Dear Friends

How many groups do you reckon you belong to, beyond family? My guess is, quite a few. For, while it's not impossible to live a good life without reference to God, it is impossible to be Christ's body without other people. The letter to the Hebrews tells us: 'Don't give up meeting together!' and churches like ours take that advice very seriously. We thrive on interest groups, like the Chandler's Ford craft group or Freemantle's badminton; on groups set up for particular people, like the Avenue St Andrew's lunch club for older people or the Isaac Watts Boys and Girls Brigades, on groups making decisions, like each of our Elders and Church Meetings. Then there are the non-church groups that are also part of our lives: hobbies, volunteering, campaigning. For, if all your social groups are church people, you're missing out on a lot that God has in store for you!

Forget about Facebook - if someone knows the face-to-face groups you're involved in (or the groups you support, even if you can't always get to them), they can get a fair idea of the sort of person you are. And the identity we gain through our groups can be both good and bad. Good because we gain strength and confidence from others who share our interests and ideals. Meeting people beyond our own immediate group is also important for a sense of proportion beyond our particular concerns. Paul didn't take all those long journeys to be a tourist. His travelling and his letter-writing linked the young Christian churches, giving their members a common identity in the sea of multiculturalism that was ancient Roman society. What's more, as churches who have joined together as the South-West Hants Group (I wonder if you noticed I missed that out in my sketch of church groups above?) we are stronger than if each congregation was trying to make it on its  own. For each church brings particular gifts and resources, whether we're talking physical appliances and know-how or spiritual resources and experience. Think of the Group Pizza Party, that we enjoyed together last month, or of Connections itself.

There can also, of course, be a less positive aspect to groups. Through the lazy thinking of others we can easily be written off en bloc ('those old people...' 'those Bible-bashers...') rather than being treated on our own merits. As a group, moreover, we may be tempted to write off others with whom we feel we have little in common ('those hoodies...'

'those fundamentalists...'). And if we refuse to be ruled by prejudice, making common cause with a group that isn't our own can have costly consequences. Paul's Jewish friends didn't like it when he said non-Jewish Gentiles could be Christians. Martin Luther King wasn't too popular when he called white Christian ministers to support Black civil rights in the States.

Being a bridge between groups always runs the risk of being yelled at by both sides. It's a lot easier sticking to our own group. We're agreed on what the rules are, even if they're never spelled out. We don't need to worry about misunderstanding or offence. We can stick to times and places that are convenient for us. We can avoid challenge or change. But Paul reminds us that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male and female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. So 'our group' turns out to be bigger and more inclusive than any of us realised - and though we all belong to it, we don't any of us own it.

Sarah Hall