Balancing the Tensions of Small Group Life

Five main small group conflicts and how to go about solving them.

Let's just be honest. When you're trying to make a difference for Christ in other people's lives, there always seems to be a set of tensions pulling on you as you help people grow in a love relationship with the Lord.

In the main sessions of the Southeastern Small Group Conference, keynote speaker Bill Donahue, author of the "Leading Life Changing Small Groups" and co-author of "The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry" unpacked five key tensions of small group life. Bill's main session talks and several of the workshops also suggested several pathways for creating a healthy balance in the midst of the tensions of small group life. Here are those five tensions and some strategies for creating healthy balances:

Tension number 1: Life vs. Truth

Balance = Applying Truth to Life

In some cases, we tend to spend nearly all our group time doing Bible study without any sharing of life issues and concerns. In other cases, we spend nearly all our group time discussing life issues without bringing in the truth of Scripture at all. The trouble comes when we dwell at one end of the spectrum or the other for extended periods of time. In the long run, true transformation occurs when the truth about God intersects with the truth about me.

So the question becomes how do we strike a life changing balance between sharing our own life experiences and studying God's Word? How do we help people make the connection between their life stories and God's will?

A powerful way to help people make that intersection is to open your group meeting with a specific life question, rather than having random sharing. This life question is sometimes called the opener or icebreaker question. A true icebreaker is an open-ended question, meaning it does not have a right or wrong answer and the person answering the question will be the expert when it comes to this topic in their life. Another critical characteristic of an icebreaker is that everyone should be encouraged to answer with the leader going first to model. The truth and life intersection comes when you select an icebreaker that has a connection to the Bible truth being discussed during that group meeting.

As an example, a possible icebreaker question could be: What circumstance or event has disappointed you in the last couple of weeks? That kind of open-ended question brings out all sorts of issues in our life and would match up well with a Bible study on God's faithfulness from say Romans 8, John 15, or Hebrews 12.

Regardless of truth being discussed, the key to this strategy is intentionally connecting the life-story icebreaker with the Bible truth lesson. It can be a powerful way help people find the transforming balance where life and truth intersect.

Tension Number 2: Friendship vs. Accountability


Tension Number 3: Kindness vs. Conflict

Balance = Healthy Conflict Inside the Context of Loving Relationships

As Christ followers, we are called to have fellowship with one-another. According to 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10, increasing depth of fellowship should mark the life of a Christian. At the same time, going deeper involves accountability and the risk of conflict. The risk increases when we hold each other accountable in an authoritarian way without loving care.

If you are going to be involved in healthy discipleship relationships, as we are called to do, then you will also have to find a balance between these tensions of sharing our lives together.

How do you do it? Here are several important Biblical principles you need to model for the people in your group:

Spend time together outside of group time.
Ask good questions of one another and be a good listener.
During group time, sub-group into smaller gender based groups for more intimate discussions.
When you start to feel the bitterness of conflict with someone else, don't let it take root and grow, deal with it before the sun goes down (Eph. 4:26).
Resolve conflict - when you have conflict with an individual, the first step is to go to the person privately (Matt. 18:15) don't consult, don't vent.

Tension number 4: Openness vs. Intimacy

Balance = Heartfelt Purpose

We love the intimate friendships and the safety of people who know us well and accept us. This intimacy is threatened when new people come into our group, potentially creating barriers to group transparency. Building trust with new people is hard work and takes time, but not having new people come into our group (a long-term closed group) can create troublesome situations also.

When it comes to adding new people to your small group, there are really only three choices:

  1. Close the group and never add new people, essentially letting the group continue until it stagnates, dies voluntarily, or dies involuntarily.

  2. Keep the group open and add new people, but don't ever send people out to birth a new group.

  3. Keep the group open and add new people, occasionally birthing a new group out to start the process over again in both groups.

Problem with choice 1.

-Spiritual growth is likely to stagnate

-Apathy will set in

-Group is likely to end, eventually

Problem with choice 2.

-Not everyone will be able to share or participate or will want to (difficult to practice the one another's of Scripture).

-Group members will become less committed and some will leave the group (it's easier to leave a big group).

-New people have harder time "connecting in."

-Span of care is a problem. How does a leader shepherd all these people?

-Sub-grouping helps, but it doesn't alleviate most of the long-term problems.

Problem with choice 3.

-It involves a certain amount of grieving and pain when people "birth-out" of an existing group to start a new group.

-Can create discomfort and instability in newly birthed groups.

Despite the problems each option presents, Choice 3 provides perhaps the best opportunity to create a healthy long-term balance between openness and intimacy. Having a heartfelt purpose for the group to grow and multiply ultimately helps us grow individually as we participate in fulfilling the great commission.

Tension number 5: Care vs. Discipleship

Balance = Intentional Shepherding

We want to support people in crisis and help people walk through "the valleys of the shadow of death," but we do not want them to stay there. On the other hand, we should not treat people as "Energizer Bunny" machines that serve God and acquire information without need for application, reflection, rest, and care. The solution, or balance, is to proactively or intentionally shepherd.

Intentional shepherding is taking the initiative to:

-Continually serve and love one-another, rather than focusing on serving and loving people only when they are in crisis.

-Discern individual growth needs and giftedness, rather than just striving to fill empty slots on the organizational chart with warm bodies.

-Agree together on a developmental plan that leads to a person become a maturing, reproducing follower of Christ.

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