My roommates Shawn Yang and Brian Burr had started a quote board for our apartment last week. I had seen quote boards at friends’ houses before. To me, a quote board appeared to be simply a list of funny things people said, often taken out of context as much as possible for humorous effect. Brian had a more strict view of quote boards; he felt that the quotes should be more sophisticated than just things that sounded dirty.
When I was young, I often saw commercials during children’s cartoons on television encouraging children to drink milk, touting the health benefits of doing so. Before the “Got Milk?” slogan spawned countless parodies for decades, the previous slogan was “Milk: it does a body good.” One day last week, Shawn got home from a run while Brian was watching television and I was eating. It was a warm day, and Shawn was wearing nothing but running shorts and shoes. “While I was out running,” Shawn told us, “this carload of girls drove past me. They rolled down their window, and one of them shouted, ‘Hey! Do you drink milk? Because it did your body good!’”
I laughed loudly. “That’s great!” I said.
“We need a quote board,” Brian announced. “Like we had at our house last year. And that needs to go on it.”
A week later, I was again eating at the dining room table around the same time of night. Shawn was making something in the kitchen, and Brian had just come downstairs. “So I was reading something the other day about this Christian astrophysicist,” Brian said. “He has this theory that the universe actually has ten dimensions, and we can’t perceive the other seven. He thinks that God and heaven exist in those other dimensions.
“Interesting,” Shawn replied. “Ten dimensions, huh?”
“The universe has ten dimensions,” I said. “Let’s see, they are…” I began counting on my fingers. “Length, width, height, time, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.”
“YES!” Brian shouted, laughing. “That’s going on the quote board!” Brian wrote my quote with a black permanent marker, underneath the random girl’s quote about Shawn’s body.
“Is Josh okay?” Shawn asked. “I haven’t seen him all week.”
“I saw him yesterday,” I replied. “He said he had to cover someone’s shift in addition to his usual night shift tonight.”
“You’re gonna live with Josh again in a house next year, right, Greg?”
“Yeah. And Sean Richards, and Sam Hoffman.”
“That’s cool. Meanwhile,” Shawn explained, “I have an opportunity back home in Ashwood. One of my friends back home is opening a store to sell running shoes, and clothes, and accessories, and I’m gonna be his business partner.”
“Nice,” I said. “So you’re for sure not going into teaching?”
“Nah. I still enjoy the kids, but the master teacher I was working with this year made me realize I just can’t work with people like that. And all my classes and paperwork for teaching are done if I change my mind within the next five years.”
“That’s true,” I said. I wondered if Shawn’s thoughts on this subject would impact my future at all, now that I was considering education as a career option. I hoped that I would not end up with a master teacher that bad. I had been assisting in a math class at Jeromeville High School this quarter, and I really liked the teacher from that class, Mr. O’Rourke.
“And I’m off to New York next year,” Brian said. He had been applying to medical school, and after many rejections and a few waitlists that never materialized, he had been accepted at New York Medical College, in Westchester County just outside of New York City.
Brian and Shawn both went back to their rooms a bit later. I stayed downstairs, because it was Thursday, and I hosted a small group Bible study through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at my apartment; people would be arriving soon. The group had steadily shrank over the course of the year, and one of the leaders had stepped down under mysterious circumstances. There had only been four or five of us for most of this quarter.
Evan Lundgren, the remaining leader, arrived on time and began setting up, getting out his notes and his Bible. “We might have a really small group tonight,” he said. “Jonathan told me he wasn’t coming.”
I nodded. “So do you know who is coming?”
“I know Jill has been really busy with school. And Amy hasn’t been to this group in a while. I haven’t talked to either of them this week.”
“So it might just be us two tonight?”
I sat on the couch, feeling uneasy about a Bible study of two people. Evan did not make me uncomfortable, but I had never been in a Bible study with just me and one other guy. What would we talk about? Who would answer when I did not have a good answer?
“So how are classes going?” Evan asked me.
“Good,” I said. “A lot of work. I’m only taking twelve units, but it feels like the hardest quarter I’ve ever had. The computer science class is so much work, and Foundations of Education is a lot of reading and writing. I’m a math guy; I’m not used to that much reading and writing.”
“Yeah,” Evan chuckled.
“What about your classes?”
“They’re pretty tough, about what I’m used to. I’m taking this Ancient Greek class that’s really hard.”
“Sounds like it.”
Evan and I continued making small talk for another twenty minutes or so. I thought I heard a few cars pull up during that time, but none of their drivers or occupants knocked on my door. “I don’t think anyone else is coming,” Evan said eventually.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I replied. “So what are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know. We could try going through what I had planned, but the discussion wouldn’t work very well with just two of us.”
