isn’t connected in a close relationship with other people in the church. If your relationship to the church doesn’t include a family-like connection to a smaller group of people here at Calvary, you can’t do what James is telling the church to do here. I’m not saying it would be hard to do that. I’m saying it would be impossible for you to do it. The command in verse 16 is confess your sins to one another. Not your struggles, not your hardships. You can share those things with each other, but you don’t have to confess those things. You have to confess sins, your sins, not your mistakes. Isn’t that funny how we always try to soften our sins by just calling them mistakes? Do you know the difference? You know the difference between a mistake and a sin? When we first moved to Rochester here last winter, we lived in an Airbnb downtown for a few months while we were settling the whole house thing. And I didn’t know my way around town at all. And so every morning I’d make a map on my phone to get to work, because it’s dark out and because that’s what happens in Minnesota until like 10:30 in the morning, in the winter. And so, I would make a map to get myself to work. And I did that every morning. And every morning the map had me go south for a block and then turn and then go north again. And I thought, well that is weird. It just seemed like a weird map glitch and a waste of gas. And so, every morning I would just go north. And I did that for a week or two, until one day Rachel was with me in the car, and as I was pulling out of the drive, I was explaining this weird map glitch to her and she said, this is a one-way street. That’s a mistake. Now, the next morning, as I was pulling out of the drive, and I knew the law, I was tempted to go in the direction I knew that was wrong. That would have been sin. Confess your sins. The violations of Christ’s law written in God’s Word, written on your heart. Confess your sins to one another, not to a priest. If you’re coming from a Catholic background, you’re familiar with confessing to a man called a priest. There’s only one priest who can mediate between you and God, who can absolve your sin with His sacrifice, and it’s Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that confession serves no role. It’s actually a very important part of the spiritual growth and accountability of the entire church community. We confess our sins to one another so that those sins are exposed to the light of the Gospel. We confess to one another so that we can take these hidden sins that will destroy your mind and heart, and you bring them into the body of Christ, and you expose them to the light of a church community that can help with them. But here’s the thing. That requires you to be in a group of fellow Christians where the level of trust is high enough for you to be vulnerable and honest, because you won’t be otherwise.

If I had you all stand up right now and turn to the person behind you and confess the most horrible sin that you committed over this last year, this would instantly become your least favorite church service you have ever attended. Let’s try it. No, I’m kidding. You know what would happen? If we did that, you’d immediately be searching for the most acceptable sin you could think of. We’d have a whole lot of people confessing to working too hard or not reading their Bible enough, wouldn’t we? And you know what we wouldn’t have? We wouldn’t have people saying I filed for divorce. I look at porn every day. My anger is out of control, and I’m starting to hit my kid. That’s where the gospel needs to go. That’s where it’s got to go. That’s where the Gospel of Christ needs to go to bring forgiveness and healing and restoration. So, you have to have the sort of relationship with God’s people where you don’t hide. Where you can be late to small group, and you can walk in with your spouse and say, we’re sorry we’re late, we fought all the way here. And that group will not just laugh it off, and they won’t stare at their shoes. They will come around you and embrace you and love you. Let’s look at that side of it. Let’s look at the side of turning a sinner away from his sin. Skip down a few verses to verse 19 same chapter. “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Let’s start with what’s necessary to even attempt this. To even attempt doing what James tells us to do here, we need to know two things. You need to know who the brothers are among you. This is talking about the brothers and sisters of your church, the people of this church. That’s membership as we’ve been discussing. But the other thing you need to know is, you need to have accurate knowledge of what the members of the church are thinking and doing so that you can know if that brother or sister is wandering away from the truth of the gospel. These can’t just be names on a membership roll. They just can’t be names. These can’t be just folks who show up at a service, and they have a cinnamon roll and talk about whether the twins will be any good this year. Right? It’s got to be deeper than that.

