I long for a church with deep interpersonal relationships. I was attracted to a place that talked about relationships and tried to build relationally, but with growth, time, and change, what started as relational has become merely functional. Faith walks need camaradarie, lives shared one with another.

So quoth I a few days ago in this post, which I recommend reading if you haven’t already. This was point number two of nine, and I’d like to elaborate on them one by one as I continue to process what they all mean.

A good part of this is reflected in an earlier article, “Toward a Structure for Church, Part 1: My years of Thought and Experience on the Subject of Church and Small Groups (My Journey)”, where I said

I came to think of small groups like a classic old war movie… the ones which had all the cliches. We really are at war, all the time, with the Evil One who seeks the destruction of our souls; we just don’t always act like it. When life is seen in this context, the war movie analogy makes sense. In a cliche war movie, you have a group of guys put together in the midst of adversity against a common foe. Each individual has their own struggles but they’re pushing together in a unified direction. In the course of their battle, they will sit quietly and talk, sharing stories of home, dreams, aspirations, photos, and letters. Then a shot will ring out, and all of them will change from an informal sharing circle to a military operation where they push back the enemy, at least for now. As the turmoil passes, they settle back down, and realize they’ve lost Bobby or Jimmy and Hank or Joe or whoever is injured. Again they pull together to aid the wounded soldier and grieve the ones they’ve lost. They go back to sharing stories and letters, talking now about how they hope they make it home, about how Bobby or Jimmy won’t ever be able to go into the hardware business with his uncle now.

This idea of life as a war movie helps clarify a few things. First, we’re at war, and hard times could strike at any moment. Your small group is your platoon, the ones who “have your back”, who look out for you in good times and bad, the ones you share your life with. The ones you rejoice with and mourn with, and walk through all of life’s events with. People were made to be part of this kind of network. This is the vision I shared with the groups I led (after the first one), and the one I sowed. It’s the one I advocated.

Lessons learned: small groups are critical to certain moments in everyone’s life, thought they don’t yet know those moments are coming. Share your life now so that others will share their lives with you and you’ll be able to stand firm in your faith when adversity strikes.

This is how I think of camaradarie. This is the “we’re all in this together” sentiment, but more than mere sentiment, it’s walked out in real and tangible ways. I’ve come to learn that this does not exist in all churches. Maybe Thoreau was right when he said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” But I don’t want to be like that.

When I joined an independent charismatic church, the one I joined talked a lot about “building relationally.” They were big on relationships and conveyed that in their home cell group model. Over time, the church grew to five or six times what it was when we joined, or as much as ten times what it was when we first became acquainted with it. Such growth brings with it a certain amount of “not insignificant” change. It was growing so rapidly for a season that we stopped asking people if they were new to the church when meeting someone in casual conversation — it had been known for the answer to the question to be “No, we’ve been here almost a year now.” …which is kind of embarassing for the questioner. The “old-timers” would share stories of this with each other (we all had them) and talk about how we had decided to stop asking.

With growth and changing priorities, with the gradual “burnout” of most group leaders, and an ever-increasing level of organization, the small groups are not at all what they once were. One would think that after running home groups for 25+ years, there would be an internalized set of gleanings about how to operate them, but it continues to be the case that no more than 3 to 5 years will pass between books or conferences that promise to revolutionize the home groups (or the whole church), and a new bandwagon is boarded. The latest one is called “G12”. It is abundantly clear to me that continual reinventing hasn’t helped, that relationships in large churches don’t work the same as in small ones, and that overorganization is detrimental to relationships.

In all the search for the means of how to do small home groups, there’s a strong current of “how to run a ministry” and in the midst of that, such classics as Bonhoeffer’s Life Together just don’t surface — at least not outside my small circle. On the contrary, I recall that somebody recently posted a reminder of the episode where Homer Simpson joined The Stonecutters and deeply touched, tearily remarked, “These men looked deep into my soul and assigned me a number based on the order in which I joined.” Isn’t it nice to belong?

So I’m looking for relationships that aren’t based on structure… whatever structure there is should exist on the basis of relationships, and not the reverse. Good relationships are characterized quite simply by care and concern… and not the “Hi, how are ya?” kind. Consider the friend in Proverbs as an example of this, and of course we’re talking about a two-way street here. In a nutshell, we’re talking about the sharing of lives.

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