I have a theory: Every small group will need to balance its focus on Scripture/spiritual formation with relationships/fun. And every person who enters a group will come in with different expectations for both. Some come in from a Sunday school or Bible study background and desire greater depth of biblical knowledge. Some come in with little to no biblical knowledge and need to encounter the overarching story of Scripture first. Others are entering a group because they want to make friends and they’re ready to share.
The matrix below attempts to characterize four types of people as they enter a small group based on a mixing of their desires. Though the top right quadrant combines a high desire for Scripture and high desire for relationship, those in it may not be the most spiritually mature. Their motives for wanting deeper relationships may not yet be transformed by the Spirit. But they are in the best starting spot going in.
Those in the other quadrants each have barriers to overcome before they’ll let their guard down, allow God to change their priorities, or participate fully in the group.
Recognizing what people desire in a group can be revealed by asking some open-ended questions?
- When you were signing up for a small group, what was going through your mind?
- What do you hope to gain from being a part of this small group?
- What is one thing you hope doesn’t take place during small group?
Note: The matrix is based on personal observations over the last decade-plus of ministry. You may find there is something missing or that my assumptions are skewed. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
One of the biggest fears people have when it comes to small groups is how much they’ll be asked to share. The beauty of a Sunday morning worship service is the anonymity ability it provides for those who want it, at least in churches large enough for guests not to stick out.
Small groups bury that. It’s like walking into my house. You can see just about everything from the front door–living room, dining room, kitchen, hall, laundry room. It’s all there. Now there are tricks to making the house look cleaner than it really is, but you can’t hide everything.
And I get it. No one wants to be forced to open up. It’s not that we don’t ever want to share parts of ourselves with others, it’s that we want to do it on our own terms. Being forced to do it reduces our chances of doing it. This one thing, I believe, prevents so many in our churches from ever trying out a small group.
But if we feel free to share at our own pace, a small group can become a can’t-miss part of our week. When we once came perhaps because we were interested primarily in the study, we now come because of the friendships we’re forming. When we once were reserved because we weren’t sure if we could trust people, we learn that what is spoken about during small group remains confidential.
In the past, my small group has practiced Andy Stanley’s idea of sharing three people, three places, and three events that have shaped you into the person you are today. The leader goes first and others follow as they are ready. Some people are short, sweet and to the point. Others are quick to divulge deep hurts. The format gives people a framework that helps them know what to share and when they can be done sharing while still allowing freedom to share as much or as little as they want.
After these initial times of sharing, it’s pretty easy to tell how group dynamics are going to go. You’ll have a feel for who will be content to let others share, who will be okay with quiet, who will tend to dominate conversation. And if you encourage those who are listening to not only pay attention to the stories that are shared but also the dynamics around the room, they’ll walk away with a greater sense of how they can either contribute or give room for others to contribute to conversation.
So… three people, three places, and three events. A great starting point for opening up relationships in a group.
As you read, contemplate what this short passage means for your small group. If these are the realities we live in, what does it say about the life we have together in our groups? Note that Bonhoeffer uses the capital-W “Word” to refer to Jesus, as in John 1, and a lowercase “word” to refer to spoken or written words.
God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.
How many of us have ever experienced the truth of what he says here? I know I have. As others have been struck by the living Word, Jesus, they have spoken of him to me and reminded me of how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection matter. It is good to realize that when we are unsure, others may not be.
I was told once by Dr. Jim Lo, a professor in college and dear friend, that we must allow ourselves to be served so that others can exercise their gifts. If we refuse to be served, then we prevent others from using the gifts God has given them. I believe the same is true for receiving a word about the Word from someone in our small groups. Cultivating community sometimes means being okay with your own discouragement, doubts, fears, and struggles enough to be quiet and allow someone else to say what needs to be said for you. No one expects you to have all the answers all the time. God certainly knows we don’t. No one expects you to be immune to the troubles of life, to never need a word spoken to you. Again, God certainly knows you aren’t immune.
Rejoice in the people He has placed in your life to bear the Word to you! Take a minute right now to pray for those in your group and to thank God for them. Think about what you need to say at your next group gathering. You never know who will get a chance to speak to you.
Bill Hybels, in his book Axiom, has written a chapter called “The Tunnel of Chaos.” In it, he says author and psychologist M. Scott Peck outlined four stages that a group of people go through from pseudo-community to true community. “If community involves knowing and being known, serving and being served, and loving and being loved, then most relationships…are constantly devolving into pseudo-community” (p. 101).
Pseudo-community is a “first stage” where people tend to be warm and amicable toward one another. They avoid talking about differences and anything that could result in conflict. They speak in sweeping generalities that are not wholly true. Peck says, “In pseudo-community a group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense.” This is a shortcut to nowhere. Even though the group may function well on the surface, underneath there are real fears and concerns waiting to be expressed.