What’s required here for the church to be the church for each other is to be in a community where Christians know the spiritual progress of some other Christians. And then those people, those people who really know you well, will love you too much to let you wander off from the truth of the gospel, either in what it is that you believe or in what you are doing with your life. And so, we need small groups of people committed to caring for each other. The vast majority of us would be very uncomfortable approaching a stranger to confront them in the sin that we see in their life. Probably not even an acquaintance who’s wandered away from the truth, but a close friend. Someone you love. Someone you see regularly. Someone you walk through life together with. Someone you care about. I’ll say hard things to someone I love if they’re wandering away. And you know what? I’ll also hear hard things from a friend who loves me. Every one of you guys in this room, every single one of you guys needs a couple of men in your small group who will smack you upside the head for the glory of God. You need it. You need someone who will look at you and say, no, no, no, no, no, no, you’re the problem. You’re the one doing this, and you’re not thinking clearly. Every one of you ladies needs more than just a few girls in your life who will tell you how strong and brave you are. You need women who love Jesus, who will push you back from your sin and who will call it what it is. We’ve got a lot of people in our culture today walking away from the church. They are rejecting the gospel that they grew up hearing. And I wonder how many of them have people in their lives that are going out to bring them back or trying to. What James says here is not a promise that people who wander away will come back to Christ, but it is a call to the church to make an effort. That’s what’s being said here. Make an effort. And that effort requires relationship.

It requires being in relationship in a group of Christians. Let’s go to Galatians. This is Galatians, Chapter 6. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” So, here’s a very similar passage to the one in James, only this time it’s the apostle Paul who’s writing, and Paul is talking to the brothers and sisters in Christ in the local church. He’s not correcting the sins of the world. He’s not saying, go bear those sins, bear that burden. This is focused on the believers in a particular local church community. And the scenario here is that a fellow Christian is caught in sin. In James, the Christian wanders away from the truth. Here, they’re caught in a sin. It was formerly hidden and now it’s been revealed. So, it’s a slightly different emphasis, slightly different situation, but the same result. The fellow Christian’s life is seen to not be matching up with God’s Word. And because that member of the church is known, fed, led and protected by his fellow brothers and sisters, those brothers and sisters are expected to act. They’re expected to. Those who are spiritual, meaning those who both know God’s Word and are attuned to the Holy Spirit, are directed by God to get involved. They can’t just sit back and passively watch it happen. Oh, no. As they watch it happen, they can’t do the American thing where you see something happening, so you go to a different person, and you talk to them. Oh, so concerning, isn’t it? But then they never go and talk to that person about what’s going on. That’s not love. What does love require? If you see a family member who is making decisions that is going to train-wreck his life, you would step in and say something, wouldn’t you? Well, we are adopted sons and daughters in the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Every Sunday here is a family reunion, and every small group is a family meeting. When we see our family member caught in sin that we all know so easily entangles, we know sin entangles us, it gets its hooks into us, it’s got barbs, it’s difficult. When we see that happening with one of our fellow Christians, it’s time to help untangle and restore that brother or sister to a knowledge of the truth that we hope by God’s leading will lead to repentance and restoration. You ever wonder what it looks like to really bear another person’s burdens? We usually think of this when we think of someone who’s going through a hard time, like the loss of a loved one, or a job, or sickness. And that’s all great. I’m glad we’re doing that. I’m glad we are helping to bear those burdens. But I want you to notice the context here. Paul is saying this. He’s saying bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. He says that after telling the church to get involved in someone else’s restoration from their sin. When someone is trapped in sin, when the marriage is falling apart, when the anger and the hatred start boiling over, when the cutting comments are being made, when the drinking is out of control, when the kids are being neglected, that’s when we’re commanded to bear one another’s burdens. And that means bearing the burden might look like confronting a friend. And calling out the sin. And taking the time to open the scripture to help restore him to faithfulness. That’s hard to do. That’s a burden. That’s a difficult thing. But you know what I’ve noticed about God’s Word? God really isn’t interested in just giving us easy things to do. He gives us hard things to do.

So how do we get this done? Well, you have to know people, and you have to be known by people in the church. What God demands of his church can’t be done in a room of hundreds. We can’t do it in this room here. It has to be done in a room with a few trusted fellow Christians. It is a gift from God to have a few trusted fellow Christians who know us well enough to step in and restore us. Turn with me to John 13. John 13:34. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Genuine love for each other is not just a good thing to have or a way of growing a healthy church. It is that. But it’s more than that. It’s the way that Christ’s disciples make known the love of Christ to the world. That’s how we do it. By observing the love of Jesus’s disciples that they have for each other, the church demonstrates to the world the love of Christ. So, we become an observable evidence of the Gospel. Notice that Jesus didn’t say that our love for the community will set us apart as disciples. He says our love for each other will set us apart as disciples. I’ve heard churches described as warm and friendly, as part of a visitor experience feedback. In fact, we’ve been receiving that feedback over the last year or so. And that’s great. That’s great. Warm and friendly, that’s what you want. But churches are to have something much deeper than a warm and friendly experience on Sundays. We are to deepen our relationships with each other to the point where we can say, I love these brothers and sisters. I love these brothers and sisters because we are united together in Christ. And the world around us needs to develop that intimate level of relationship so that they can see the difference that Christ makes. They need to observe that in us. You’ll never get to that level of relationship by sitting in a sanctuary on a Sunday. If that’s what you plan to do, you just will never get to this level of relationship. You’ll never get there by just attending a class and saying hi. You can only get there by regularly meeting, praying, studying, and melding your life with a group of people who love Jesus. And I know this doesn’t form instantly. I get it. Even in small groups, it takes time and small groups. I’ve been part of plenty of small groups over the years that never really got past that feeling of just being in a class. That we never really bonded over time. And, you know, usually it goes something like Bible study, prayer, brownie, see you next week. Right? Sometimes the brownie comes first. We’re talking about investing in our groups so that they become little families that know feed, lead and protect one another, and they serve the community, and they demonstrate the love of Christ to Rochester.

