With all the talk of small groups in the air, some folks have expressed concern about cliques developing in our church.  People label as ‘clique’ any group from which they find (or feel) themselves excluded.  We always use the term pejoratively and infer with its use the accusation “That group is bad because it excluded me.”

    The Spirit of God says “love believes and hopes all things,” meaning love always chooses to believe the best options first, to give the benefit of the doubt;  love doesn’t quickly accuse others of wrongdoing or malicious motives.  So why, at the suggestion of the creation of small groups among adults, would we right up front start expressing concern about cliques and exclusion?  For many of us it’s a residual habit we learned in childhood.  As Jonathan Swift observed in Gulliver’s Travels and as the 1992 Disney film Honey, I Blew Up the Kid! illustrated in comedic form, children can be very nasty and dangerous!  Most of us have in our growing-up years experienced intentionally malicious exclusion from a group.  Perhaps some experienced it often enough to make cliquishness a knee-jerk fear or concern whenever we think of having to join in a gathering of some sort.

    But do mature adults intentionally and maliciously exclude people merely for the joy of being spiteful?  I have a really hard time believing that to be a common occurrence.  Rarely have I seen such malice in a church.  What I’ve seen more often is people who react quickly and emotionally to any perceived slight and who fail to give others the benefit of the doubt instead of thinking through the actual dynamics of the way groups work.

    Whether you’re talking about a church, a team, a family, a Scout troop or any circle of friends, a group is a group because bonds have been forged between the members.  The longer a group has been together and the more experiences its members have shared, the stronger, the greater and the more numerous the bonds.  Any time a new person comes to join such a group the newcomer is at a disadvantage because he hasn’t participated in the experiences that molded the group. Newcomers don’t understand the group’s history, the various relationships between members, or the fun inside jokes, subtle looks and catch-phrases used in the group’s communication.  A sensitive newcomer may interpret a group’s normal interaction as rejection.  “I don’t understand” leads to “I feel stupid for not understanding” leads to “This group is trying to make me feel stupid” leads to “They think I’m stupid” leads to “They don’t want me.  They’re a clique.”  Love interrupts this logic early on:  “I don’t understand because I haven’t been part of this very close group.  They’re not trying to hurt me.  I have to get over feeling stupid and go through the uncomfortable natural stages of being a newcomer until I learn enough to feel comfortable fitting in.”

    Sometimes moving through stages of life can make us feel rejected by a group.  A few years after we graduated from college my wife and I returned to campus for a group conference.  We were so looking forward to reliving the good old days.  But when we got to campus, we realized that the thing that made school so great was the people, not the campus.  None of the students knew us or our accomplishments; we weren’t important to the life of the campus.  We weren’t greeted or lauded.  We were pretty much overlooked and ignored and left to ourselves.  It would have been very easy to feel rejected by our college; instead we just noted that we’d moved on to a different stage of life, and we rejoiced in our memories and took pleasure in watching the new generation of collegians making their own memories.

    Young people will experience this once they have children.  Suddenly you don’t fit with your unmarried friends.  “The singles” start going places without you.  Are they maliciously excluding you?  No – they just realize babies don’t do too well white-water rafting or rock-climbing.  Love believes the best and moves on – no hurt, no blame, no accusations. 

    The reverse can also be true.  Singles can feel excluded by married friends, simply because when you’re married and start having children, your perspective generally changes.  The issues that concern you are no longer the issues of your single friends.  The common bonds that make a group a group start to disappear.  Love believes the best:  My married friends aren’t ignoring or rejecting me.  They’ve moved on to a new stage of life with concerns that are different from mine and that I won’t understand until I move on to that stage of life.  Our own friendship will not be as intense as it used to be – and that’s fine.  This is how love talks to itself to prevent self-pity and accusation of others.

    Finally, there are some groups to which we just can’t belong because we’re not qualified to belong.  The Bible college I attended required Christian service projects every semester. I wanted to go to churches on the weekends with a school gospel team (a singing group).  I can’t read music and I had no voice training, but I signed up for a tryout anyway.  And I did miserably.  The music professor criticized me from the first note that I sang, and he rejected me as unqualified.  In my immaturity (I was 17) I charged the school musicians with being a snotty narrow-minded clique.  The truth was that I was unqualified musically – and that I had too much pride to acknowledge that fact.  Crying ‘clique’ was much easier.  Love would have believed the best of the professor and wouldn’t have vaunted itself the way I did.

    Recognize that people can easily be hurt in the ways that I have mentioned, and that it’s very easy to feel rejection where none is intended.  Be sensitive to outsiders and newcomers – ‘aliens and strangers’ to use the Old Testament terminology – who want to fit in and belong.  Make the extra effort to help them to understand your group and its idiosyncrasies, to eliminate every possible roadblock that would make them say ‘clique’.

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