What is the relationship between life groups and churches, and what is their purpose?
First, let’s begin by defining some terms in contemporary, Christian language:
- Church: A group of Christians committed to one another in worship and service to God meeting together on a regular basis (usually every Sunday).
- Life Group (also known as a cell group, small group, etc.): A group of people committed to one another in worship and service to God meeting together on a regular basis.
Right. This is why some people don’t really care for life groups, and why some life groups don’t really care for “church”: They are seemingly identical. So, how do we differentiate between the two? Hierarchical language may help one to understand the order of the two (a life group is a subgroup of a church), but that’s often not very satisfactory in determining whether they are practically and functionally distinct. After all, if they are not, why do we care to have both? Wow, that’s a great question! I know, right?!
Since we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ—we’re all part of a family in this kingdom of God—let’s approach the subject in relational terms, or more specifically, familial terms.
The universal inclusion of all Christians is referred to as the body of Christ, which is often referred to as the universal (catholic, not to be confused with “Catholic”) church (gathering or assembly). We all stem from Adam, so we’re already “family” in one sense, but we take another step by being connected through the promise of Abraham in the messianic king and lord of all, Jesus, through whom we are all children of God and a collective bride by the shedding of his blood. (Yes, we are “blood” relatives!) So, think of this universal family as the extended family you sometimes hear about but more likely than not have no real connection—your fourth cousin twice removed, the great grandmother of your uncle by marriage, and that one branch in the tree no one really wants to claim: they’re all family, even if you’ve never met them.
Then there’s the extended family you see sometimes at Thanksgiving, Christmas, family reunions, and the like. This can be quite large or quite small, all depending on the family dynamic and number of twigs on the branches. For me, this would have included grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, siblings, nephews, and nieces. For you, there may be “greats” thrown in the mix, or those “seconds” and “thirds” that most of us don’t even understand. For some it’s as simple as a single parent and maybe a sibling. The point is, our close extended family is really going to vary in size, but we have a relatively closer relationship with and have at least an inkling of what’s going in in the lives of this particular family group. This is your local church! And just like there’s often a few matriarchs and patriarchs who tend to set the pace and guide these families and events, we have shepherds who guide the flock of the church.
For really small families, that’s often where the depth of intimacy ends. There is no smaller grouping within the family; there is no smaller gathering within the church. There are a number of reasons for this, but figuring that out isn’t the point of this particular discussion.
For many of us, though, there’s a big difference between the extended family with whom we watch football on Thanksgiving and our immediate family with whom we tend to live much of our lives. We’re a smaller family within the larger family. This is the life group of a church. And just as our immediate families tend to have one or two who lead the family, the same can be said for these small subgroups of our churches.
My immediate family included two parents, a brother, and two sisters for the earliest part of my life. However, a time came when we all got married, had our own families, and were too big for the roost. (There’s a lot that can be said here about adoption and the inclusion of those who become part of our “family” outside the scope of blood and a legal system, but I’ll let you work through those connections on your own!) We eventually had different needs, goals, and directions. We had to split.
Now, you know no one ever says that when families multiply, divide, and continue to multiply. That doesn’t mean we’re no longer family and don’t talk to one another, but it does mean our focus shifted more on our own families and social circles. Such is the case with these subgroups in churches! Some of us get really comfortable with the same group of people and never want to grow in numbers and never want to split. That happens. But we hope that somewhere there is this kind of growth, division, and multiplication, all for the sake of the kingdom of God!
So, division can be a good thing, especially when it leads to multiplication. That’s what God expected from creation in the beginning, and I think we can apply the same principle to the church.
So, are you saying we have life groups within life groups? Does a church have a church that has a church that has a church?
Okay, you’ve found where the analogy starts to break down a bit. Remember, not all families are the same, and not all local churches are the same. This is okay (really!). They’re going to do things differently and at different paces. Here’s what I think we can take away from the family analogy from this point on:
People groups can grow to the point where there is no real connection between smaller groups or individuals. Even when smaller groups have deep relationships, they are utterly disconnected from the majority of the larger population. At some point a decision needs to be made regarding quantity, quality, depth of relationship, and whatever else you want to name that becomes a factor in the life (and quality thereof!) of the given people group. Our churches will need to work through these same dilemmas. There may come a time when there are so many life groups (or people in general) that a new local church is birthed from them. This is good division leading to an increase in the kingdom! There’s always room for heartbreak, mourning, and a number of levels of sadness, just as there is when kids move out, get married, and even move to the other side of the world—parents will be parents, and kids will be kids. This is part of life, this is part of families, and this is part of the universal church. But there is also rejoicing and celebration at new births and seeing kids out on their own (especially when responsibility for them has been lifted, right?)! This, too, is part of life, families, and the universal church.
You still didn’t answer my question about churches having churches…
Well, I did…kinda. Jesus is the head of his body, the church. I don’t think local churches should be over or have other local churches—I just don’t see that kind of hierarchy as necessary or prescribed in Scripture, if you’re looking for that. So, just as my parents still speak into my life, they only lead and guide in so far as I allow and accept it. But the amazing thing is that I am able to speak into their lives, as well! We have a common goal in glorifying God and mutual respect as adults. This, too, is how I believe our local congregations should work together in the larger family.
Our churches should be living entities pulsating with the desire to heat up, grow, and multiply, just as our families do. If we don’t multiply, a part of the family eventually dies off. Our churches are no different.
May God continue to bless you, your churches, and your churches yet to come!