Let me take you to one more place. This is Ephesians Chapter 4. “Rather speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” So, in the John passage, the goal of our love was to demonstrate the love of Christ to the community. Here, the goal of our love is for each one of us to become more like Christ. And the way it works is each Christian, who is part of the body of Christ, does his or her part to build the others up. So, by every part joined to every other part, every part doing what it’s designed to do, we all become Christ the way we ought to. We become formed and shaped and molded into Christ. Now, setting aside the question of specific gifting, at a bare minimum, this means that everyone has a part to play in the making of disciples here in this church. Every one of us has a part to play. Where are you going to plug into your church, where you can do all the things that God has told us to do for each other. Where you are loving and serving and exhorting and counseling and studying God’s Word. Because if you love Jesus, if you love Jesus, you can’t just tag along and consume the gifts of others. You can’t. You’re part of the body. For this body to build itself up in love, every part including you, needs to function properly.

So how will that be? How will the hundreds and hundreds of people who call Calvary home use their gifts to build up the church in love? Does the church have to make enough programs so that everybody has a volunteer role? That would be impossible. We would never be able to accomplish that. Last week, we served 450 people lunch for our family meal. Do you know how many volunteers it took? 12. 12 people serve the 450. And I talked to Pastor Tim this week and he’s like, I might add two or three. Ok let’s call it 15. Still not enough roles, right? The vast majority of the gifts of the church will be used in unprogrammed organic life-on-life development of relationships that come when Christians gather and serve and invest in each other’s lives. That’s where the gifts are going to get used. And that happens in small groups. The early church knew it. The early church knew it. They had 3000 people join in one day and join into the church in Jerusalem. Do you know that? 3000 in one day joined the church, came to faith in Christ. And so what did they do? They would go to the temple, and they would worship together in the portico of Solomon. But then they would gather in homes. They would have meals and worship together in homes from house-to-house Acts tells us. When was the last time you had someone over to your house? Let me ask you, was it 3000 someones? You have 3000 people over? No, here’s my guess. My guess is you had one family over, and even then you had to get out another table, that became the kids table just to be able to make that work. That’s a true story brought to you by the Bushre family. That’s how we do it. That’s how we have to do it.

So to our question, do I have to be in a group? Do I need to be in a group? Church, I believe that the biblical answer is that it is impossible to fulfill God’s mandate to the church without being in a group. There is a reason that the median sized church in America is 65 people. It’s because the whole thing functions like one big, small group. That’s how they do it. But that’s not us. That’s not us. The Lord has gathered far more people here at Calvary throughout the decades. And over this last year, we’ve grown by a third. We’re going to have to gather both here in our building and from house to house. And I understand being committed to a group can sometimes be hard. It can be hard. I get it that things happen in life. I get that there are times when it’s difficult to be there and to stay connected. Rachel and I love our small group. We think it’s great. We love our small group. We meet every other Friday night, and just getting to know these folks is wonderful. But then back in December, both of our kids got involved in basketball and of course, they put all the games on Friday night for some reason. And so suddenly we just had all our Fridays eaten up. But then I started doing something here in town that caused me to have Fridays eaten up. And suddenly for two months we couldn’t go to our small group. So, we talk to our group, and we told them, you know, during this season, right here, this little short season, we’re not going to be able to do this, but we’re going to be coming back as soon as we can. And that was wonderful for them and for us. We’re not creating a strict, inflexible program. We’re not trying to bind people. We’re trying to bond people. We’re creating a system for being connected in family with each other so we can build the church up in love. Group life is a blessing and a gift from the Lord. Let me close with this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. “How inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who, by God’s will, are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians.” Would you pray with me?

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