Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Small-print small group

MOST CHURCHES HAVE some sort of introductory class for new members. It typically outlines the particularities of their way of doing things, along with various opportunities for service. I suspect that hip churches may (shudder) even call this process “on-boarding.”

While these Church 101 orientations are helpful in giving newbies the big picture, I have yet to come across one that also presents the less pleasant details. You might call it the “small-print small group.”

I’m referring to the cost of signing up for the Christian life, the potential side effects, as it were. Like those television ads for various wonder pills, which show people skipping through the fields, splashing in the sea, or holding hands while sitting in adjacent bathtubs. These typically feature a narrator talking rapidly at the end about all the things that could go wrong, hoping you don’t detect words like “paralysis,” “death,” or “limbs dropping off.”

However, Jesus didn’t try to shield His fledgling church from the bad stuff. Indeed, He actively prepared them for it. At the Last Supper, He gave an extended discourse on all that was probably in store for His followers. It wasn’t a stroll in the park.

That should not have been a surprise, given His earlier warnings to the crowds that they needed to take up their cross and follow Him. When Jesus told His closest friends more about what they were really getting into, He explained that He “said these things to you to keep you from falling away” (John 16:1).

And what were those things? He wanted His followers to know ahead of time that being part of His coming kingdom was not going to be all hallelujahs and high-fives. He wanted them to know:

They would fall out. Jesus knew their first flush of shared joy would fade: “This is my commandment, that you love one another” (John 14:12). He knew there were going to be days when they wouldn’t get along like a house on fire. At that point, they’d have to choose to live as though they loved each other—even if they didn’t feel it—rather than going off and sulking.

They would feel pain. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He [God the Father] tosses away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes,” Jesus said (John 15:2). Contrary to much contemporary teaching, following Jesus isn’t always fun. Seasons of loss and diminishment are not necessarily a sign of God’s absence. Indeed, they could mark the exact opposite: He is working closely in your life to conform you more to His image.

They would face opposition. “I chose you out of the world, though the world hates you,” Jesus said (John 15:16). Not everyone likes the perfect but also radical Jesus, whose love uncomfortably confronts all in us that keeps us from being all He intends for us to be. So we can be pretty sure not everyone is going to like His followers, who unlike Him are not perfect. In a world where, increasingly, anything goes and everyone’s “truth” is equally valid, Jesus’s exclusive claim to being the only way to God the Father is going to upset folks.

Laying out these sort of hard truths as part of the welcome process may not do a lot for church growth—though some would argue that many people see through the shallowness of easy-believism and are actually looking for something demanding to give their lives to. But a small-print small group may do a lot to reduce attrition rates, as it prepares people and helps keep them “from falling away.”

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