Recently, it was suggested to me once again that only when I am in communion with the church am I useful to God and able to grow in my Christian maturity. The words were not so blatant as this–they were couched in a “pep talk” designed to encourage an audience to join a “small group” or find a place to serve in the church. And once again, I was left frustrated at the idea that I cannot be useful unless I participate in the Branded and Sanctioned Small Group(TM) with its Appropriate Curriculum and proper amounts of Fellowship (read: potlucks) and Sharing (read: chit chat masquerading as sharing prayer requests).
Gentle reader, I have no disagreement with the idea that we should participate in corporate worship. Indeed, we are instructed to do so. And though it’s not easy for me, I do attend corporate worship and sermon time as much as possible. I enjoy our senior pastor’s sermons. I like the worship music (though I could stand to hear a few more hymns and some more songs based on actual worship and not just how Jesus makes us feel). I also do not disagree that we should be discipled by more mature Christians, nor do I have any issue with the idea that we must serve. Indeed, as James tells us, faith without works is useless and dead.
No, the issue I have is twofold: that somehow, small group time is necessary for growth in the Christian walk, and that somehow, the only serving that is blessed is that which is church-affiliated. I’ll tackle these one at a time.
As to the first . . . I do not enjoy small groups. I have tried them many, many times. I am not a social person. I am an introvert, and I have a small circle of very close friends, and spending time with people outside of that circle or the circle of my immediate family is unbelievably taxing on me. I have never mastered the art of small talk. I either share too much or not enough. I have no talent for “church speak” or “Jesus happy face.” Too many times, I have offended and hurt and annoyed just by being my plain-speaking self. I find the social dynamic of groups extremely exhausting and overwhelmingly frustrating. When the group leaders try to force additional outside events into the dynamic, I am overcome with a desire to find a blanket and a corner and suck my thumb.
Now, if that were the only problem with small groups, I might agree with you that I just need to get over my issues and force myself to participate. And if there were some compelling reason to do so, I would. But the vast majority of small groups I’ve been part of offered only watery, weak, repetitive curricula. When meatier topics and ideas were suggested or offered, there was often little interest from the rank and file. I understand that iron sharpens iron, but wet noodles don’t sharpen anything. And when I have found a small group that delves into more intense subject matter, the enforced social times push me away. Those groups always seem to include the requirement that we have to grow closer by spending time together outside of the group. Dear Christian friends, please believe me–you don’t want me in your social times. Well, not if you want others to enjoy themselves.
Since I’ve returned to the foot of the cross in the last three or four months, I’ve grown more than I did in the past six or seven years when I tried various small groups. This is not to say there is no small group or study I would ever join; I am just saying that I find it a bit offensive to suggest that I can’t possibly grow unless I’m “plugged in.”
As to the next issue . . . I heartily disagree with those who suggest or say that the only service that “counts” is that which is offered in the church. Mr. P and I both have very active roles in community organizations, and quite frankly, we don’t have the time or energy to serve at church. When we make it to the service, we enjoy a Sabbath time–often the only one we get in a week. But our community commitments bring us in contact with many, many people who are not Christians or are struggling financially or have family problems. We both have many opportunities to make a difference in those lives, and we have both had opportunities to speak truth into lives that are far from it. After all, is this not what the church is called to be–salt in the world? I cannot imagine that salt is very useful if it remains in the salt shaker.
So forgive me, church, if I find the watered down doctrine and enforced social engagement unappealing. Forgive me if I would prefer to be discipled by people like John Piper, Greg Koukl, and R. C. Sproul–mature, clear-thinking Christians who offer meat for someone dying of an all-sugar diet. Forgive me if I use up all of my social energy serving outside the church and do not have the time or inclination to cook for yet another potluck or help spread another “Jesus loves you” message to the proverbial choir.
Some believers are like flowers that grow in vast fields of their kinds, bringing fragrance and beauty for a few months each year before fading under the weight of autumn and winter. Some are more like fruit trees that grow alone in an orchard, not dependent upon the company of others, but enjoying it and deriving benefit from it. It occurs to me that I am perhaps a lone oak tree in the center of a field–a tree that revels in its Maker and drinks the water of life that flows at its roots, that doesn’t seem to need little trees growing at its feet, but prefers to give shade to those who approach its spreading branches. The oak is no better or worse than the flower or the fruit tree; it’s simply different, and it has its place, and it can still grow because it derives its nutrition from the same Source.
Till next we meet . . .