Is Your Group Safe for Open-Heart Surgery?

Is Your Group Safe for Open-Heart Surgery?

Becoming places of true authenticity and heart transformation

Three years ago when Cindy came to church she would sit in the back and slip out quickly after the service. Though the church was small, she hardly knew anyone. She was, in her words, "a very private person."

Today Cindy sings in the praise team. She is among the first to enthusiastically welcome visitors. She and her husband shepherd a house church where they help create a safe environment for heart-level sharing by sharing deeply out of their own lives. The incredible change in Cindy's life is a window into the "extreme church makeover" that our church—Hilltop Urban Church in Wichita, Kansas—has gone through these past three years.

Small-group guru Lyman Coleman talks about three levels of sharing: mouth-to-mouth, head-to-head, and heart-to-heart. Small talk about the weather, sports, and cars, plus most small-group icebreakers, are mouth-to-mouth. When a group studies a book or Scripture together and discusses, "What do you think this means?" it moves to the head-to-head level. Most groups get this far but rarely reach the deeper heart-to-heart level.

Why Head-to-Head Isn't Enough

Our leaders have worked hard to develop this new DNA where heart-to-heart sharing is safe and normal. And it's not just because we want closer relationships; it's central to how we make disciples.

You've probably read the polls indicating that Christians act the same as nonbelievers on a wide range of ethical issues. If we are indistinguishable from the general population, there is obviously something fundamentally wrong with the way American Christians have been trying to make disciples. We have mostly operated from a head-to-hands model of discipleship, assuming that intellectual understanding leads to obedient action. That may work sometimes, but evidently not often enough to make a dent in the polling data.

What is missing? Heart transformation. We have come to believe that the heart of the discipleship process is not teaching head knowledge through Christian education, but rather creating environments where it is safe to routinely do open-heart surgery.

Rhythms to Create Safe Space

At Hilltop, we have woven several habits into our DNA to constantly remind us of the centrality of relationships and create space for heart-to-heart sharing.

  • Eating together. We are almost fanatical about eating together to nurture community. Every house church, leadership training meeting, and ministry team meeting begins with a shared meal.
  • Happy/sad. As soon as we sit down to the meal when our house church meets, a kid will usually blurt, "Can I start happy/sad?" We focus the meal conversation with a simple question: "What is something that happened this week that you felt happy about and what is something you felt sad about?" Each person gets a chance to share a two-minute answer before anyone shares twice. The happy/sad question is safe enough that a newcomer can answer at the mouth-to-mouth level, while old-timers can respond at the heart level, creating space for others to share heart-to-heart. Plus, it's simple enough for children to answer as well.
  • "What do you need Jesus to do for you today?" In our small groups we don't ask, "Does anyone have a prayer request?" because this so often leads to "safe" requests like "Pray for Aunt Matilda's toe." Instead we ask, "What do you need Jesus to do for you today?" This helps us focus on our own need for God and keeps it immediate. It lets people share at their comfort level while creating space for vulnerability. Our ministry teams ask this question just after the meal and before digging into planning. In our house churches, this question guides our closing prayer time. In larger groups, such as church retreats or leadership training meetings, we do this in groups of three.

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