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Small Groups, Church Life, and Being Human

September 1st, 2022 | 4 min read

By Jake Meador

A striking and depressing stat, this:

Here’s one question that things like this (or this or this) raise for me: I think a lot of church ministry I see today still seems to presuppose that, for instance, small groups exist to help people learn their Bibles a bit better. And obviously that’s vitally important.

But when I see how isolated people are, how lonely they are, how relationally disconnected we’ve become, I wonder if our needs have become so incredibly (and depressingly) basic that a lot of church outreach approaches and programming are basically missing their neighbors.

Put it this way: When I look at how far most people are from family, what occurs to me is that a majority of our neighbors do not have anyone that you can drop the kids off with during an emergency or who will reliably show up to help with a home project or who will be available at a moment’s notice for a phone conversation to talk through some kind of problem—and the problem could even be relatively banal.

I’m also reminded of something that a guest on Mars Hill Audio said about the natural law and its relationship to grace: I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of it was that the natural law is a kind of moral floor for humans. It’s not what we should settle for in our moral lives, but if we sink below it, we’re dehumanizing ourselves in a real way. (This insight would also square pretty well with much of Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry’s work, I think.)

So the most pressing problem for many of our neighbors, I think, is just “how to be a human.” And, as I said, that’s a depressingly basic problem. But I think it’s where the struggle is right now for us, and probably even more so after a long period of isolation and social withdrawal caused by COVID. The needs that will draw people out of themselves, out of their retreats from neighbor and society, are the most basic human needs imaginable. So how are churches and Christian leaders thinking about this particular problem? How is the reality of this problem reflected in the day to day life of our churches?

One thought I’ve had: It may be that we’re in a season of what you might call the Hauerwasian imperative. If the church doesn’t loom as large in your thought as it does in Hauerwas’s, if the demands and opportunities of church community, don’t weigh on your mind as they do on Hauerwas’s, your church might not make it. That isn’t to say that we all need to become radical Anabaptists or some such.

Rather, it’s to recognize that the old framing of the relationship between church and civil society as imagined by many western Christians might not apply at this point. The magisterial critique of the Anabaptists has always been that the institutional church isn’t and mustn’t be the totality of authentic political society. God sanctions and ordains other institutions and forms of community to accomplish other goods. The church has one particular role to play within the broader commonwealth; it is not synonymous with the commonwealth nor does it supersede the commonwealth.

So far as it goes, I think that’s still correct. But what does Christian public practice look like when civil society has more or less failed? When political institutions aren’t trusted, families are falling apart, labor solidarity is diminished, and even strong day-to-day friendships are rare? It is possible that we’re at a place, culturally, where the church is the most plausible, best hope for preserving not merely religious goods, but ordinary human goods. And if it stays that way forever, it is likely that the west will collapse altogether.

But in the short term, it may be that what Emmanuel Katongole says of Africa is also true of America: the only real institution-level hope for healthy social existence is the church. Our churches, in short, will be the place where people learn to be human again.

There’s a tripwire here, of course, and a dangerous one. None of what I’ve said should be taken as an argument for instrumentalizing the church, rendering it as a kind of tool for helping make people sociable again. The declaration that calls the church into being must forever remain at the center of our life together, which is that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save sinners. So my point here is not to say “we need more social programs.” We’ve been there, done that. It didn’t go well.

Rather, my point has more to do with how we imagine the encounter with our neighbors and how we imagine the common life of the church. What I’m saying is that there is a simply enormous amount of pre-evangelism that has to happen for Christianity to be sensible to people who are living after the abolition of man. And I am, further, saying that our life together within Christian communities cannot simply be ordered to purely “spiritual” or “religious” ends.

The point I’m trying to grasp at, and I don’t know how well I’m doing, is that church communities are increasingly going to have to be a strong resemblance to L’Abri—a community unimaginable and nonsensical apart from the preaching of the Gospel and yet a community where much of the day to day life is not obviously spiritual at all, but quite earthly and human. Many people who come to L’Abri don’t come there chiefly with intellectual problems, but with more basic human problems: they don’t know how to be in relationship with another person, they don’t know how to have appropriate boundaries in their relationships, they don’t know how to go about an ordinary day’s work. And it’s not because these people are, somehow, failed humans. It’s because we’re now living in the aftermath of the abolition of man, as Lewis warned, and it’s fairly hellish. The individuals we encounter with these problems nearly always will make sense to us once we get to know them. But we need to have space in our communities where we can get to know them and we need to be the kind of people ourselves that are attractive to the broken refugees of the world we have made.