It all started one night in 2008 with a card game. Dave and Christie Gustafson had called Nathan and Brandie Stonge, friends from their church, Dillsburg (Pa.) BIC, to see if they’d be up for a game night. As the couples gathered at the Stonge’s kitchen table for a round of Mille Bornes, they started talking about the small group they’d been a part of together and how much they missed the accountability and community of such a fellowship. So they decided to start a new one. But instead of calling up four of their closest peers, they got out the church directory and circled names of people of different backgrounds, styles, and ages—people such as Bob and Rosie Harlacher and Ed and Marj Strayer.
The community that resulted is built on shared faith, not on personal preferences. After three years together, this group of eight laughingly admits they can’t quite agree on a fun event to do together: Dave wants to take everyone to a U2 concert, Brandie thinks they should go camping, and Bob and Rosie would prefer square dancing. What they can agree on is seeking God, serving their community, and supporting one another in prayer, all of which they do with a remarkable sense of earnest vitality. It’s that vitality—along with the joyous laughter that fills each of the homes they meet in—that marks this group as a community of faith.
Dulcimer: What prompted you to be so intentional about inviting people of different ages and backgrounds to be part of your group?
Nathan: We had previously been in a group where everyone was the same age, without kids, with shared interests.
Brandie: The strength of our previous group was that we were able to understand and relate to each other. But it was taxing when the group had similar needs around the same times since there wasn’t a variation of experience and input. So our motivation in forming this group was to spread some of that out, gain some wisdom and insight from people ahead of us in life, and see what we could bring to the table as younger people. We wanted to see what that exchange would look like.
Rosie: When Brandie invited us, I was like, “You really want old people in this group?!” I couldn’t figure out what they were doing at first. But now we see that, even with the wide range of ages, when we talk about our families, every family has had the same problems and desire for prayer for certain things.
Dulcimer: Describe your group’s time together when it first formed. What was your experience?
Christie: At our first meeting, we went around and everyone was allowed to ask any question they wanted about anyone else, and then we prayed together. We also got to know each other by playing games and eating meals. We all felt from the get-go that it was a special group and that we were together for a reason.
Ed: I think it was because of our level of openness. All of us were very open about our history and about where we were currently, spiritually and otherwise.
Dave: There was a level of trust that we all had from the beginning. We invited people to the group whom we really respected.
Nathan: Definitely. That said, I struggled at first to feel relaxed because our meetings felt like a translation process. I sometimes wondered, Are we all understanding each other, are we all hearing each other? Even though we easily trusted and had fun with each other, I didn’t feel like it was always easy
to flow into sharing. I felt a little tentative about whether I was making sense or hurting anybody’s feelings because I didn’t know where they were coming from yet.
Dulcimer: What makes your group a community, rather than a club?
Christie: We all have our own circle of friends, so although we might occasionally do something together outside of small group, it’s not like we are a clique getting together every Friday night.
Ed: And on any given Sunday, if you were to see us at church, we’re pretty well dispersed; we’re not all clumped together.
Nathan: One of my favorite memories of our small group is when we played the game “Loaded Questions,” where everyone writes down their answer to a question and someone tries to guess who said what. One of the questions was, “What is your least favorite musical act of all time?” and the answers were very different across the group. Somebody answered Elvis’ Blue Hawaii and Rosie jumped up from her chair and said, “Who said that?That’s my favorite album!” That’s when we knew we were a good mixture.
Brandie: When you choose a group like this, it’s clear that you aren’t looking for camping buddies, or to get together and talk about shallow things. If we are going to be this intentional about relationships, what we really have in common is our relationship with Christ.
Dulcimer: How have you seen your group change over the past few of years?
Nathan: I feel like the group has come to be about what God is doing in our lives, what we are called to, and how we are growing or struggling. We have learned to take risks in vulnerability and make sacrifices of grace
or patience with each other so that the real feelings and issues come out. I think the Lord did that among us and it’s become our com- mon mode of relating. We have learned not to take offense, which I don’t think is always the case in group settings. It’s just a very positive type of environment. There’s active grace happening.
Brandie: Yes, we choose to assume the best about each other.
Dulcimer: How has your understanding of community changed as a result of being part of this group?
Marj: Having Nathan [an active leader in Dillsburg BIC’s worship ministries] in our group has been interesting because I’ve learned more about what goes into put- ting together the weekly worship service. It’s very different from the way it used to be, with all the media and artistry woven in. But it’s been helpful for me to hear and see some of the thought that goes into our worship services.
Brandie: It raises the trust level within our church community because we spend time with and love these people, yet we know that some of our tastes and preferences are different. So when we sense that someone is not happy with something, instead of reacting emotionally, we are picturing our friends and how they feel. It tempers our response and really calls us to the essence of family.
Dulcimer: Can you point to specific ways in which you’ve grown personally or spiritually as a result of being in a group of people you wouldn’t normally have interacted with?
Marj: The biggest area of growth for me has related to the prayer requests we give each other. When we pray for each other, we sometimes find ourselves crying out to God for someone or questioning Him on some things. When we pray for each other, it changes our relationship with God, impacts it.
Bob: I’ve learned a new appreciation for when people hear God’s call. When Dave and Christie got this feeling last summer about going to Zambia, I was able to see more of what it would cost for them to go into missions. Dave has this business he’s trying to build up, and he’s willing to just leave it and go to Africa.
Dave: I went to a Christian school, and Ed and Marj sent their kids to a Christian school. Getting to know them has helped me to understand what my parents might have been thinking when they chose to put me in Christian school. I wouldn’t say I had a bad experience, but there are things when I look back now that make me a little angry. Ed and Marj’s intentions were good and hearing that helped me get through.
Dulcimer: What would you say to other groups or individuals looking to be more intentional about connecting with others who appear different from them?
Christie: I think the buddy system worked for us, since we had another couple we were already comfortable with. If you are trying to start a diverse group, team up with another person or couple and go from there.
Ed: You may need to give up the need to be understood. When you believe something strongly, you want to make sure the other person really understands what you’re saying. Sometimes you have to give that up. We don’t all walk away thinking the same thing and feeling the same way about it, and that’s O.K.
Brandie: Your number-one priority should not be, “How great do I feel in this group?” or “How much do they talk about what I like to talk about?” but instead, “How can I learn more about Christ and the body of Christ? How can I be exposed to different expressions of my relationship with Christ and different expressions of service to help carry burdens that I wouldn’t normally encounter?”
Marj: I would encourage people to be courageous enough to form a diverse group, knowing that if the Holy Spirit is involved, the rewards might be immeasurable. Fear isn’t something we should give into. Pray about it and really seek God, and He’ll honor that.