Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” What the text is saying is that there is a sacredness that springs to life whenever people form a gathering in which the Savior is acknowledged as the supreme guest. He will honor them with His presence.
Christian community is about two or more people who make a deliberate choice not only to “accept Christ” but also to accept one another. This commitment requires discipline, humility, selfless love, grace, and a servant’s heart. When such a community is in place, other familiar words of the Lord become relevant: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35). Everyone in such a community is an equal participant; everyone seeks to grow; everyone builds in the lives of the others; everyone understands that the ultimate purpose of the community is to project the influence of the gospel into the world.
Therefore, biblical fellowship between believers should break the surface and have a heartfelt experience that exalts God and edifies others. No wonder the Bible inveighs against social exchanges such as gossip, intimidation, anger, and dishonesty. Jesus expects something special, an elevated quality of relationships among people who call Him Lord. Community as Jesus modeled it (“as I have loved you”) was and is supposed to be the characteristic and heart of the Christian life.
Genuine fellowship helps us move from just sharing small talk and food to being a safe community where we can be transparent with one another. Here are some simple but effective steps a small group or Sabbath school in your church can take to build and encourage this kind of genuine community:
• Offer new people a history of the group. Have everyone—including the first-timers—share a little bit about their families and the activities they enjoy doing in their free time. This will bring the group closer together and help them minister to each other.
• Provide ice-breakers. Sometimes the silliest questions or activities are best; they help people get to know one another in a safe way.
• Celebrate milestones. Help foster community by celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events in people’s lives. This helps group members feel valued and appreciated.
• Celebrate victories. In addition to job promotions and other achievements, make sure you celebrate spiritual victories and answers to prayer.
• Plan a retreat together. Arrange for a weekend when members of the group can be together. The time spent in fellowship on an overnight outing is equivalent to many weeks of group meetings. When I was a pastor, I took my church on two retreats every year: one in the summer and one in the winter. Participants told me that these retreats were some of the best times they spent as a community. Outings like these build strong relationships and bond the church.
• Host a “Fun Night.” Instead of the usual study time, surprise the group with a night full of games and fun. Such a change of pace is both healthy and refreshing for the group.
• Institute a “hot seat.” Seat a person in the center of the circle and have everyone shower him or her with heartfelt affirmation. Statements can begin with, “You’re important to our group. We love how you have made a difference in our lives.” Everyone needs this kind of affirmation from time to time. Then have the group members pray over that person. When I was a pastor, I instituted this at my board and committee meetings. Before we instituted this practice, people hated coming to board meetings, but afterward, when they saw that we were serious about loving each other and praying for each other, they started to look forward to being at the meetings.
• Tell stories. Plan a short activity that encourages face-to-face interaction between members. This could be as simple as letting people share a story from the heart, such as when they accepted Jesus, got engaged, or got married. It could also be a time of sharing personal stories that are relevant to the study. When people share their personal stories, community deepens.
• Pick up the phone. Follow-up calls strengthen community. When people are absent from the group, call to check on them. If a prayer need has been brought up, follow up to let the person know you are praying. Those phone calls can go a long way toward affirming community. Be sure to also call or send a card to people who attended your group for the first time.
• Print a directory. A group roster is a simple but important tool for building fellowship and fostering community. Make it easy for people to connect outside of group time by sharing email addresses and phone numbers.
• Keep a scrapbook. It’s lots of fun to be able to turn the pages of a book and retrace the journey the group has traveled on together.
• Adopt a cause. This can be a ministry project or mission trip that the group does together or that they can sponsor someone to do.
• Take care of the essentials. The study of God’s Word, prayer, worship, mission or ministry together and social activities at least once a month (Acts 2:42-47). When genuine Christian fellowship offers a safe environment for knowing and being known, true community is the result. God wired us to love and be loved and accepted. This experience moves us beyond merely doing activities to being bonded together as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need each other, and we are stronger together than we are individually.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of Christian ministry and biblical spirituality at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.