To move beyond this stage, a group must endure chaos. Chaos is marked by people beginning to state what they really feel as well as a yearning for the leader to give direction. Notice this is not the time for the leader to demand the group follow, but to give direction and lead people through the tunnel of chaos. In the chaos, a leader must:
- Listen well and give people opportunity to share.
- Encourage honest sharing by laying “ground rules” for discussion.
- Discern when it is best to talk about the chaos as a group and when to talk to an individual.
- Pray about the direction God is taking the group and what He is trying to show you all.
- Lead by example in the way he or she shares with honesty and vulnerability.
After chaos, Peck says there are two possible next steps: moving into “organization,” though this is not community, and moving through emptiness. Group members all need to empty themselves of the barriers to communication, Peck says. He lists fixed expectations, preconceptions, prejudices, snap judgments, the desire to convert someone to your point of view, the urge to win, fear of looking like a fool, or a need to control. I would add that emptiness is not an end in and of itself. Our goal in emptiness is then to be filled with the Spirit and the grace of God.
Only after chaos and emptiness can a small group that begins with well-intentioned pseudo-community cross the bridge to true community. Paul also reminds us of the need to live as one together when he writes, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:2-6).
Questions to Ask:
- What effort do you need to make to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”?
- How would you assess the conversations typical of your small group? Do they feel more like pseudo-community or community?
- Are you willing to go through the chaos and emptiness? Are you seeking to be filled with the Spirit? How can you lead those in your group to seek more of the grace of God?
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. –Proverbs 27:17
Knives dull. Trying to cut a piece of meat with a dull knife is an exercise in frustration, an improper use of the word “butchering.” A few months ago, we bought a blade sharpener. What a difference it has made in our decade-old set of kitchen knives. I can easily tell which knives I’ve sharpened and which ones I’ve yet to get to. Sharpening is for improved usage. The instructions say I only have to run the blade of the knife parallel to the sharpener a few times. More than that and I am doing more harm than good. Eventually I would shave the blade down to an anthill of useless metal.
Sharpening is the opposite of the natural process of dulling. The currents of life, our daily rhythms, polish us down to smooth edges unless we have someone else to sharpen us. It is inevitable. This is marriage. This is spiritual friendship.
This is the rebuke of Jesus to his disciples. Oh you of little faith! Do you not understand? Get behind me Satan! Christ knew His followers would be of little use if they were allowed to continue in their disbelief or misguided belief in Him. Their sharpening would leave them ready for use in the kingdom. And Christ also knew how much sharpening they needed. He did not constantly berate them or belittle them. But He also didn’t ignore their ignorance or pass by their problematic theology.
I recently sat with a friend who is starting to write a book. He asked me to proofread the first chapter before he sends it to an editor. I marked it up. Comments about punctuation, flow, assumptions, theology all over the place. I told him, “Jeramy, I hope this was helpful.”
Little did I expect a hug after debriefing together. “That was the best hour I’ve had in a long time. Thank you so much for your constructive criticism!”
A small group can be an environment where sharpening takes place. Often, we hear someone express a faulty belief or gossip about another person and we silently, awkwardly press on with the next question, hoping no one else noticed what just took place. These are opportunities to sharpen one another, even if it means pulling someone aside after the group is done meeting.
A leader is given permission to do this if he or she has proven they have the other person’s best interests at heart. Sharpening is not proving who is right. It is not intellectual dominance. Those things dull others. A leader is also given permission to do this, I think, if he or she makes it reciprocal. The leader needs sharpening, too.
In the end, the whole group is better for it.
We don’t have great models for this in our society. Many of us don’t know how to receive constructive criticism. We are so insecure that we wither at the slightest correction. I know I am inconsistent at best.
Questions to Ask:
- When was the last time I received constructive criticism? How did I handle it?
- On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable am I in giving and receiving it?
- When have I seen it go well? What lessons can I learn from that example?
- When will I introduce this to my small group?
Jamie and I went car shopping in June 2012. Who doesn’t love car shopping? We found that part of the car dealer’s plan is to get you inside, sitting at a desk where they can direct the conversation and show you what they want you to see. It seemed like the longer they had you sitting down, the better the chances they thought you would buy a car. Maybe they assume that once you’ve invested two hours at their dealership, you’d feel like it was a waste of time if you didn’t “get into” something.
One dealer showed us a chart of all the minivans in a 50-mile radius at other dealers—their prices and mileage. This chart was evidence that they had the best price around, and they did. When the dealer walked away, I told Jamie, “It’s great that they have a good price relative to everyone else, but the only person this must be relative to is me. I’m the buyer. I don’t care how the price matches everyone else if it doesn’t work for me.”
