"A biblical community for the spiritually curious."
AN INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
A MANNA! Life Group is a biblical “ekklesia” that's open and inclusive.
The early church welcomed all people, poor and rich, men and women, Jew, Samaritan and Gentile. They were a group (ekklesia or gathering) without borders. In the ancient Jewish religious culture of Jesus time, prejudice was rampant.
If you were Roman, Greek, African, or Samaritan (half-Jew), there was a wall of discrimination (Matthew 15:21-27; John 4:9). If you were a child or a woman, a tax collector, drunkard or whore, there was a wall of judgment (Matthew 1:19; 9:11; 11:19; John 8:2-5). If you were poor, lame, diseased or blind, there was a wall of bias. Your disability was due to sin (John 9:2). If you were from certain regions (Samaria), or towns (like Nazareth), you were labeled (John 1:46).
The Jewish faith, at the time of Jesus, was a closed door, segregated and locked temple religion.
There were designated courts for Gentiles and women. There were conservative Pharisees and liberal Sadducees. The rich were considered blessed, the poor and diseased were cursed.
It’s why Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman—a woman of five former husbands who was living with a man—was such a grand, yet outrageous, story (John 4). No right-minded and right-acting Jew spoke with a Samaritan, let alone a Samaritan woman, let alone a Samaritan woman of such poor reputation.
But Jesus modeled a new open ethic for those who followed him. He broke all the rules and busted down all the walls. He blessed children (Matthew 19:13). He ate with whores, drunks, gluttons and tax collectors (Luke 7:34). He healed a Roman centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:5-10). He exorcised a demon from a Greek woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30). Jesus even had a tax collector (Matthew), political zealot (Simon) and a non-Galilean (Judas Iscariot) as disciples.
The book of Acts is a case study in ending segregation.
The disciples were commissioned to “go into ALL the world” (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8), and indeed they would. But not before God brought the world to the apostles on the day the Church was born (Acts 2:5-11). Pentecost was an international Jewish festival, drawing more Jews (from more nations) to Jerusalem than any other festival, including Passover.
God started the Church with an international flavor. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect in Palestine. But Philip was the first disciple to spread the faith to his half-Jew Samaritan neighbors (Acts 8:4-5). Later, he’d convert an African Jewish official living in Ethiopia (Acts 8:27). In Acts 10, Peter preaches to a god-fearing Gentile named Cornelius (Acts 10:2). He was essentially a Gentile convert to Judaism. Later, Paul would take the gospel purely to Gentiles, including evangelizing and working alongside some powerful women like Lydia (Acts 16:14) and Priscilla (Acts 18:2).
Christianity was not like the segregated and sectarian Jewish religion that gave it birth. In fact, it was the opposite. Authentic Christianity broke down all the barriers between young and old, rich and poor, slave and free. It was bigger than gender, ethnic, economic and political lines. The Apostle Paul noted this well in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is why all MANNA! Life Groups are open and inclusive groups.
Unlike recovery groups (which require confidentiality) or certain activity groups (like those who ride motorcycles, play a sport, talk about books or create a quilt), we believe in being open to all. We do not segregate based on age, gender, ethnicity, religious background, economic status, or any particular interest or background.
In many smaller churches today, there are no small group ministry and/or home fellowship opportunities available. Even in larger congregations, it's not unusual for interested persons to wait months to find an open group. Many small groups in churches are closed groups, exclusive to the lucky few who find connection and community.
The reasons for a closed group are based upon a desire to grow a deep fellowship of friends. And while this wish is admirable, it’s not biblical. There was no “closed” group in the New Testament church. The reason is simple: a closed group tends to develop into a clique—an intimate group of friends that enjoy each other’s fellowship so much that nobody else fits. Even when spots open up in closed groups, few newcomers sense enough belonging to stick. In fact, in closed groups, it’s not uncommon for visitors and guests to drop out within a few weeks. It’s why so many small groups (and small churches) stay “small.” It’s not that they don’t want to grow, it’s that they have forgotten how it feels to be an outsider, a visitor, a guest.
It’s why MANNA! Life Groups are committed to never close a group or refuse an interested guest, no matter how crowded the gatherings grow. Every leader, host and participant are continually reminded how we remain an open group and to peel new groups with active attendances over 20.
We always want to have room for a new friend.