“Or we could just cancel and hope someone shows up next week. But with everyone busy right now, I don’t know if anyone will show up next week either.”
As I thought about how disappointing this was, a thought came to me. “If you’re gonna cancel, I know Joe Fox and Lorraine’s small group meets at the same time as ours. I might just go check out their group instead.”
“You’re gonna go there tonight?” Evan asked. “Can I come with you?”
Evan and I took two cars to Lorraine’s house, since his apartment was in a different direction from mine. Taking two cars would be easier than having to take Evan back to his car at my apartment.
I had been to this house once before, but no one was supposed to know about that. Shortly after Brian and Shawn and I moved into our apartment, we had pulled a prank here, toilet-papering Lorraine’s yard while she and her friends were home, watching a movie. Brian swore me to secrecy, and I had told no one about that night. About a month ago, I mentioned that night to Brian, and he admitted that he had eventually caved and told Lorraine about his involvement, but he had not implicated me or Shawn. I found it noteworthy that I had not caved and the mastermind of the plan had. I realized as Evan and I walked up to the front door that I had just now told Evan how to get to Lorraine’s house; I hoped that it had not seemed suspicious that I knew this. Evan did not say anything about it. I knew Lorraine and some of her roommates from JCF, so I very well could have hung out there sometime before. Maybe this was not as suspicious as it seemed to me.
I knocked at the door. Lorraine opened the door a few seconds later. “Greg! Evan!” she said. “What’s up?”
“You mind if we join you?” I asked. “Our Thursday Bible study kind of fell apart.”
“Sure! Come on in! What do you mean, fell apart?”
“We’re the only two left,” Evan explained.
Evan and I followed Lorraine back to the circle of about ten people, most of whom I recognized, in the living room. There were no open seats, but some people were sitting on the floor. Evan and I sat on the floor, next to Abby Bartlett and Sean Richards.
I looked over at Abby’s Bible, open to the letter of James, chapter 4. I opened my Bible to the same place and found the verses that the others were discussing. I quickly read the verses to myself, then listened to what others were saying for a while.
“Does anyone else have any thoughts about this verse?” Joe asked. “‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you?’”
“It seems straightforward,” Abby replied. “To get the devil to flee, walk away from tempting situations. Your action of resisting makes the devil flee.”
Your action. Something about Abby’s words stuck in my mind. When I first became more serious about my faith last year, I heard a lot about how I was saved by Jesus’ death on the cross, not through anything I had done. But then I read James at one point, and the verse “faith without works is dead” seemed to contradict the idea of salvation by faith alone. Maybe these concepts were not contradictory after all. I raised my hand. “Yes, Greg?” Joe said.
“There’s that verse earlier in James that says something like ‘faith without works is dead.’ Is that right?”
“James is saying here that if you resist the devil, he will flee from you. You want the devil to flee, but you have to back that up by actively doing something to resist him. That made me think of the other thing, where if you really have faith, it has to be backed up by your actions. That’s what shows that your faith is real.”
“That’s a great point,” Joe said.
“Yeah,” Lorraine agreed. I smiled. Maybe I would fit in with this small group.
As the study continued, I contributed to the discussion a few more times, as did Evan. Evan’s group had become so small that there had not been much discussion the last few weeks. Evan had to do a lot of leading in order for us to make good points. Joe and Lorraine’s group did not seem like that at all; enough people shared openly to keep the discussion going.
After we finished discussing the Scripture, Joe and Lorraine asked for prayer requests. We took turns praying for each other, then a few people went home right away while the rest stayed in Lorraine’s living room to mingle. “Hi,” one guy I did not know said, offering his hand for me to shake. “I’m Dave.”
“I’m Greg,” I replied, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Greg will be one of my housemates for next year,” Sean explained to Dave. I noted in my head that I would be going from sharing the large bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing the large bedroom in a different house with someone named “Sean.” Interesting coincidence, probably meaningless. “What brings you guys here anyway?” Sean asked me. “Looking for a new Bible study?”
“Weren’t you in a Bible study that met at your house?” Abby asked. “I thought that’s what Josh said.” Abby’s boyfriend was Josh, my roommate who was working tonight.
“Evan led that group,” I said. “But the other leader quit, and people stopped coming, and now it’s down to just us. So we came here instead.”
“That makes sense,” Sean replied.
“Greg,” Joe said, walking up to us. “You’re gonna be in my small group next year, right?”
“Great. I’m just trying to figure out how many we’re gonna have. It looks like it’s gonna be a really big small group.”
“That’s kind of an oxymoron.”
