This guide for churches brings wisdom and practical insight into growing a gospel-centered, small-group ministry. With wisdom and candor, House helps churches think carefully about the state of their own small groups.
About the Author
Brad House serves as executive pastor of ministries at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Community: Taking Your Small Groups off Life Support. He and his wife, Jill, have four children.
Read an Excerpt
Let me begin by acknowledging that building gospel-saturated community is not an easy task. Cain made it clear that the effects of the fall would throw a wrench in community and relationships in general. Starting with a poor biblical foundation increases that labor significantly. Lifeless community begins when we don't have a clear understanding of why we are in community in the first place. Yet, when we try to rejuvenate small groups, we generally ask how we can get more people in them, rather than addressing the question of why they exist. It is no surprise that we have a hard time attracting people to such a ministry.
Our goal here is bigger than increasing the number of groups we have in our churches. We want to reestablish the basis for community and why it is, and always has been, essential to the Christian life. Because community takes sacrifice and intentionality, our view of community must be bigger than a way to belong, making church feel smaller, or closing the back door of the church. We need to see the eternal purpose in order to inspire the devotion to community that we see in Acts 2.
A GOOD THING BROKEN
You see, the problem is deeper than the need to belong. On the cross, the community of the Trinity was momentarily broken. It was a picture of what sin always does to communities. Sin always separates what God joins together. This truth is seen in Adam's response to the fall. The first thing that Adam and Eve did in response to their rebellion was hide from God. God intended for Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, thereby building communities that would glorify him. Instead, because of indwelling sin, each community was more rebellious than the last, manifesting in relational evil against one another. That moment on the cross was a reflection of our sins of independence, selfishness, rivalry, jealousy, oppression, blame shifting, gossip, backbiting, neglect, isolation, pride, apathy, and every other perversion of grace that destroys community.
There are a couple of problems with a life that perverts grace in this way. First, it is a distorted picture of what God himself is like. A community of God's people should reflect the nature of God. A community that is marked more by sin than by grace and claims to be a community formed by God misrepresents the Creator. Second, it denies grace by choosing an impoverished and deprived life. The community God creates is good because it reflects him; it is good for his people. Choosing a life outside of community with God denies this truth and is what got us in this mess in the first place.
Christians certainly aren't the only ones to lament the fragmentation of society. Christian or not, we all have an intrinsic need for community. We all suffer from the isolation that sin breeds. Our neighbors are desperate to belong and be connected to a people. Some try to rebuild community through social action, campaigns, planning better cities, revitalizing neighborhood schools, or feeding the homeless. Others join gangs or social clubs, immerse themselves in virtual communities online, or hang out in coffee shops. These are all attempts to satisfy the need for community, but the problem is, none of these solutions address the real problem. They don't address the cause of isolation.
The sin that disintegrates our communities and alienates us from one another is what put Jesus on the cross. He experienced the worst isolation and the worst evil — separation from God the Father. He was relationally severed from the eternal community of the Trinity. In trade, he gave us the greatest good, reconciliation to God and others, making community possible.
REBUILT ON THE CROSS
But let's be honest, we have all fallen short of community that proclaims the truth of God's goodness and grace, as we are often censored by fear or muzzled by sin. The cross, then, is central to building community within the church. If the church is going to offer an alternative to the brokenness and isolation in the world, then it must be a community that is transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In Ephesians 2:15b–22, we see the intentionality behind the cross in building (or rebuilding) the community of God:
That he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
In this text we see that we are a community of believers built on the cornerstone of Jesus. This work is completed and we need only to receive it. Through Christ we are fellow citizens and members of one household reconciled through the cross. We are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up this way: "Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ." It is through Christ that we have been reconciled to God and to one another. It is in Christ that we are united together like a family who shares the bloodline of Jesus. Jesus gives us the ability to experience life as God intended, in real community with him and one another. In a world searching for belonging, the cross is a beacon of hope. We belong to one another because we have been united in Christ.
The purpose of such community is to display the love of God for the world. We see this design just a few verses earlier in Ephesians 2 when Paul explains why we have been made alive in Christ. He says that it was "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." This is the purpose of community. We have been saved so that we would express the gospel of Jesus Christ. Living together in community, reconciled and united by the cross, is a physical demonstration of the grace of God.
Community is for us a declaration of the overwhelming love of God, a tangible proclamation of the reconciling work of the cross. This is a truly compelling reason to build community groups within our churches. This is the bigger purpose that can inspire real community. Community groups are a living illustration of the gospel and its power to save. The world needs this, and so does your church.
CREATED FOR COMMUNITY
Understanding why community is essential to the life of the Christian and the proclamation of the gospel begins with understanding that we were created for community.