It’s also why we make name tags a regular part of the gatherings in the MANNA! Life Groups. We wear name tags every week because we never know when we’ll have a guest...and we want every visitor to feel instant belonging. And nothing communicates belonging better than a name. When your name is known, you belong. To quote the theme song from the 1980’s sitcom “Cheers”:
Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you've got;
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.
There’s a reason people go to bars, pubs and coffee shops: they have friends there who know them by name. They also tend to frequent places that don’t judge your stuff (because everybody in a bar has their own “stuff”). Country artist Toby Keith had a hit song in 2003 titled “I Love This Bar” that describes perfectly an open life group’s communal environment (replacing "bar" with “life group” in the lyrics):
We got winners, we got losers, chain smokers and boozers.
An' we got yuppies, we got bikers, an' we got thirsty hitchhikers.
And the girls next door dress up like movie stars.
Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, I love this [life group].
We got cowboys, we got truckers, broken hearted fools and suckers.
An' we got hustlers, we got fighters, early birds and all-nighters.
And the veterans talk about their battle scars:
Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, I love this [life group].
I love this [life group], it's my kind of place.
Just walk in through the front door, puts a big smile on my face.
It ain't too far, come as you are...Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, I love this [life group].
This doesn’t mean “life groups” or Christian gatherings operate like a bar, but we do have similar attributes. We don’t serve alcohol, but we do have Living Water on tap. We don’t drink wine to forget our troubles, but we do drink the fruit of the vine to remember Christ’s sacrifice. We don’t wallow in our brokenness or cry in our beer, but we do share our hurt and pray for our peers.
We desire to create an open community that allows anyone, regardless of their story and faith journey, to find belonging.
We are all imperfect. We all sin. We all are works in progress. We all need a sanctuary where there’s sanctification. The Apostle Paul penned the Corinthians this warning (and reality check):
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
This is the distinguishing mark between a bar and “life group”: we are focused upon the NAME of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have names because we are under THE Name (Philippians 2:9). We have our pasts, our struggles, our issues and our failings...but we have also been washed (baptized into Christ), we are sanctified (saved) and justified (made right) before God.
- It’s why we also encourage newcomers to share their faith stories.
- It’s why we encourage testimonies.
- It’s why we have share ‘n prayer.
- It’s why we move into small groups of four to seven people.
These are all “table moments” to communicate our feelings, questions, perspectives, doubts, troubles, triumphs and blessings.
Just like a bar is filled with smaller tables for conversation, we also desire to create an environment for dialogue. It’s part of our open culture.
If there’s one discrimination, it might be we are not an evangelistic group. We are not a place for those outside of Christ to “find Jesus” and salvation. We focus on discipling believers into a deeper walk, into Christian maturity, into understanding their spiritual gifts and discovering their Calling in Christ Jesus. It doesn’t mean a non-Christian isn’t welcome. Indeed, we welcome unbelievers to visit our gatherings. We even boast a beautiful story about one young Jewish woman who came to group as an agnostic, found faith in Christ and was baptized.
We follow the practice of the early church in being a gathering for believers.
We offer the Lord’s Supper in every gathering for believers. We trust that all who gather are followers in Christ, have made a faith commitment to Christianity and desire to be discipled. Initially, in the early church period, unbelievers did not attend house churches. All connected to a home fellowship were strict believers and followers in “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 22:4). However, we know that by mid-century AD—at least in Corinth—that unbelievers were present in their ekklesias or gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:22-24).
Consequently, MANNA! Life Groups discriminate against no person--unbeliever or believer--from any context, age, economic status or ethnicity. If someone is "biblically curious" and willing to journey with Jesus Christ to learn, mature and be transformed, then our doors are always open.
We are an inclusive biblical community.
The Board of Directors for MANNA! Educational Services International do not set any restrictive guidelines on MANNA! Life Groups except that they adhere to an Acts 2:42 format (all gatherings must include biblical study, prayer huddles, fellowship and participation in the Lord’s Supper), remain open (inclusive and inviting) and submit to the general MANNA! Statement of Belief.
Should any issue, problem or controversy arise within a specific Life Group, it will be dealt with from the lowest necessary authority (leader/shepherd/facilitator, community leader or area director). Very rarely will local issues or specific house gathering problems rise higher than the area director. The goal is to keep all decisions and low-level as possible.
In general, unless it's a matter that involves heresy (false doctrine) or immorality (biblical sin), then MANNA! Life Groups are autonomous in nature, submitting only to Christ Jesus and the norms of their community, area, region or zone.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.