Monday, August 29, 2005

How to be in a large group

The continuation article from the article on how to be in a small group. And yes, I didn't write this either ;) Although not as 'powerful' as the other, but nevertheless still gives some very good pointers on thinking through about loving others, in a large group setting. Hope this article will help you (whoever reads this) too.

The very topic of church raises an interesting conundrum. Why do we call our small groups 'Bible study groups' or 'cell groups', and our larger meetings 'church'? Is there a fundamental difference between them?

It's hard to imagine the authors of the New Testament thinking so. According to their writings, 'church' was a word which simply meant 'getting together', and there were on size restrictions on what constituted a 'getting together'. All you needed were some people in the same place at the same time meeting in the name of Christ. As Jesus said, "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20).

In terms of what these 'get togethers' were for, they would have put it something like this: "We get together (i.e. have church) for mutual encouragement, to build the church, to spur on another on to love and good deeds. The idea is for each member to contribute to the common good, according to the gifts God has given" (cf. 1 Cor 12-14; Heb 10:24-25).

In other words, the meetings we have in small and large groups have a great deal in common, especially in terms of their basic purpose. The main differences between them are pragmatic. In the small group, it is easier to relate informally, to talk at length about particular issues, to answer individual questions and so on. In the large group, there are efficiencies of scale such that a suitably gifted Teacher can effectively teach a large group of people. Of course, we ourselves will be encouraged and taught and stimulated to love, and we need this to keep going in the Christian life. In particular, we need the regular instruction, correction, rebuke and exhortation that comes from someone teaching us the Bible. The large group also helps keep the whole group of people together, rather than the small groups each splintering off into independent units.

Much of what we said in our last article ('How to be in a small group') also applies to the larger group that we normally call 'church'--perhaps it would be better to refer to them as small church and large church. As with the 'small church', the overall goal of the larger gathering is mutual encouragement and edification; and the responsibility of each member is to contribute whatever they can for the good of others. In fact, it's worth repeating the key sentence in our first article--that the primary reason we go to 'church' is "to give us an opportunity to love and encourage other people in Christ. It's not about Me; it's about Them. And it's about Them because of Christ." Even so, this is not really our focus in going to church. The encouragement or teaching we receive is not really our concern. That is for others to worry about. Our purpose is to focus on others, and on what we can do for them.

This will work itself out in many ways, but here are six.

1. Turning up for others
When the kids are complaining, the body is weary, a leisurely morning in the bed beckons and the sermon series is on the significance of blood in Leviticus, then what person other than a stubborn religious zealot would go to church? Answer: the person who goes not for themselves but for others.

If our primary motivation for attending larger gatherings of our Christian brothers and sisters is to love and encourage them, then we will go to great lengths to turn up--at the very least because not turning up is such a discouragement. You can't love, care for and encourage other people if you're not there.

2. Sitting with others
Having other people as our focus when we go to church will influence our behavior in all sorts of minor ways. It will even change where we sit. Rather than treading the familiar route to 'our' pew, the one we sit in every week, with Bill and Freda on our left, and the Tans in front, we will think about where we might sit that would be most helpful--next to that person over there whom I don't recognize (and who is probably a visitor); or next to Mike Wilson whom I haven't seen in church for a while; or next to the Lims because I know they've been going through a really tough time with their daughter and I'd like to have a chat with them about it afterwards and pray with them.

3. Welcoming others
This is related to the last point. If our focus is on encouraging others, we will be on particular alert for those who are new in our midst. We will do whatever we can to make them feel at home in what might be a strange environment for them. We will sit next to them, explain what is going on if they look lost, share our Bible with them, introduce them to our friends afterwards. We might even invite them back to our place for lunch. If our focus is on helping this new person become a part of our church, then these sort of things are the least we can do.

4. Listening to others
There are two forms if listening that are powerfully encouraging to others.

One is listening to the sermon. An active, enthusiastic listener, who is obviously paying attention, thinking, and perhaps taking notes, is a great encouragement to any preacher. It spurs him on. It also encourages those sitting around you, just as our bored or distracted fidgeting will dampen their enthusiasm.

The other form of listening is our attentiveness to others after the formal part of the meeting. There is nothing more deeply encouraging than someone who simply listens, who is genuinely interested in what is happening in your life, who is ready to hear and only then to speak according to the need of the moment.

5. Talking to others
When we chat to others after our church meetings, what is it that makes it so hard to get past chit-chat and yesterday's cricket score? It doesn't seem right to have just been glorying the riches of God's Word, and then to find nothing to say about it to each other.

Often this is because we are just a little inhibited about starting up such a conversation. For the sake of others we need to learn to do so. Pick an aspect of the sermon you found particularly stimulating or challenging or even incomprehensible, and ask your friend about it. "I didn't know that the Jewish form of Jesus was 'Joshua'. What do you reckon that says about the Old Testament Joshua?"

6. Praying for others
Since God is the source of all encouragement and all hope, we will of course pray during our gatherings. We will give thanks for all his benefits and draw near to him in faith to make our various requests.

Prayer is one more area in which we can act for the sake of others. Even the hearty 'Amen' we say to each prayer is an encouragement to those around us. And there are plenty of other opportunities for prayer during our gatherings.

During the meeting we can pray for people we see around us, for any non-Christians present, for our Bible teacher as he speaks, for the congregation's responsiveness, and so on.

As we talk with others after church, opportunities should also arise to pray. Even a casual conversation about 'how your week was' will yield a number of things to pray or give thanks for. Don't be embarrassed--why should you be? Just pause then and there to pray together.

When we go to the large group we call 'church', we're not spectators. We're players. We go there for the sake of others, to lay down our lives for them as Christ laid down his for us. In the language of Romans 12, we go as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual worship.

writer | Tony Payne
Matthias Media 1998

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