Where and when are your Bible study groups? This is one of the most common questions we get asked by Christians new to OCC!
We tell them about Communities, or direct people to our website which explains that "Communities are the backbone of our church’s family life, discipleship and mission – groups of [10-30] people who meet and share life throughout the week, enjoying their relationships with God, together and with their wider community. Communities vary in vision, location and meeting patterns as we're learning to share life together beyond meetings and to include people who are not Christians."
That pattern of church life - seeing smaller groups as the backbone, or as we sometimes say, the 'basic building block of church' is a long-held conviction. It's based on what we see in the Bible, on an understanding that 'Sundays services' alone don't make effective disciples, and it has proved true in our experience since OCC was planted in 1985. In the last 10-15 years we have been developing so-called 'missional community', expressions of small group that are not just for worship and discipleship (including studying the Bible together!), but also together make an impact on the world around them.
However, our national culture can invisibly push us towards seeing "Sunday service as the most important part of church life". As we blogged about previously Covid has helpfully caused us to rethink what is important.
Gathered and scattered
Our conviction is that we need both small groups (aka Communities) and larger gatherings (aka Sunday services) to see all that God wants from his church. Let's explore that together.
Firstly, to draw out a couple of general points from memorable phrases we've found helpful:
Predictable patterns of life are really important. They help us form habits together as community. For example, praying together on a Friday morning; or meeting together for lunch monthly on a Saturday; or joining together as Community weekly.
It is also true that real community needs both the organised and the organic, that is, spontaneous, ad hoc, unplanned and organic life together, as well as our predictable patterns. So we talk on the doorstep while walking the dog past a friend's house, or call someone just to talk, or meet in the park to chat and pray.
Another word-pair we've found helpful is gathered and scattered. We see this for example in Acts 2, where it tells us the early church gathered in homes and in the temple courts, as well as sharing their stuff, serving poor, and growing through new birth.
Five benefits of regular Sunday services
Encouragement: As the New Testament says, "do not give up meeting together - to encourage one another." There is something spiritually refreshing, uplifting and strengthening about coming together as God's family!
Place-presence: A building/venue says to the wider community "we're here for good" (a double entendre that speaks both permanence and public benefit). We're called to serve and impact our society, not just "be hidden in a corner"!
Predictable patterns: When I joined in 1986, trying to find OCC in ever-changing hired halls, was a real barrier! Today, both Christians and those exploring faith look for church on Google. So it matters than we have a predictable presence in a place.
Unity: As we meet as diverse people from diverse communities, it speaks volumes to the world of God's "manifold plan" (Ephesians 3) for a new family that crosses ethnic, social and class divides.
Size: There is something very inspiring about coming together, as a larger, diverse and unified congregation. It's especially good for people exploring faith, new Christians and children to see a dynamic expression of church - but it's also good for all of us!
Five benefits of smaller groups (Communities)
Personal encouragement: If the Sunday service provides a broader uplifting encouragement, then the small group complements that with a more intimate, personal encouragement, from people who know your story and are walking closely with you.
People-presence: The meeting place provides one kind of presence, and the network of relationships around a missional community provide another kid of presence that says "we're here for (your) good". We're called to serve and impact individuals, not just have a big public presence!
Organised and organic: Sunday services are big on predictability (place, time) and the Community is bigger on the organic, alongside organised aspects of Community life
Engagement: Whole church unity is enriched by Community engagement, showing presence, empathy and understanding with your part of the wider community. This "incarnational" life alongside people, is wonderfully modelled for us in Jesus: "the Word became human and made his home among us" (John 1:14)
Size: Coming together as in 'extended family' size groups, not just in larger services, provides a context where you are known and nurtured, and can play your part in knowing and nurturing others!