Rev. Ron Robinson

Purpose: To consider ways that our small groups in the 21st century, particularly in the context of the “American Dream Marketplace/Entertainment Empire”, can be shaped by the experiences of the first century Jesus Way, a way that used small group community spiritual life to eventually over 300 years transform much of the culture of the dominant Roman Empire.

Despite many obvious differences between the eras, there are many parallels for the religious landscape: changing communication cultures, crossroads of diversity, pre-Christendom and post-Christendom. Epidemics and death ravaged the world of the early followers of Jesus, time and time again. There was great commercialization and increasing urbanization and ecological damage and resulting dislocation of peoples from families and from the land and traditions. There were constant wars and militarization. There were many new religious faiths intersecting. Old religious structures were destroyed. Women and widows and children were particularly marginalized and oppressed and abused. Ethnic cultures dominated and competed and if you weren’t in the right ethnic group you were endangered.

1.  “Where two or more are gathered…”:  Significance of Small Groups

In the first century, “small groups” were not considered a program of a church, a secondary dispensable optional component of a spiritual life; they were the primary manifestation of “the church” or the way those following the Jesus Way participated in the spirit of God moving in their world. Many of the followers may have attended at the same time a synagogue or pre 70 the Temple in Jerusalem, or for non-Jewish Jesus followers some other larger gathering, but the primary experience was a gathering of two or more; and it could be two—that’s enough.  To God the meeting of two, regardless of “believer or follower status”, is as vital as the meeting of the largest church or of an entire religious tradition; which is in keeping with our Unitarian polity that there is no “higher” or more important authoritative church than the local one. Regardless of affiliation standards a particular tradition might have (say 30 members for a UU church) two or more meeting create a part of “the church.”
Advantages of Two or Three up to Five in an intentional Group:  Flexibility, Depth, Response-ability, Maximum Use of Minimum Resources, Multiplying is easier. A Resource: The Organic Church, and Search and Rescue, by Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Associates who pioneered Life Transformation Groups. Cultural Marker: Small as the Next Big Thing.

2.  Markers of the early Jesus Way Groups

From The Rise of Christianity: how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries, by Rodney Stark. Consider how our small groups today can focus on these characteristics:

a.  Inclusive ethnically, gender, social and economic status.

b.  Relationship oriented; “fictive families” creating social networks and multiplying through extended field of family and friends; 

c.  Practice God’s love for the world by loving one another, caring for them, particularly the sick.

d.  Located in urban areas of great unrest and instability; met in homes, in marketplaces, in public spaces.

e.  They were willing to sacrifice their fortunes and life for others; take place of others condemned; passionate to practice and demonstrate their “witness” the Greek word for which is martyr.

f.  Counter-Cultural communities in high tension with the dominant culture in which they lived. They were missional communities, mission meaning sent out into the world to live lives of difference. How can our small groups be places living counter to the American Empire way of living and valuing; even how can they be counter to dominant church culture. 

3.  We Tend To Make It Hard; when it is really Simple

Three Spheres To Keep In Mind and Dancing Between in your small group; this can shape what you do, or you can focus on being a small group that explores one of these paths together and create other small groups for the others then come together every so often for joint party and celebration and worship or trip somewhere: 1. contemplative, 2. communal, 3. missional; or I, We, World. Let your group move from one focus to the other, neglecting none, drawing energy from one for the others. These can be the overarching themes that shape your group time together: (see Finding Our Way Again: The return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren)

And here are easy steps from Brian McLaren’s appendix in his book The Secret Message of Jesus. Here are the three major activities or plans for such a group:

1. Gather for Conversation
2. Launch Experiments
3. Plot Goodness

Gather for Conversation: He reminds us that the "kingdom" of God was originally explored in a group of twelve, and yet you don't need even twelve, for Jesus says "where two or more are gathered" and small groups can do big things. In fact the smaller, the easier it is to act. Begin by gathering for conversation. Who? Friends at work for breakfast or lunch. Friends from church or neighborhood to meet in your dining room or living room. Maybe to meet regularly at coffee shop or pub. What to converse? Might pick this book by McLaren or another and agree to read a chapter a week. When you meet share reactions to the week's reading, presenting favorite quotes, raising questions or disagreements, or relating the ideas in the book to your life. "What did you like best? What didn't you understand? What didn't you agree with? What seems most relevant to your life/ What questions are raised for further study or discussion? You can converse over the Bible too. Read through parts of it, using the following questions as a guide: What does this passage tell you about God? What does it tell you about the kingdom of God? What does it tell you about Jesus? What does it tell you about yourself? What does it tell you about our mission in the world? What questions does it raise for further study and discussion?

You might want to sign a simple covenant with each other to stay with the group for a certain amount of time, and agree to common respect rules. As new people hear about it and want to join, you might want to create subgroups that meet close by, even groups of four meeting in different parts of a house or restaurant.

Launch Experiments: So often our small groups start and stop at number 1, gathering for conversation. This part of the McLaren Model is vital for nurturing the Spirit. He says the message of Jesus is not meant just to be studied, but to be practiced. As a group, he says, decide that each person will launch certain personal experiments to practice "some facet of Jesus' teaching over the next week and then report on your experiences--your successes, failures, surprises, reflections, and conclusions" the next time you gather.

For example, he suggests, turn the other cheek for a week, pray for and bless people who mistreat you; don't judge; forgive people so that "your holding of a grudge becomes more serious to you than whatever the grudge is about,." care for the least of these by seeing and serving needy or vulnerable people as if they were Christ himself. Try spiritual practices such as silence and solitude and mindfulness, giving to the poor (keeping a sum of money in your pocket to give to the first person who needs it, or raising money for some good cause). Fast for a mealtime or a day; consider non-food fasts, such as media fasts; include the "Lord's Prayer" in your daily life, maybe two or three times a day. Be grateful. Share meals together, and invite unexpected people to join you.

Plot Goodness: Do something as a group for others who are not included in your group. Collect clothes or food or toys, etc. and give to a family(ies) suddenly one day. Make a picnic and show up to eat it somewhere where the homeless gather and invite them in to join you, eating with them and not just fixing food and serving them. Become the opposite of a terrorist cell, he says. Throw parties, visit hospitals, give out flowers, plant gardens, fix houses, clean homes, fix cars, babysit for single parents, clean up trashy areas, etc. Or, he adds, take on an issue together, global like Darfur.

One of my favorite paragraphs in the chapter: "You might wonder what a group like this should be called. Some might want to call it a study group, a fellowship group, a faith community, a missional community, a lay monastery (a group of laypeople gathering around spiritual practice and mission), a spiritual formation group, or a spiritual conversation group. Some people might eventually want to call a group like this a church--perhaps a microchurch, a minichurch, a house church, or maybe a liquid or organic church. After all, it is a group gathered around Jesus and his message.