Yesterday, my daughter asked me if someone could be a Christian without being part of a church. She’s eight. I told her it was possible, but unlikely that he/she would stay a Christian for long. Her natural follow up: Why?
Because Christ built the church, loved the church, and died for her. And He made us to have faith together, not alone.
Her thoughts were for a school friend who she knows attends our church only on Wednesday nights and whose parents don’t seem to have faith. I reminded her that God knows about her friend and that she’s going to be okay.
As our chat ended, I thought about how hard it is to neglect being part of the church when you remember who God is. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
- The Father is the Father because of His relationship with the Son and Spirit. The same goes for the Son and the Spirit.
- They are free–not from each other but for each other.
- They are not subordinate to one another, but freely submit to one another in love.
- They are love by nature.
To be made in God’s image, as Genesis 1 says, means that we are made for relationship. We could go even further to say that those who lack significant relationships with others become less than human, less than what God intended.
Colin Gunton says that a person is defined in terms of relationships with other people, while an individual is defined in terms of separation from other individuals. Good grief that’s so true.
Being human means being together. Not like shopping in the same store while avoiding eye contact. Not like attending a Sunday morning service a few times a month and quickly skating out before meeting people. Like what could happen in a small group. I say could because we all know churches and groups that fail to look much like the relationship God has with Himself.
It’s with this in mind that I think a small group can be valuable. I don’t know about you, but I want to be all that God created me to be. And I can’t become that person as an individual.
The question becomes, “How might a small group do this?” Here are my suggestion, based on the understanding of the Trinity above.
- I begin to identify myself by my relationships. I am friend, father, husband before I am pastor.
- I begin to view my freedom as something that is for others. As Paul said, be slaves to one another humbly in love (Gal. 5:13).
- I begin to honestly submit to others–with their preferences, their quirks, their desires–rather than placing myself first.
- I begin to both give and receive love–here defined as doing what is best for one another in accordance with Scripture.
We could list more. In time, we become more fully human as we are in deeper relationship with one another. It is why the friendships that are formed as we meet consistently matter just as much as the content we cover. It is why we make time for a small group. It is why we challenge small group leaders to put relationships first.
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?