Were you to ever venture just north of San Francisco into Muir Woods, an incredible forest of sequoia trees, you would no doubt be provoked to a sense of awe over the strength and endurance of the massive trees. Sequoias are sometimes referred to as the largest living things on earth, reaching almost 250 feet in the air and standing for as many as fifteen hundred years.
When you stand before their enormous trunks and beneath a canopy more than twenty stories above you, it’s hard not to feel tiny and envious at the same time. If you could have a conversation with one (not that either of us have attempted that), would you not want to ask, “How? How have you done it? How have you stood strong through all the storms of life, all the difficult situations? How have you not toppled?”
Their response may be surprising.
You would probably assume that deep roots would be the fundamental reason the sequoias around you could date back to a few decades from the collapse of the Roman Empire. That is not the case at all, however, as each tree’s roots grow only about four feet in the ground. While going deeper helps many trees remain upright, the sequoia you stand before like an ant has not overcome the difficulties of life because of its depth.
The answer doesn’t lie down below in the earth but all around the tree. If you looked around, you would notice that sequoia trees grow only in groves. While their roots go only about four feet deep into the ground, their roots intermingle with the other sequoias next to them. One tree has other trees surrounding it, supporting it and keeping it strong. Each tree stands strong through the centuries because each tree has an interdependent posture.
No sequoia grows alone.
The connection to our spiritual walk should be obvious—no believer is transformed alone. Just as the mighty sequoia would topple without a community of supporting trees, believers who seek transformation apart from a Christian community are vulnerable to spiritually topple in the winds of adversity.
In many circles, believers are reclaiming “personal spiritual disciplines” that help them encounter the grace of God. Moreover, the plethora of resources provided to Christians for “personal spiritual growth” is constantly on the rise, while simultaneously some church leaders are experimenting with “personal spiritual growth plans” for members, customized to the individual’s learning style and current assessment of his spiritual life.
While we are grateful for the encouragement, resources, and opportunities for individuals to grow, we fear that the beauty and necessity of community may be lost in the forest of resources for the individual. If community is ignored, the resources may fill minds while not transforming hearts.
How important is community for the body of Christ? Is it just a detail many people can live without? Is community an option when you dream about your church design? Or is community one of those annoying consumer needs you have to provide?
Transformation is a communal experience, not an individual exercise. Jesus, God on earth, understood this fact. His model of disciple making must be ours. Jesus chose twelve, a small group. The synergy that occurred in that group of twelve aided greatly in the process of making these men mature disciples. The conversations they engaged in, the times they served Rabbi Jesus together, the processing of Jesus’ teachings around a campfire, even the missteps these men shared were all in Jesus’ plan for making them into the mature disciples He needed them to be. Doing life together is an unquestionable essential in the disciple-making process.
When we speak of the value of community, we are not speaking of arguing about the right kind of small group. None of the “groups” discussion will matter until we all see this as a greater subject than groups. No matter how you define groups—Life Groups, Sunday school, discipleship classes, or Bible fellowships—the importance is the same. Church leaders—including pastoral staff, elders, deacons, and leadership teams—must see community as a biblical nonnegotiable, an essential for transformation, a necessity for building lives that stand the test of time.
Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, Transformational Groups: Creating a New Scorecard for Groups (Nashville: B&H, 2014).