This is the time of year when small groups (often known as home groups, fellowship groups or life groups) start up again. I am a passionate believer in such groups, for it is often only within the context of a small group of trusted friends that honest conversations become possible.
Time and again in churches the announcement is made on a Sunday morning: “After the service we will have a time of fellowship over a cup of tea or coffee and biscuits”. I always feel like shouting out: “Rubbish! That’s not true”. I have never experienced true fellowship over a church cup of tea and biscuits. I may have experienced a certain superficial friendliness – but honest conversations which are the basis of true fellowship, rarely.
Many churches are good at being friendly – they are good at offering cups of tea or coffee and maybe a chocolate biscuit too. They are not like that apocryphal church which was “Gothic in architecture, arctic in temperature, and where the church wardens or deacons walk up and down the aisles like polar bears!”. Rather they are characterised by a degree of warmth, which in itself can be very winsome. But fellowship is more than warmth and more than being friendly. Fellowship goes much deeper. Fellowship is about operating at levels two and one, rather than levels five, four and three.
Let me explain. The Jesuit, John Powell in his book Why Am I Afraid To Tell You who I Am? helpfully described five levels of conversation:
- Level 5: Clichés – “Terrible weather we’re having these days!”
- Level 4: Facts about others – “Did you hear about Mrs So-and-So?”
- Level 3: My ideas and judgements – “Workers these days are only out for what they can get!”
- Level 2: My feelings – “I’m so relieved! I never realised that you felt that way about it”
- Level 1: Peak communication (absolute openness/honesty) – “Our relationship hasn’t been easy, but I want to tell you that I really value you as my friend”.
Most people can operate at levels 5,4, and 3 without too much difficulty. For example, level 5 is the kind of conversation we have with a stranger at a bus stop. Level 4 is the kind of conversation we can have with an acquaintance (‘gossip’). Level 3 is the kind of conversation which often goes on at church (“Young people these days are not what they were!”). But how often do we really get down to levels 1 and 2 – the levels of feeling and of peak communication? Rarely. Yet these levels are what real fellowship is all about. I believe that, unless a church is prepared to structure is life around small groups, honest conversations and the accompanying meaningful relationships will be the exception rather than the rule.
It is not easy being honest and open with others – for to do so we have to be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable. But once one person in a small group is prepared to be real, often others are prepared to be real too. In the words of the American writer Scott Peck, “Vulnerability in community snowballs. Once its members become vulnerable and find themselves being valued and appreciated, they become more and more vulnerable. the walls come tumbling down. And as they tumble, as the love and acceptance escalate, as the mutual intimacy multiplies, true healing and converting begins. Old wounds are healed, old resentments forgiven, old resistances overcome. Fear is replaced by hope” (The Different Drum).