This is the great mistake churches make when they begin to ask, “What is everyone else doing? How do our programs compare to the programs in the churches around us?” It is very easy to measure our success based on how our small groups out-do another church’s small groups, or how our children’s ministry is better and more exciting than another church’s. All of a sudden we aim to please ourselves and the Christian sub-culture around us rather than God. But what does God think about this? Is He worried about how our programs stack up against any other local church’s? Or does He simply want us to be obedient to Him?
The real questions we must ask ourselves are, “How does what we’re doing to make disciples please God? How are we being obedient to Him, participating in His kingdom on earth here and now?” That’s it. That’s the plumb line that everything is relative to.
In Acts 4:1-12, the Peter and John were faced with a difficult decision after they had healed a man.
The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.
Peter and John had healed a lame man. The priests and Sadducees weren’t happy. Part of this was because the Sadducees especially didn’t believe in resurrection. The other part was a popularity contest: they realized, just as they had months earlier with Jesus, that the disciples were gaining a following, and this infringed on their sense of power. They throw Peter and John in jail until the morning. Interestingly, Luke notes how their healing ministry led to greater numbers–something we associate with success–and yet this is almost said as an aside as the narrative keeps moving along.
The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
In verses 5-7, the big dogs have arrived. Annas had actually retired as high priest 20 years prior, but was still a recognized authority. Caiaphas was reigning high priest, Annas’ son-in-law, installed by Rome just as Annas before him. He is the one Jesus stood before during His trial in this same location just months before. John was one of Annas’ five sons and would become high priest in a few years. Evidently Rome had a good thing going with this family.
Their question is about power. It is at this point that Peter has a choice to make. As Luke told the story of Jesus’ final night, he said that Peter had followed at a distance and made his way into the courtyard of the high priests’ home. It was here he had denied Jesus three times, after which Luke says, “The Lord turned and look straight at Peter.” Peter has already told the lame man and the onlooking crowd that it is by the name and power of Jesus (Acts 3:6, 12-16).
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter boldly speaks.
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”
There is no mincing of words here. He says that if they are being put on trial for an act of kindness shown to the lame man, it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And he doesn’t stop there. “Whom you crucified.” He’s standing right in the place where Jesus was put on trial with the people who had him killed, and he has the audacity to say this. Think about how that goes over in our day! Relative to the religious leaders of Peter’s day, Peter has this whole God-thing wrong.
In verse 9, Peter calls what they had done an “act of kindness.” This was a social norm in their day called benefaction. Normally a benefactor, a wealthy person, would act on another person’s behalf with a gift of finances or other support. In return, benefactors received honor and loyalty from those who received their gifts. Caesar and Herod were benefactors. Peter labels this healing as such an act, as if what they are giving is on par with what the emperor would give. They are doing something that the true Lord, Jesus, did, on his authority. This is a statement of unquestionable authority.
They have not just healed a man, something we think is extraordinary in its own right. They did it by exercising the authority of the true Benefactor.
Here’s the deal: We are quick to hone in on Peter’s words about salvation, but normally pass right by how he thought about what he was doing. By exercising authority in Jesus’ name, Peter knew where the power came from, and he stood up to the ruling authorities who could easily have sent him along to Pilate also because Christ so filled him with His Holy Spirit.
In Peter’s mind, he was acting in accordance with Jesus. He was continuing on in the ministry of Jesus. And in this, there is the true measure of success. Continuing the ministry of Jesus at our church in the months and years to come with define success for us.
Carson Pue, in his book Mentoring Leaders, lists three reasons why we lack self-awareness. I’m giving them my own explanations and adding a fourth.
- Lack of feedback. We either intentionally or unintentionally cordon ourselves off from honest, caring voices. Intentionally because we are insecure or stuck in sin, or unintentionally because we are busy or ignorant of the need.
- Insecurity. Insecurity stems from failure and fear. We all know how it is infinitely easier to recall a harsh word spoken to us than praise. We have all beaten ourselves up over mistakes and regret. Insecurity can be either an undercurrent in us that we’re unaware of or a vicious, loud monster that prohibits us from acting courageously. In the end, we fear looking in the mirror because we’ll hate what we might see.
- Busyness. I recently heard a pastor say that he changed his schedule from working as many hours as it took to cover his responsibilities to covering only the responsibilities he had hours for. Excellent advice. Busyness becomes a badge of bravery in today’s society. We compare our work hours and commitments with others and look down on those who attempt balance. But busyness is the enemy of self-awareness in that we end up repeating the same patterns of behavior without the benefit of course correction.
