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.

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Power of Hesed Attachment

1 John 4:16 says that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (NIV). From what we understand as Christians, the very epitome of what could be considered unconditional love is Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for us. Yet the capability to express love is not reserved to just those who are religious; even if an individual is not a Christian, humans are able to express love towards other. Believers understand this phenomenon to stem from the understanding that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). So if we wanted to live our best lives and surround ourselves with the most enriching and loving relationships that we can possibly have, then what are our options? Based upon the research noted in the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, an individual's small group within their church may be one of their best options. Today, we will be focusing on the covenant-like love that can be expressed within a person's small group.

To catch up on the earlier articles that discuss small groups through the book by Wilder and Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

Healthy Attachment
When discussing the topic of relationships, the word “attachment” isn’t often used in positive terms. While Eastern cultures are more apt to take on a close-knit communal approach to relationships, Western cultures tend to lean more towards relationships that consider other individuals to be more like acquaintances instead of intimate friends. For a Western individual, to be “attached” to someone who is not a member of their immediate family can seem odd, perhaps even countercultural. However, Wilder and Hendricks help us understand the critical function of “attachment” within our brains:

Attachment is the strongest force in the human brain. It is not an emotion. Although we feel it strongly, an attachment runs much deeper in the brain below willful control. Attachment is the best word scientists could find for what glues people together and little creatures to their parents. It produces an enduring care for the well-being of another. Attachment is a life-giving forever bond with no mechanism in the brain to unglue us.

One of the more dangerous tools that the enemy can use against us is the state of loneliness. By getting us to feel alone or to feel like no one else understands what we are going through, the devil is able to convince us to pursue actions that we would have never considered before. However, when we are a part of a community that expresses a covenant-like hesed love toward one another, it creates what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as a “family structure,” an environment where we are able to experience the type of oneness that Jesus promotes in John 17:20-23. It is in a family structure, Wilder and Hendricks notes, that our perspectives change and the strong attachments we create will establish a flow of transformational power. They continue, informing us that “our brains draw life from our strongest relational attachments to grow our character and develop our identity. Who we love shapes who we are.”

When Fellowship Occurs Without Attachment
When small groups meet without an intentional roadmap to developing attachments, its participants who are seeking genuine fellowship within the church may still be left wanting. Wilder and Hendricks note that in the context of the overarching culture of the church, attachment-deprived fellowship can stunt relational growth within the community. In a “low hesed church,” they note that while a friendly community may not experience as much conflict in the short term, it struggles to accept the pain and character flaws that inevitably occur when individuals begin to grow closer together; “High-hesed” churches on the other hand are willing to accept pain and character flaws. Indeed, they expect the pain to occur. But because of the presupposed covenant-like hesed love that the community operates from, there is no shame or withdrawal from the difficult or vulnerable areas of our lives. Weaknesses are used as launching pads to help strive for the transformative character growth that is collectively pursued.

Yet Wilder and Hendricks remark that meeting with one another just for the sake of communal gathering is not enough. In one of the few occasions in the book where they actually do address small group ministries, they explain that hesed love does not automatically grow on its own within a small group. Rather, they argue for an approach where the church proactively trains up its small group leaders with a curriculum that “make[s] relationship-building a centerpiece of the group curriculum instead of an afterthought.” By incorporating these concepts into our scheduled meetings with leaders, the long-term effects can be largely impactful as small group leaders begin to operate their groups more through the lens of hesed relationships.

Hesed as a Part of Our DNA
So important is the concept of hesed love for these two authors that they claim that “until we restore our loving attachments to God and each other, we are wasting our time doing ministry, church, or anything else for that matter.” With this bold stance in mind, it must be our goal to achieve a clear understanding of love so that we are able to become living examples of hesed for those whom God places in our care. Perhaps some examples of this can include the launching of new small groups that focus predominantly on purpose-driven relationships, or perhaps more concerted efforts to build joy within the community, or maybe even surveying the community for suggested activities that would allow everyone to work together and interact more often. In a high-hesed environment, members of the community are confident that they can experience a loving fellowship that uplifts them and helps them in their journey. Wilder and Hendricks encourage us to restructure how we relate to one another and practice being a family until hesed actually becomes a part of our DNA.  Let us express hesed love to one another in such a prominent way that it may multiply within our communities and set the stage for the next two key ingredients of Christian relationships: Group Identity and Healthy Correction.