No one really debates the need for people to exist within community. It is not merely a Christian understanding; it is a human understanding. But belonging in and of itself will never be enough. Hanging the need for community on belonging is like hanging the need for water on thirst. The need for both is deeper. Thirst is a symptom of a deeper design — that your body was created to require water to survive. While we can technically survive without community, we don't function properly without it. The deeper need for community is embedded in the very fabric of who we are; it is part of our design.
Ask people who they are and you will get plenty of different answers. We often define ourselves by what we do or what we have. This identity determines how we see ourselves and affects every choice we make. Distortions in our identity lead us to search for fulfillment in places other than God and to settle for less than what God intended. If our identity is wrapped up in being self-sufficient and autonomous, then we will likely never experience life-giving community. Start in the wrong place and it really doesn't matter how good the map is.
Because Jesus has redeemed us, we can reset our identity to reside in the place God intended. When Jesus reconciled us to the Father, he established for us a renewed identity. This identity is a restoration of the image of God in which we were created.
In Genesis, at the pinnacle of creation, God creates mankind. The Bible records that God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." When God says he is going to make man in his image, he informs us of our intended identity. We are image bearers of God. We exist as a living reflection of God, who exists in eternal community.
In other words, God exists in an eternal relationship within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a relational being, he creates us as relational beings to represent him to all of creation. God solidifies this point in the creation story of man in Genesis 2. He makes a point of expressing the incompleteness of man apart from community when he says, "It is not good that the man should be alone." Scripture emphasizes that we cannot image God's relational nature in isolation.
So what does this mean? This means that we were created for community. We were not created simply to appreciate it. We are incomplete without it.
Furthermore, by God's grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, he made true community possible. Jesus restored the image of God that was marred by sin. Jesus made it possible for us to reflect the relational nature of God through life in community. When we live in community as a declaration of the gospel, we announce that Jesus has restored what sin had broken, and we experience life as God intended.
CREATED TO GLORIFY GOD
We have established that indeed we were created for community, but why? Being an image bearer is not only a description of who we are; it is also a description of why we are. We are created as a reflection of God (who we are) to reflect God to all of creation (why we are). The eternal purpose of mankind is to proclaim the glory of God to the world. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says as much when it declares that "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." We do this as we receive, believe, and celebrate what has been done through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Reflecting the glory of God as an image bearer is to proclaim who God is through our lives. God reveals his nature to us in this way:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.
This is the nature of God that we are to reflect in Christ-centered community. A community of God should be merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. They are a people who address sin with compassion and patience and are quick to restore the repentant. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Colossians:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This is a picture of a community reflecting the attributes of God because of what Jesus has done. Christ-centered community allows us to reflect the relational nature of God as well as his mercy and grace. It is a community that confronts sin and forgives one another, marked by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. It is a community that seeks to live in peace with one another and reconcile broken relationships. That is dramatically different than the way the world handles conflict. When Christ reconciled us to one another on the cross, he made such a reflection possible.
Reflecting the image of God was a gift to mankind that was not shared with any other created being. Yet it is a gift that we forfeited through sin and rebellion. Jesus purchased and restores this precious gift through the cross. And when we then exalt Jesus, we glorify the Father and fulfill our call as image bearers to proclaim the greatness of God.
It is not enough to say that we should live out our faith in community because we are image bearers of the Trinitarian God. We are image bearers of a Trinitarian God who have been redeemed by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Our lives in community are a proclamation of who God is and what God has done through our Savior.
INSPIRED BY HIS GLORY
This understanding inspires a life and community devoted to Jesus. The motivation that will sustain such community is not the expectation to glorify God; it is the glory of God itself. In other words, you can't just tell people that they should glorify God. We need to see the beauty, the splendor, and the magnificence of our God. A clear view of God puts life in perspective. It is simultaneously terrifying and motivating. When we see God clearly, we understand that there is nothing more important than worshiping him and lifting up his name.
Isaiah saw the glory of God in the temple and he was a mess. He was so aware of his sin and the sin of his people that he thought he would die in the midst of God. That experience changed Isaiah and the way he lived his life. After seeing God's majesty, he was willing to do anything to proclaim the majesty of the Father. When asked who would go to proclaim the truth of God, Isaiah volunteered without hesitation. He did not ask what he was being sent to do. He did not ask what he would receive in return. He just went.
We see the same pattern in Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. These men were all inspired by the glory of God to live lives that reflected his splendor. Peter is my favorite of the bunch. Prone to write checks with his mouth that his body could not cash, something changed in Peter after he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. Before the resurrection, Peter boasted of going to his death for Jesus but was so intimidated by the questions of a teenage girl that he denied Christ altogether. However, after witnessing the splendor of God through the resurrected Jesus, Peter preached with boldness until he was crucified upside down for his faith.
