Breaking Bread and Building Friendships
The alchemy of deep friendships among a group of people is hard to predict or quantify. It’s even harder to reproduce. Any small group leader has learned that the hard way. In Christ, we are all family. But this does not mean that we will have deep, intimate friendships with everyone. No human is capable of that. Each of us is closer to some than others, yet we all share in fellowship with Christ.
At Living Hope Church (Kernersville, NC), we have often made the mistake of trying to use small groups to force people into deep friendships. This put the leadership in the position of church-friend matchmaker. We would look at whose schedules were compatible, who we thought would hit it off, and then put them in the same group.
Sometimes it worked, but quite often, it did not. The group was good, but when it ended, people didn’t carry on with each other in any meaningful way. There were just too many factors we couldn’t control: leader personality, group meeting place, conflict resolution, compatibility of seasons of life, willingness of all parties involved to “go deeper,” personality types, etc. In a very small church culture, you can sometimes pull this off, but as the church grows, it gets harder and harder.
I’ve recently read articles declaring that small groups are a failure because of this. I disagree. I think the problem is that we expect small groups to do too much. Small groups are good for the discussion of biblical content, structured prayer and discipleship, ensuring that every church member is shepherded well, and engaging mission locally.
They’re also a great environment to force people to reach out to others in the church body that they ordinarily might avoid. There is something very Christ-like about choosing to get along and pursue a relationship with people who rub us the wrong way. I will probably never have a close friendship with someone who rubs me the wrong way, but God expects me to have a loving relationship with them. The small group setting is the only place in most churches where we learn to do that.
What we have started to do in our church is something called “Supper Clubs.” These are groups small enough to fit around a typical dinner table. We encourage people to form supper clubs with their friends or other people with whom they would like to be friends. If they are unable to do that, we help them get started.
They meet once a month for dinner, rotating homes among the group members. Each month’s host chooses the menu and delegates things to the other group members. The idea is to make your family’s favorite meals, not to impress your friends with your bolognese sauce.
We encourage people to arrange babysitting and treat it like a date night. We also encourage supper clubs to spend time talking, asking each other questions, telling stories, and getting to know one another. There is no curriculum or goal beyond forming lasting friendships. Because they only meet monthly and the numbers are small, scheduling is much easier, making it possible to do supper clubs in addition to a small group.
The biggest objection I hear is that people are too busy. Rarely is that actually true! If you are truly too busy to make friends, then you are doing life wrong. Your soul needs deep friendship the way your lungs need air and your stomach needs food. Are you too busy to breathe? Or eat?
Heather and I have been part of a supper club for over a year, and it has been fantastic. The friendships we’ve formed are real, unforced, and authentic. We have prayed together, cried together, and rejoiced together. Most of the people were already attending small groups, but otherwise living isolated lives.
And, it has become beautifully missional. A couple in our supper club invited an unmarried couple with two kids who had moved in next door. They came, and we embraced them as friends. Through those friendships, they got to see what godly marriages look like, how godly parenting functions, and what Christ-like relationships can be. It was transformative. Our supper club just put on a wedding for them, and the husband is being baptized in a couple weeks, while the wife has recommitted her life to Jesus.
This couple is also in a small group where they are learning to study the Bible in community with other Christians and being challenged to serve. This is the two-tiered approach that I think works best, at least for us. I encourage you to try it. Don’t abandon the small group model. Just don’t expect it to do everything. Go make friends. You never know what God might do.