I remember the first time I ever sat in a small group setting. It was easy. Show up just before it starts, grab a donut, a Styrofoam cup and some Folgers, find a seat, and get ready to listen. The content? Mostly helpful. The expectations? Minimal. At least they were until Mrs. Billy Jo Mayo changed all that one Sunday.
She taught the lesson in her kind, forthright manner and began to draw to a close. We shifted in our seats, expecting a closing prayer that didn’t come. I lifted my head and peeked towards the front of the room. My eyes met hers. “What do you think about that last point, Mike?” Ah, yes. Group-based discussion. The introvert’s dream. I can’t remember, but I can’t imagine my answer was anything of substance. But I remember the challenge of that moment being helpful.
To that point, I’d had every opportunity to learn in church – to know – and very little opportunity, at least in formal settings, to be known. Given time and space, I’d fill you in on how much I really do care about the knowing. It’s vital. But now here was someone asking me what I thought, inviting me to know and be known. Veneer be gone.
When we planted a church in 2008, we had a faint idea of what we wanted our “second tier” of ministry to look like. Sundays were a foregone conclusion, but what would our gatherings in more intimate spaces look like?
Small groups were ultimately the answer. Now, in a new city and new church, Community Groups still fit the bill, but the awkwardness of those settings doesn’t escape me. One thing I’ve learned is that to get the most out of any time of fellowship with brothers and sisters, I’ve got to be cognizant of how much I’m giving of myself. Thankfully, built into our routines these days are moments in our groups we call “stories.” Each week, after we’ve launched a new group or have added new members to existing groups over time, we’ll take time to hear someone’s story.
I’m incredibly mindful in the moment when someone volunteers to take their turn. They can say as much or as little as they’d like, but I do all I can to help them understand what’s at stake. Essentially, you trust us with the nooks and crannies of your life, and you have the opportunity to walk into this room each week as light as a feather. You’ll look into the faces of people who know you, know about you, and yet, still love you.
Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, gets at this when he writes:
To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
I don’t know of a person on Earth who doesn’t need to know what it feels like to be loved by God. Consequently, each week, with the Spirit’s help, we’re going to take our best shot at it. A person will be granted a chance to be fully known and the rest of us will joyfully take on the responsibility to fully love.
Allowing the Church to Be the Church
There are endless benefits to carving out time to tell and hear stories in your group settings – most readily, the moments pave the way for confession and repentance (James 5:16) and open the door for gospel reminders. Perhaps less obvious is the opportunity story-telling gives for us to obey the “one another” commands of Scripture.
The New Testament includes over 50 “one another” commands, imperatives given by Christ or a New Testament writer for believers to obey in relation to each other. Of them, the command to “love one another” is most prevalent (Jn. 13:34-35, 15:12,17; Romans 13:8; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Pet. 3:8; 1 Jn. 3:11,23, 4:7,11-12; 2 Jn. 5). Additionally, hearing, knowing, and loving in this way, helps us to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18, 5:11; Heb. 10:25), bear with each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13), build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11), spur one another on towards love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24), and have equal concern for one another (1 Cor. 12:25), among others.
Perhaps the most striking “one another” we fulfill by telling and hearing stories is the command to carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Each week, we thank the person who has shared for trusting us with their story - with their joys and insecurities and struggle with sin - and make sure to remind the rest of the group how important it is that we carry these stories well. This means keeping things in confidence that need to be kept there, but it also means to remain diligent in praying for one another, checking in with one another, reminding one another of the gospel, and serving one another as opportunities present themselves. In this way, we become stewards of each other’s stories and our forever prayer is that we might steward them well.
Time will tell if story-telling and this “being known” yields the kind of fruit Scripture seems to indicate it will. For now, we press on, learning what it means to build each other up even as God remains faithful in continuing to build his church.