So why are our communities so apathetic and paralyzed by fear of man? We, too, have seen the glory of God. The Gospel of John tells us that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, 'This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me."') And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace." Not only have we seen him, but also we have received his grace. How much more should we be inspired to live in a community that exalts the Son?
Through his letter to Timothy, Paul tells us to "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." Now that is a man who has seen the goodness of God and knows that Jesus is worthy to be worshiped. The death and resurrection of Christ inspired Paul to live a life submitted to the will of the Father. The grace of God displayed through the Son sustained Paul through suffering and pain. He was willing to "endure everything" for the chance to be a part of God's saving work in the world.
That is the kind of community we want to build. We want a people who have such a clear view of Jesus that temporal circumstances do not make them waiver from their call to make disciples. If we are going to call the church to live out the gospel through the storms of life, we need this kind of inspiration.
EMPOWERED BY HIS GRACE
While God's glory inspires obedience, it is empowered by his grace. Isaiah was right to be afraid to be in the presence of God. But God in his grace cleansed him of his sin so that he could respond to God's call. God not only inspires us through his glory, he also gives us the ability to respond through his grace. This is the beauty of the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. We have been reconciled so that we can image him to the world, and he sends us the Holy Spirit to empower us to such a life. Second Peter says, "His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness." This is God's promise for transformational community.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Community"
Copyright © 2011 Brad House.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
LIST OF CHARTS AND DIAGRAMS, 15,
DIAGNOSIS: AN INTRODUCTION, 17,
PART ONE THE FOUNDATION: BUILDING BLOCKS FOR LIFE, 27,
1 IMAGE, 31,
2 BODY, 45,
3 OWNERSHIP, 65,
PART TWO HEALTH PLAN: REDEFINING COMMUNITY GROUPS, 83,
4 COMMUNITY, 87,
5 NEIGHBORHOOD, 105,
6 SPACES, 127,
7 RHYTHMS, 147,
8 STRUCTURE, 171,
PART THREE TREATMENT: EFFECTING CHANGE IN YOUR GROUPS, 191,
9 REPENTANCE, 193,
10 BOOT CAMP, 207,
11 HISTORY, 223,
NEIGHBORHOOD PLAN, 231,
COMMUNITY GROUP REPLICATION PLAN, 232,
JOB DESCRIPTION: COMMUNITY GROUP LEADER, 234,
JOB DESCRIPTION: COMMUNITY GROUP COACH, 236,
JOB DESCRIPTION: HEAD COACH/COMMUNITY PASTOR, 238,
GENERAL INDEX, 246,
SCRIPTURE INDEX, 250,
What People are Saying About This
“Community will inspire your small group leaders to grow and maintain healthy, Christ-centered and mission-minded groups. It will be a vital tool for your pastors, church leaders, and small group leaders.”
Craig Groeschel, Pastor, Life.Church; author, Daily Power: 365 Days of Fuel for Your Soul
“Christianity is not for Lone Rangers. We are saved by Jesus to be a vital part of a team called the Church, the body of Christ. Community is an excellent book that clearly, theologically, and practically helps us to see what it means to be a biblically functioning community on mission for Jesus. It answers the question ‘why have community groups,’ and it provides a reproducible pattern as to how to implement them. Read it; then go and put its insights into practice.”
Daniel L. Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
“I sincerely believe this book has the power to redefine small group ministry. With brilliance Brad unearths the theology behind micro-Christian communities, clarifies the role and realities of the gospel, and vividly describes the system, infrastructure, and strategy that Mars Hill has, through trial and error, found to be most effective. If your goal is to create gospel-centered small groups that make Jesus known on the streets, cul-de-sacs, and neighborhoods where God placed you to do ministry read this book, reflect on this book, and make it your guide for doing groups.”
Rick Howerton, author, Destination Community: Small-Group Ministry Manual
“In a rare combination Brad House bridges the biblical and theological underpinnings of small groups and presents practical ‘how-to's.’ He explains why smaller communities are imperative to the health of the individual and the church then goes on to explain from bottom to top how to make it work in your church. Free of clichés and stereotypes, Brad takes a fresh look at an ancient concept!”
Bill Search, Small Groups Pastor, Southeast Community Church; author, Simple Small Groups
“In the 20th century multitudes of churches grew through attractional evangelism and Sunday school classes on their property. In the 21st century newer and growing churches focus missionally on community groups not in educational buildings but in the homes of believers scattered in the neighborhoods all around a church's region. This is a good thing. Pastor Brad House has written a fantastic book to help conventional, transitional, and emerging churches to live out the gospel in community. Read your Bible, then read this, and then go reach your neighbors.”
Alvin L. Reid, Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students