Confession: I had never belonged to a church small group before City Church. I didn’t see the need, really. I had always been surrounded by peers my age and community seemed easy enough to find.
Fast forward to a warm Tuesday night in 2015. We were in Houston, tackling my first ‘real’ job, as well as that most daunting of tasks—making friends as an adult. (Now made trickier by the fact I had a rambunctious toddler in tow.) We had visited a few small groups, but while they had all been warm and welcoming, the atmosphere tended toward decorous. This was, to put it mildly, incompatible with my child. I was about to give up altogether, but a friend insisted we try the Heights City Group. It was decidedly not my neighborhood, but here we were anyway, about to enter another unfamiliar house.
As soon as the door opened, I knew we were home. The Heights group was (and is) a lot of things, but ‘decorous’ is not one of them. Before long, my toddler disappeared into a shrieking group of children, and I got down to adult business by the kitchen island.
Here is the other sticky thing. I am a practicing pediatric critical care doctor. It may sound impressive, but the reality is that it makes me an unreliable friend as well as a less than ideal wife and daughter. In six years of training, I missed countless birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and life events in general. Even my current work schedule has me miss at least 16 Sundays a year—no church attendance awards for me—and that is without counting the night shifts that inevitably will fall during small group time.
Suffice it to say, I was doomed to be a failure before I even joined. My inclinations, shaped both by culture and training, tell me that unless I am a highly contributive group member, I am a burden. Why would any group want me when I could not be counted on to be present weekly? How could I be an asset when my resources are barely enough for myself?
And yet. Six years later, we are still part of a City Group. Despite my flakiness and patchy attendance, somehow people welcomed me back time and again. The group has morphed countless times with people moving away and new ones joining in, and yet the warm welcome remains. I produced a second rambunctious child, and the group is now meeting in another house, although we still end up by the kitchen island. I have had the honor of being included in the birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and the life events in general of the group members. We have been the recipients and senders of meals, the organizers of celebrations as well as the celebrants; we have prayed, rejoiced, and mourned together. Perhaps even more shockingly, I learned that perfection was not required of me; and it never was. I was loved and included in spite of, and occasionally because of, my imperfections.
In a recent New York Times article about worship, Esau McCaulley writes, “Bodies and physical spaces are really means by which we attempt to encounter God on earth.” Having sat through countless sermons on grace, I am familiar with the concept. Theoretically, I know I am saved by grace. Practically, I fail to remember this in just about every worldly interaction, and perform my life as if my virtues are what redeem me. Thankfully, God is not forgetful. He reminds me that the workings of His grace and practice for kingdom living are lived out with other bodies, amidst chaos around kitchen islands. This is the true power of small group—it was never about gathering the brightest, most witty church members with perfectly curated lives. Instead, it is the imbuement of divine love into a group of flawed human beings, who come together under the auspices of grace. And thus, I come to group, less than perfect, but perfectly worthy of love anyway.