diveinThis week I started something called the “10-Day Detox”. This means I have been reduced to eating sticks and grass for most meals, with an occasional all-natural, free-range, organic, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, no added sugar, non-dairy chicken thrown in to make sure I don’t forget how to chew meat. All of this is supposed to help me shed some weight, increase my metabolism and generally make me healthier. I realize that these are good things, but so is a chocolate-chip cookie! Why is it that the good things in life are so difficult to achieve?

I guess I wouldn’t be in this situation if I had kept an eye on my diet and exercised regularly. Unfortunately, it seems like the natural gravitational pull in life is not towards what is good for us, but rather, towards complacency and even destructiveness. The same thing happens with our spiritual growth: left to our own devices, our natural inclination is to drift away from God, not towards Him. It doesn’t matter if it is our physical health or our spiritual health, if we want to be healthy, we need to be intentional about it – we need to own it.

There are a number of things we can do to own our spiritual growth. Everything from daily Bible time, making church a priority, to using your unique giftedness to serve others. These are all great things, but there is one thing that I believe is greater than all of these: diving into community.

When I say “diving into community”, I mean something more than just coming to church, I mean truly engaging in the community of church. This means diving in fully, getting your hair wet, not wading in or just sticking your toes in to see what the water is like, but diving in!

Let me make something clear: the best place to “dive into community” is not at weekend services. Yes, you read that right, coming to church every week doesn’t qualify as “diving into community”. Before you call or email me, I am in no way downplaying the importance of regular church attendance! There is power in worshipping together. Learning happens and challenges are taken up during our weekend services. Lives are changed and families are mended during these services. Regular weekend attendance is critical to your spiritual growth; however, it is not the best incubator for the development of true, biblical community. It is hard to develop community while we are sitting in rows all facing the same direction. Developing community requires that we form some circles and engage one another – face to face.

So what does this community look like? True biblical community consists of four elements: Authenticity, commonality, empathy and mercy.

Authenticity – True community is not superficial. This is beyond the “How ‘bout them Cowboys?” small talk. Authenticity happens when people get honest about who they are and what is going on in their lives. It happens when people are willing to open up about their hurts, doubts and failures. When we are able to confess our doubts and share our weaknesses with people that are close to us, something happens: we grow spiritually and become more emotionally healthy.

Commonality – Another hallmark of true biblical community is a sense of commonality. This is the art of giving and receiving, of depending on one another. It is through an attitude of commonality that we can build mutually beneficial relationships. In a community that exhibits commonality life itself is a shared commodity: the responsibilities, the burdens and the victories. It is what drives us to help others when they are in need or to lean on others when we need help.

Empathy – Empathy is the ability to identify with the feelings or experiences of others. It is the ability to feel another person’s pain. It is much more than a pat on the shoulder and the offering of advice. In fact, empathy may not even involve words – it may be just putting an arm around a person and being there. Empathy means entering into the other person’s pain and saying “you are not alone”.  It is when we are at our lowest, when we are overwhelmed by grief, fear and doubt that our faith tends to falter. It is at these times that we need a group of friends that can enter into our pain and bolster our faith that God is still there and He is in control.

Mercy – In a true biblical community, our mistakes aren’t advertised or amplified. Community happens when mercy wins over justice. Mercy can be defined as not getting what we deserve. We all need this! When we make a mistake, when we stumble and fall and need some help getting back up, what we desire is mercy. In true community mercy is exhibited by the offering of and asking for forgiveness. When someone messes up, forgiveness is given, whether the person asks for it or not. When you realize you messed up, forgiveness is asked for, even if no one calls you out on it. It is impossible to have community if there are grudges lying just below the surface. It is only after sins have been addressed and forgiven that trust can be rebuilt – along with authenticity, commonality and empathy.

Here at Fellowship of the Parks, this type of community happens in our LIFEgroups. This is why we believe that your engagement in LIFEgroups is critical to your spiritual growth. Without this type of community, we are left to the natural gravitational pull of life – we will tend to drift away from God. The writer of Hebrews knew this. In Hebrews 3:12-14 we see this:

12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.

Do you see it?

that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” – the natural gravitational pull is away from God

encourage one another daily” – be a part of a true, biblical community

none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” – We can’t do this alone! We are our own worst enemy, because, left alone, we start buying in to sin’s deceitfulness.

We … share in Christ … we hold our original conviction” – This is the essence of spiritual growth: Holding our conviction firmly to the very end! We have to do this together, in community.

Being in community is the best way to own your issues. Yes, this takes work. You can’t be passive! To receive authenticity, commonality, empathy and mercy you have to be willing to give these things as well. This takes time, effort and courage. There are no shortcuts. If you are already in a LIFEgroup, I encourage you to increase your engagement. If you are not in a LIFEgroup, what are you waiting for? Dive in, your spiritual future depends on it!