Several weeks ago, we began a journey to identify the essentials of the Christian faith. What are the beliefs that we cannot negotiate? What teachings can afford not even a sliver of compromise? While there are probably a handful more doctrinal essentials of the faith, we wanted to concentrate today on a very practical aspect of our Christianity. We all are in this together.

How do you provide quick connections with people so that they don’t come in the front door and then go immediately out the back?

That question is pertinent to any customer related business. That question is pertinent to the church. It is the age-old question that has challenged church leaders for years. Consider that churches in the Midwestern United States have a natural attrition rate of slightly over 10 percent. A church of 1,000 would need to add roughly 105 members just to stay even in a given year. For a church to grow by 10 percent, it is actually going to have to grow by 20 percent to achieve its goals.

The connection point for the church is a fellowship community. Community is a theme that is threaded throughout the Bible. From the days of the beginnings of the nation of Israel, God has called out a people. Even when the Jewish people were exiled in foreign countries, they organized themselves into groups and eventually formed synagogues. This community was essential for them to live out their belief system and to serve one another.

Jesus also modeled the development of community. From the hundreds and thousands of followers to the 12 specially called, Jesus displayed daily what it meant to follow God. He then called others to follow Him as He followed God (Mark 3:14; Luke 6:12-19). As the church spread after the Day of Pentecost, small groups of believers were formed in every town and village.

According to Luke, these communities devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). These new groups were characterized by their love for each other. At the close of the century, John wrote to persecuted Christians near Ephesus.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:10-12 NIV).

Community is at the very foundation of the church, essential to both evangelism and discipleship. Howard Snyder writes, “At its most basic level the church is a community, not a hierarchy; an organism, not an organization (Matthew 18:20; Romans 12:5-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1-16; 1 Peter 4:10-11).”

Rick Warren says, “This life of purpose that God intended for you is not meant to be lived alone. In fact, it is impossible to fulfill God’s purposes for your life by yourself. We need each other! First, we deepen the community of love within our church family, and second, by reaching out in love to the community around our church family.”

How do we define a small group? For many churches, the definition is that they consist of eight to 12 individuals who meet regularly to share some food, watch a Christian small group DVD study, and pray for each other. The hope is that these artificially constructed groups will build friendships and deepen their walk with God.

A small group is a gathering of Christians who want to help each other be more like Christ and be closer friends with each other. For what purpose do they meet? Groups may have many purposes. These purposes may change from time to time — based on the needs and maturity of the group. A group may pursue more than one purpose at the same time.

Jesus wanted a special fellowship for Christians — something akin to the unique relationship shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. In his final hours, Jesus offers this prayer in the garden:

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name — the name you gave me — so that they may be one as we are one (John 17:11 NIV).

Andy Stanley says, “It is obvious from Jesus’ prayer that his focus was on his followers. His primary concern was with the depth of relationship the disciples would experience with one another. Notice his words: ‘so that they may be one as we are one.’ The significance of this statement cannot be overstated.”

John Ortberg notes, “This is why the experience of authentic community is so life giving. We are taking our place in fellowship with Life himself. When I am in isolation, I am lonely. When I am in community, I experience what might be called ‘the fullness of heart.’”

The Bible teaches us that the early church had these kind of connection groups — groups where needs were shared and community built.

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (Acts 4:32-35 NIV).

Over the next several weeks, we are going to look at what the churches in our community are doing.

— Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com.