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Within every church, members tend to form circles around common interests. I have suggested that this phenomenon is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be helpful in the process of building community. In general, pastors should encourage this tendency, but they should also oversee it.
Some circles may revolve around explicitly religious interests. A church may develop groups of people who are particularly interested in biblical prophecy or poetry. People may form circles around a special burden for witness or missions (or even a particular missionary). In one congregation I know of, some women formed a group to pray especially for the church’s day school.
Other commonalities may not be specifically religious but are still suitable bases for fellowship. Most churches today have some form of specialized children’s ministry, youth ministry, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, and ministry for the aged. Since both age and gender are aspects of calling, and since one’s Christianity must be worked out within one’s calling, these groups are not necessarily inappropriate. Nevertheless, they do pose the danger that the group might become a sub-congregation that practically detaches itself from the body.
Circles of interest, whether formal or informal, may develop around other aspects of vocation. Builders will talk to builders about building, programmers to programmers about programming, and so forth. Homemakers with small children will find each other, and they will also look for older women who have reared children and can offer counsel. These circles of interest present wonderful opportunities for Christians to help one another in working out their own salvation.
Without guidance, however, they also present an opportunity for people to restrict their interests to very temporal and this-worldly concerns. This danger is exacerbated when the interests become more avocational than vocational. Who has not had the occasion to participate in a supposedly-Christian conversation in which an unbeliever would have felt perfectly at home? When the interests of church members never intersect with their Christianity, then these interests have become idols. Circles formed around such interests will lower the spiritual temperature of any church.
How, then, can circles of interest be used for edification rather than for spiritual harm? The answer is for each circle to incorporate at least three habits into its activity and conversation. Part of the ministry of an overseer is to ensure that individual members are aware of these habits and deliberately incorporating them into all circles of interest.
The first habit is to adopt a constantly questioning attitude toward the use and importance of the interest itself. Christians who share an interest should constantly ask one another what role this interest ought to play in a believer’s life. They should regularly discuss how a Christian should pursue the interest. Perhaps most importantly, they should address periodically the problem of idolatry. They should be teaching each other how to know when the interest has turned into an idol, and they should be holding each other accountable to keep it in its rightful place.
For example, business people may feel pressure to devote more and more of their lives to work. Sometimes this pressure may come from circumstances, but other times it may be applied directly by the authorities to whom they answer. Christians who just capitulate to these pressures may damage their families or even their personal walk with the Lord. By taking counsel together, they can share a vision that balances work with family and worship, they can develop strategies for responding to the pressures, and they can hold each other accountable for responding rightly.
The second habit is to be alert for ways in which the interest can be employed directly for ministry. Quilters can donate some of their productions to the missionary closet. Hunters and fishermen can use their sport to share food with church members or others who may experience need. People who know how to work on cars can help widows and others who cannot afford to pay commercial rates for car repair. Many Christians do these kinds of good deeds on an individual basis, but using such skills together for the sake of ministry is a genuine form of fellowship. Members of the group can also counsel and encourage one another in discovering ways to use their shared interest for individual ministry.
The third habit is for Christians to employ their shared interests deliberately as a venue for more serious and more explicitly spiritual conversations. An older pastor once advised a younger man not to depreciate the importance of small talk, because (he said) small talk leads to big talk. This principle should hold true in all conversations among believers. If they are truly growing in faith and virtue, Christianity becomes their most important shared interest. All conversations in all others areas will eventually turn into conversations about the faith.
Shared interest in mundane things (small talk) fosters an attitude of trust and acceptance. People who share small talk will begin to know one another, and the more they know each other, they more they will be inclined to trust each other with talk about more important matters. Few of us will readily open our hearts to strangers, but we share our trials, challenges, hopes, goals, and fears with trusted friends. Those friendships are usually built upon the foundation of multiplied hours of small talk. In healthy Christian friendships, both mundane and overtly spiritual concerns will weave seamlessly throughout conversation. Shared interests become a platform upon which spiritual talk builds, a backdrop against which it is accented, and a context within which it finds application.
Immature believers who still believe that parts of life are secular and parts are sacred may feel uncomfortable making the transition between areas that they think belong to one part or the other. They may not even know how to make those transitions for themselves. Consequently, it is important that mature believers incorporate themselves into each circle of interest. Part of the responsibility of these mature believers is to make sure that the group begins to talk about the spiritual dimensions of the interest. They can guide the group toward using its interest in ways that minister directly to other Christians or to the lost. As they see trust and openness developing within the group, they can guide the conversation toward addressing secret but important needs.
Christians are interested in most of the ordinary things in which non-Christians are interested. They naturally start conversations and form groups with others who share those interests. Those groups can be used powerfully to build community in the church, but they also have the potential to turn the church into a mere social club. The difference lies, first, in mutually exploring the spiritual dimensions of the shared interest, second, in finding ways to use the interest for ministry, and third, in building up from the shared interest to address more and more of the lives of those who share it. Fostering these habits is the responsibility of more mature believers, and, ultimately, of pastors. This activity is part of the reason that a pastor is called an overseer.
Father Most Holy
Latin Hymn (10th century); translated by Percy A. Dearmer (1867–1936)
Father most holy, merciful, and tender;
Jesus, our Savior, with the Father reigning;
Spirit of comfort, advocate, defender,
Light never waning;
Trinity blessed, unity unshaken,
Goodness unbounded, very God of heaven,
Light of the angels, joy of those forsaken,
Hope of all living,
Maker of all things, all Thy creatures praise Thee;
All for Thy worship were and are created;
Now, as we also worship Thee devoutly,
Hear Thou our voices.
Lord God Almighty, unto Thee be glory,
One in three persons, over all exalted!
Glory we offer, praise Thee and adore Thee,
Now and forever.