“Yeah. But we’ll find a way to make it work. Thanks for coming tonight.”
The next day was Friday, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met in the evening. Janet McAllen, one of the full time staff from JCF, made an announcement at the beginning about small groups for next year. I did not need to sign up for one, since I had already told Joe that I would be in his group.
After the night ended, I stood up and looked around for someone to talk to. A freshman girl named Sadie, whom I had spoken to a few times before, was sitting behind me. “Hey,” I said after she made eye contact with me. She had blue eyes, which contrasted with her medium brown hair.
“Hi!” Sadie replied. “How was your week?”
“It was okay,” I said. I explained to her what happened last night with Evan’s disappearing small group, then asked, “Do you have a small group for next year?”
“Yeah! I’m gonna be in one of those groups to train future leaders, with that Greek name. I don’t remember what it’s called.”
“Yeah! That’s it.”
“I really don’t like the way they’re doing small groups. Kairos groups are invitation only, and I was never invited to be in one, and there’s gonna be something like five of them next year. And next year there are two groups just for women, and two groups just for transfer students, and one group just for Filipino students, and it feels like I don’t fit into any of those categories. There’s only one group left for the rest of us living off campus, Joe Fox and Lydia Tyler are leading that, and Joe said it’s gonna be huge. Hopefully someone will learn from that, and they’ll stop making all the groups so specific.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Sadie said.
“And something just feels wrong about that Filipino group. Next thing you know, they’ll have separate groups for Black students, and White students, and Latinos. The people who claim to be against racism seem to want to segregate people the most.”
“I know! It’s so messed up! Last summer, someone campaigning against that initiative to end affirmative action showed up at our doorstep, and my dad went off on him! Pretty sure they’re not gonna send anyone to our door ever again.”
“Good! I mean, yes, racism is an ugly part of our history, but more segregation isn’t the answer, and neither is turning it around and being racist against white people. That just creates more division, which is the last thing this world needs.”
“I saw graffiti on campus last year that said, ‘Initiative 119 = Genocide.’ How is it that the people who claim not to be racist believe that some races will die without special favors from the government?”
“Wow,” Sadie said, shaking her head.
“I’ve told people that I’m glad I didn’t do more research on Jeromeville before I came here, because if I had known how liberal it was here, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else, and I never would have met my friends here.”
“I feel the same way! But God puts us places for a reason, right?”
“Exactly,” I said. “How was your week?”
“Great! I found out I got picked to write for the Daily Colt next year!”
“Yeah! I was really hoping I’d get that.”
“What are you up to tonight?”
“I need to get home and go to bed. I have a lot of studying to do.”
“Well, good luck. I should probably go help the worship team load up their equipment. That’s my job here. Have a great weekend!”
I took a deep breath. That conversation could have gone badly, considering how controversial issues of race can be, but now I knew that Sadie was a safe person with whom to share my conservative leanings. It was nice having outspoken conservative friends here at a liberal secular university. I was glad she would be writing for the school newspaper next year; they definitely needed more conservatives on their staff.
Evan and I attended Joe and Lorraine’s Bible study for two more weeks. After that was the final week of classes for the year, and Evan was able to get Jonathan, Amy, and Jill to join us one more time for an end-of-year potluck. We just hung out that night and did not do any actual Bible study. Five people still seemed small compared to the ten or so that our small group had at the beginning of the year, but it was good to see the others again.
I expressed my concerns about the niche-specific small groups with several people in leadership roles with JCF. Typically, these people would respond defending the niche groups, since different people in those categories have different backgrounds that affect their spiritual walk differently. That may be the case, but I felt left out, and that I knew there were others who did not fit into the categories that the small group leaders had chosen to cater to. The others would tell me that I had nothing to worry about, because Joe and Lydia were leading a group open to all. I eventually gave up trying to have this discussion; I would just wait until next year and let these people see for themselves how unmanageably large Joe and Lydia’s group would be, because of JCF’s poor choices about running a small group ministry.
Despite all my complaints about JCF’s small groups, I was not planning on leaving the group. These people were my friends and my spiritual mentors. I tried out a new group a few times earlier this year, and I had made some new friends there. I went back to JCF, though, because I did not want to spread myself too thin and be involved in too many different things. I had a group for next year, and hopefully the small group ministry would change from the inside when people saw that the current methods were not working. I did correctly predict the eventual fragmentation of JCF into groups for specific cultures, but that happened many years later, and that is not a story for now.
Author’s note: Happy Easter/Resurrection Day! Jesus is risen!
Have you ever been part of a group that just kept getting smaller? What kind of group was it, and what happened to your group? Tell me about it in the comments.