Friday, February 25, 2022

The Encouraging Sway of Group Identity


To catch up on the earlier articles that explore small groups through the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

Acclaimed by many as having one of the greatest theme songs in the history of television, the show Cheers follows the antics and daily lives of the employees of a Boston bar and its patrons who frequent the establishment. Through the many failed relationships, the changes in management, the transition of characters, and the numerous wacky conflicts that transpire within Sam Malone’s bar, the characters forge a community that supports one another, loves one another, and cherishes the time spent with one another. Now viewed from our perspective in the year 2022, the community and friendship displayed throughout the show Cheers has become more revered and appreciated. Perhaps one of the more appealing elements of the show may be what Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks refer to as the concept of “group identity” within their book, The Other Half of Church. With group identity, the focus isn’t placed so much on an individual’s beliefs, but rather the positive influence that a group can hold over one another within a community. Stemming from a healthy level of joy and hesed love, they explain that Christian group identity “answers the questions, ‘As followers of Jesus, what kind of people are we? How do the people of God act?” Let us explore three areas in which group identity operates within church small groups.

Group Identity that Changes our Behavior
When it comes to changing our behaviors, Wilder and Hendricks help us to understand the science behind our brain’s ability to control our willpower: “Direct willpower has little effect on our character…When we understand how God designed our brains, we can see that willpower is too far downstream to directly influence reflex reactions.” Instead of trying to use raw effort in changing our character, the two authors recommend tapping into a high-joy hesed community that possesses a strong group identity. Within our churches, the small group ministry is an ideal source for this, for the support that is available can help each of us navigate distressing scenarios and can assist us in the creation of strategies that change our daily behaviors.

The commonly known “iron sharpens iron” phrase from Proverbs 27:17 is easily applied within this context as small groups allow us to learn from others who have experienced similar seasons of life. In our last article, it was stated that one of the more dangerous tools that the enemy uses against us is the state of loneliness because he has an easier time to convince us to make poor decisions (actions that we otherwise would not have made if among others). Would Eve have made the decision to eat the apple if Adam was by her side? Would David have pursued Bathsheba if Nathan was walking alongside of him on the rooftop that night? Group identity becomes a support net for the scenarios in our lives that tempt us to sin or to stray away from holiness. When we are vulnerable and share our hearts, our brothers and sisters in Christ are able to give us meaningful and impactful advice that can lead us to change our behaviors and to become more Christ-like.

Group Identity that Forms our Character
Another danger of being in a state of loneliness is forgetting our identity in Christ. Yet within a small group that meets on a consistent basis, Wilder and Hendricks explain that more opportunities are available for us to remind each other who we are. They elaborate, explaining that “regular reminders ground our identity in the character of Jesus. We need to tell each other what kind of people we are, not only as a reminder but also to immerse new Christians into their new identities.” Even in Cheers, we see this process as new “outsider” characters like Kristie Alley’s Rebecca, Woody Harrelson’s Woody, and Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier each come aboard in later seasons and become integrated, accepted, and then eventually acclimated into the community. Wilder and Hendricks note that “character is revealed by how we act instinctively to our relational surroundings” and that over time, “the people with whom we share joy, hesed, and belonging change us outside the realm of our direct willpower.” Just as a battery can be recharged when electrical current is run through it, our faith can be recharged by spending time with fellow Christians.

Group Identity that Solidifies our Purpose
According to Scripture, each of us are born with at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:7). Such gifts are not meant to be left idle, but rather meant to be shared with others whom the Lord places into our care. While some use their God-given gifts to go on to minister to the world, others are called by God to use their gifts to minister to the individual standing right next to them. In the eyes of the kingdom of God, each scenario is just as important as the other (Matt 18:10-14), and, in either case, we can discover deeper purpose for each of us here on this earth. By being in a small group, we are greeted with the chance to utilize our spiritual gifts more often and experience the heavenly affirmation that comes with the feeling of being used by the Lord for the benefit of His kingdom. Wilder and Hendricks say, “Our group identity must reflect the multifaceted character of Jesus.” Indeed, when we utilize our spiritual gifts within a joy-filled hesed community that has a healthy group identity, we put on display the image of Jesus and show a glimpse of what He might do if He was still in human form today. Let us foster a community within our small groups that allow us to speak into each other and reaffirm what kind of people we are. Let us make a commitment to be in fellowship so that we sharpen one another and recharge each other’s batteries. Let us pursue a group identity that mirrors the bold image of God for all the world to see.

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