I would add a fourth: cynicism. If we’ve been in leadership for any length of time, we’ve heard the spiel, the call for another self-assessment, another leadership 360, another sad story of a person who fell from leadership because they neglected self-awareness. If we’re not careful, we become cynical, thinking that since we “did that,” we’re already self-aware, as if we’ve not changed in the last decade. We can have all the feedback in the world and still ignore self-awareness.
- Which of the four do you let stop you from self-awareness?
- What types of feedback or assessment have you found most helpful in learning more about who you are?
- What can you do to prevent cynicism from creeping in so that you remain self-aware?
The birth of a child. The best job you ever had. The day she said yes. The family vacation that really was relaxing. These positive experiences stick with you. They remind you of the joys of life in the past. But they don’t just stick with you as a mental image; they forever alter you from the person you were to the person you are.
The death of a parent. The day you got fired. The pile of debt. The huge questions about raising a teenager. These negative experiences stick too, remind too, and alter too. The question you must answer is, “How do these experiences, both positive and negative, impact what I believe about myself today? How did God use them then, and how does He still want to use them today?”
Several years ago, I sat down with a pastor friend who instructed me to use a pad of sticky notes to discover the answers to those questions. I wrote down all the positive experiences and things I enjoyed: singing in high school, marrying Jamie, working outside with my dad in our yard, time at Indiana Wesleyan, etc. I wrote down the negative things: my dad’s brain injury, not being athletic enough, serving alone far away from family at a dying church, etc.
Then we began to connect the dots from experiences to beliefs. Then we reflected on what God did through them. And finally, we reflected on what God wanted to keep doing through them.
Small group leaders are just as human as the rest of us. And God doesn’t waste our pasts. Every moment is His. Every success and failure can be redeemed and redirected for our present shaping into the image of Christ. Our histories are a vital aspect of the way we facilitate conversations, gravitate toward biblical topics and steer clear of others, react to the others in our group, etc. And until we name them, we shortchange God and His gracious willingness to wrap them up under the words of Jesus, “Behold, I make all things new.”
So, perhaps you can guess what comes next. That’s right. Pick up a pad of sticky notes. Put each positive experience on one color and each negative on another. Then lay them out however is best helpful to you: chronologically, grouping by similar experiences, etc. Then answer the questions: “How do these experiences, both positive and negative, impact what I believe about myself today? How did God use them then, and how does He still want to use them today?”
In UpStreet, we sing a song called “Not as Strong.”
I’m not as strong as I’ll be but I’m growin’
I’m not as strong as I’ll be one day
But my God, He is faithful
He’s strong and He’s able so I’ll never be afraid
Every person wants to be known as a strong person. No one likes being thought of as weak. And yet, the risen Christ told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9, TNIV). This led Paul to say, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10, TNIV).
Is it better to leverage your strengths or work on your weaknesses? Is Paul saying that we should consider ourselves only as weak vessels for God to use, or can we acknowledge our strengths? Yes. In a future post, we’ll talk about leading from our weaknesses. But what are strengths?
Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld define a strength in their offshoot of the Clifton StrengthsFinder like this (Living Your Strengths, p. 7).
“A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity. This ability is a powerful, productive combination of talent, skill and knowledge.”
We may be fairly aware of our talents, which are natural to us and cannot be acquired. They’re things we’ve been good at our whole lives. Whether it is thriving under pressure, making others laugh, picking up on the emotions of others, or being competitive, we all have talents.
Skills are those acquired abilities we get through training and learning that help us do a job well. They’re the things we learn at school, by watching someone else, or from old-fashioned trial and error. Knowledge also comes through learning and experience.
When you combine these three things—talents, skills, and knowledge—you’ve got a strength. Here’s a personal example. One of my strengths is called Input. I collect information from all sorts of sources and arrange and compile it in such a way that it is useful for myself and others.
This is how I prepare for sermons, how I strive to set up this blog…
When I was a kid, I collected basketball cards, arranged them in alphabetical order, and enjoyed culling the stats of each player. In pre-Internet days, they were my source of knowledge for the NBA. As I’ve become more self-aware, I’ve seen how God used this talent, combined with new skills and knowledge, to create an Input strength in me. Now it fleshes itself out in other ways–the basketball cards are collecting dust under my bed.
The power of knowing what your strengths are as it pertains to leading a small group is this: You are free to rearrange the parts of leadership to suit you. Using Clifton StrengthsFinder terms, if you have a strength of:
Adaptability, you will be flexible when your group shifts its focus or gains or loses new members.
Context, you will bring out connections from the past to help people understand the present.
Developer, you will see the potential in others in your group and strive to help them see it, too.
Relator, you will do whatever you can to encourage deeper relationships among people in your group.
So pick up the book today and discover your strengths. The book includes a code for an online assessment, which reveals your top 5 (of 34 possible) strengths.