Our daughter Maggie, and her husband Austin are living in the Bay area in California. We are so over the moon proud of both of them! They are amazing communicators and followers of Jesus. I’m thrilled to have Maggie guest-posting today about their recent experience as leaders of a small group they affectionately call “tiny group.
Our church calls ourselves “a church of people who ‘don’t belong together,’ gathering around Jesus, for the sake of people who don’t belong.” Sounds really cool, right? Sometimes I think it’s a little too accurate though. I’ll get there, just hang with me while I give you some context.
One of the things that attracted us to Oakland City Church (OCC) was its diversity. Our church building is old and a little run-down – I haven’t heard any plans of removing the grungy orange floral carpet any time soon – and nestled in the hills of the Fruitvale neighborhood. If “Fruitvale” sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because of the 2013 film, “Fruitvale Station,” which chronicled the murder of Oscar Grant, a young African American man who died at the hands of a white police officer who shot him while he was handcuffed. Racial and socioeconomic tension runs rampant here in Oakland, as it sadly does in much of our country. Co-pastored by a charismatic African American Oakland native (think: sweat towels for sermons and freestyle rap prayers) and an intellectual white Australian (think: dry jokes about greek mythology), OCC intentionally and authentically mirrors the diverse community of Oakland.
We love this. We like that we are able to engage in a community of faith that is located in our city and with people who are wrestling with the same challenges we face each day. It’s also really uncomfortable. When I said our tagline is too accurate, I meant that we really are a bunch of people who don’t know what we are doing, who don’t belong together and who are trying to figure it out because we think that’s what Jesus wants.
A few months ago our pastors Larry and Josh made some very compelling points about entering into community. Like, really entering into community, not just greeting one another in our pews on Sunday mornings. My husband Austin and I felt convicted to join a small group. We both have “small group baggage” so we weren’t thrilled about the idea, but we couldn’t come up with any legitimate excuses to get out of it.
We entered into the experiment with a bit of a martyr complex. How great were we?! Doing something we knew would be uncomfortable, getting involved in our cool, diverse urban church community…we were behaving like such great Christians. We were ready, too. We knew how tough small groups could be (which was perhaps why we’d been avoiding them for the past few years) and we knew we’d be shoved together with people who saw the world differently than we do (always a shocking reality for me).
We put our heads down and prepared for the worst because, well, small groups are difficult. They are the place where the hard work of learning to really love your neighbor happens and they often feel forced, insincere, and surface level. It would be nice if you could get a group of people together who look, act, and think like you so you don’t have to learn to love people in uncomfortable ways. It’s also difficult because everyone has their own expectations when it comes to small groups. Some hope to participate in an in-depth study of the Bible while others hope to focus on building relationships centered around Christ without the debates so common in small groups. Striking the balance between spiritual formation and Christian community is hard, especially with folks you don’t know.
In our new group, we expressed our desire to get to know one another, speak into each other’s lives, and learn how each other was following Jesus in their everyday lives in Oakland. We shared with the group that the Bible study approach wasn’t really our cup of tea, since it often devolves into theological scuffles or relies on the simplistic interpretations of armchair theologians. We were hopeful. The people in the group were diverse, sincere, and committed. Snacks were at each meeting. And our leaders worked hard to prepare for each week.
Despite our hopes, this group tended towards a tedious Bible study format. There were weekly worksheets with guiding questions and line-by-line deciphering of the text. We seemed to be missing the forest for the trees, avoiding the arc of the scriptural narrative in favor of searching for little nuggets of truth set off by verse numbers.
Most members of the group seemed content with this approach, but for myself, it upset me that I couldn’t tell you anything personal about the other members of the group, that we weren’t talking about how the scripture impacted our lives at home or at work or in relationship. It was exactly what we didn’t want. I felt like Jesus had just table topped me and was laughing about it. We were discouraged, and decided to not sign up for the next semester of the group.
Side note: here’s a glimpse of how this played out was when we studied Mark 5. In this set of passages, Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the sea and meet a man called “Legion,” who was living in a graveyard, rejected by his community members and assumed to be possessed by many demons. It may sound strange, but this is one of my favorite parts of the Bible. I deeply identify with this man – wrestling with imperfection, isolated from his community, powerless to overcome his flaws. To me, he is the perfect picture of all of us. I wanted to discuss this with the group. I asked our fellow small group members about the times when they feel isolated, rejected, powerless and alone. One group member told me that he could not identify with Legion at all, instead focusing on a literal understanding of the demonic possession. Our leader asked us to return to our line-by-line unpacking of the scripture – how many characters are in the story? What are they wearing? Etc.
To me this represents one of the deep flaws of our attempts to shove a beautiful and complex idea like “community” into a flawed cookie cutter of “small groups.” We are so tied to the text and to our Sunday School manners and to a curriculum-driven interpretation of scripture that we overlook the opportunity to become vulnerable with one another. Or perhaps we use the text, the manners and the prescriptive interpretation to hide from vulnerability. Either way, we seem to be so worried about “studying the Word” that we miss the opportunity for the Word to change our lives in real and practical ways.
After this Bible Study experience, martyr complex firmly in tact, we decided we would lead a group. Surely there were other people in our community who wanted to share life in the same way that we did. We were going to step up. We were going to serve, to open our home, to offer our time and our leadership gifts. We were very sure of ourselves.
Our community life pastor seemed excited that we were thinking about small groups differently and he encouraged our little experiment. We decided we wanted our group to look like a weekly dinner party – good food, wine and meaningful conversations. We wanted to be informed by scripture but not tied up by it, instead focusing on living the way of Jesus more than we talked about it.
Suffice it to say our small group has not gone as planned. We had such a grand vision. We just knew that if we had the right approach and planning, the people would flock to our “enlightened” new group. Boy, were we wrong. It seems Jesus had a few more lessons to teach us about the difficulty of community.
Here’s what it’s looked like. For the past two months, our group has consisted of me, Austin, and one other person. That’s it. Our other “tiny group” member has been a committed participant, despite the lack of momentum in our group. But he’s very different from my husband and I. He’s 42-years old, and has struggled with both physical and mental challenges for much of this life. He doesn’t attend our church either.
Instead of the weekly philosophical hipster-Jesus dinner party we had planned, we’ve been learning to walk with our friend through the challenges and triumphs he faces – going to school, finding housing, looking for jobs, taking care of basic errands, and fighting for hope that God has a relationship in the works for him. We focus on the simple truths of scripture to guide us and mostly pray that God will meet us in our weaknesses.
It has been a lesson in humility. We’re learning that our needs and desires and vision for coolness are far less important that the basic needs of love and friendship that have come to define our tiny group.
We’re not giving up on small groups…but I think we’ll take the summer off. I’ll let you know how it goes. For now, I’ll just be licking my wounds, cursing Jesus under my breath and trying to learn the lesson that community isn’t “cool” and it’s certainly not about me and my needs. So inconvenient.
Has there been a time when God had a different agenda in your life and humbled you? What has your experience in small groups been like?