Whenever I guide a group through the spiritual disciplines, I ask the question, "What comes to mind when you hear the words spiritual disciplines?" Often, the response is "fasting" or "working harder" as they study the Bible!
While these two topics certainly are part of the picture, there are numerous options for understanding and experiencing spiritual disciplines that become the root of our spiritual formation. Without paying attention to and implementing a wide range of these valuable and necessary practices, we cannot develop an intimate relationship with Christ, mature in our spiritual journey, or be the witness for Christ to which we have been called.
The on-going practice of reflective story telling, reflective Bible reading and listening, reflective journaling, and reflective prayer, to name a few, can become significant experiences within a small-group setting.
The practice of reflective storytelling allows each person to not only tell their own story, but also to hear from the other group members about their journey into faith and the unique manner in which the Holy Spirit's presence has guided them into God's family. Sharing stories is a powerful way to contribute to the on-going spiritual growth shared between group members throughout the duration of their small-group experience.
Group leaders can spur creativity in this practice by providing paper and colored pens, then asking each person to share their story by illustrating five or six spiritual highs or lows in their life. This practice can lead to an amazing bond of self-disclosure and trust within a group. It is informative and sometimes emotional, and should be considered when small groups that have recently been launched begin the "knowing one another" process.
Reflective Bible reading and listening
Reflective Bible reading and listening are strategic elements of spiritual discipline. Many small groups excel at studying the Bible with integrity, discovering the many important details through inductive process, and accumulating an impressive amount of knowledge. However, until that knowledge moves the 12 inches or so from the head to the heart (the stage where we actually reflect on the importance of what we've learned and implement that knowledge into our lives), the knowledge is powerless.
I like the expression "blending our belief and our behavior." Reflective reading and listening require slowing down—a time of silence, solitude, and focus on smaller portions of Scripture. How can this discipline be implemented into the life of a small group? How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?
I often use the illustration of teaching a young person about different instruments. If the flute is the focus of study, how does one recognize its sound in the cacophony of an orchestra? Hearing the flute play in isolation first helps to distinguish the flute when it is played in a group. The same is true of the voice of God. We learn what his voice sounds like by listening to his Word, other people, nature, history, and stories of people's lives that speak God's truth. But it takes practice!
The practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading, can easily be implemented within the small-group setting. First, pick a short passage of Scripture. Read it aloud twice and have small-group members quietly reflect on the words. Ask, "What comes to mind?" Have group members express their reflection in one word with no explanations.
Next, have someone different read the passage once again. Ask, "What new thoughts come to you?" Have each person explain their reactions on a deeper level than their first attempt.
Then, a third person reads the Scripture a final time. In the silence following this reader, each person in the group should interact with the Scripture and its implications within their personal lives. What is the Holy Spirit saying to them through the Scripture? What applications can they draw out?
Practicing this discipline once in a while during your worship time will be extremely beneficial.
Not everyone likes to write down their reflections and thoughts about Scripture, yet many who are challenged to do so become inspired and encouraged by the positive results of practicing this discipline. And those who are already creative-minded can describe interactions with God and his Word through descriptive language, art, poetry, and even music! It's not uncommon for small-group members to uncover hidden or unused abilities and manners of expression when doing so.
To attempt this practice, ask group members to focus on a short passage of Scripture during the week and report back with their reflections. If you are using a guide book for study, ask the members to journal their reflections and responses to the application section of the study. Encouraging this discipline will expose small-group members to the discipline of silence and solitude, which will help them begin to recognize the voice of God.
As a discipline, reflective prayer is often omitted from the small-group setting. We have gravitated to several other organized and efficient methods of prayer because of our limited time together. But I recommend that you make a change and help members become more aware of the Holy Spirit's leading in their lives by introducing reflective prayer.
When using this practice, each person is allowed a designated time slot to report their prayer requests to the group. Other group members remain quiet and do not ask questions; instead, they listen reflectively. This will help everyone to discern where God is working, the Holy Spirit is moving, and Christ's words are empowering. The requests can then be prayed back to each member. I have often witnessed the power of this discipline in a small-group setting.
Most small groups spend far too much time explaining prayer requests that pertain to friends or relatives. Revisit your covenant and consider devoting prayer time to the small-group members' concerns only. Over time, this will allow each member to "log in" to what is happening in their life in response to the group or individual prayer.
—Adapted with permission from Smallgroups.com
Want to learn more about using reflection and other spiritual disciplines in your small group? Check out these training downloads from Building Small Groups:
• Go Deeper with God: The ancient practices of lectio divina and contemplative prayer have helped Christians connect with God on a deeper level for centuries. This training download will help you incorporate them into your small group.
• Spiritual Formation—Training Theme: In our increasingly busy culture, encouraging prayer and spiritual disciplines among church attenders is consistently a challenge for pastors and ministry leaders. This theme includes teaching from wise spiritual directors, including Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, and Ben Patterson.
• Leading Your Small Group to Experience God Through Prayer: Learn a variety of prayer methods, both as individuals and as a group, to connect people and their needs to God.