Small groups are often fun and engaging, but how does a group help us change in ways that really matter? I want to suggest that God typically uses three things in a healthy group to facilitate our spiritual development. A healthy group helps each person change when we are honest, when we apply the Scriptures, and when we listen to other believers.
We need to be real and be honest if we want to become more like Christ. If we want the group to help us with a particular sin habit, we should be able to talk about that. If we want the group to help us understand the Bible, we should be honest that we aren't biblically literate. If we are having a hard time establishing spiritual disciplines like prayer and personal Bible reading, we should ask others in the group for help.
We should be honest with ourselves and with others if we want them to help us change. If we live in a community of people who hide and cover their faults, we won't be able to help them. We should invite our fellow group members to show us who they really are. From financial problems to sexual addictions to an insatiable need to gossip to a burning resentment toward an ex-spouse, most of us have issues that we would be horrified if others knew. But as long as we hide our real issues, we probably won't change much.
Garry Poole, author of Seeker Small Groups, likes to start new groups by asking the participants, "If you could ask God one question, what would it be?" He hands out slips of paper and asks each group member to write down the question, then he spends the next several weeks working through those questions. That's one way to communicate that we are serious about talking about what's really on our minds.
I wonder how many people have great questions that they are afraid to ask. Have you wondered any of the following?
- If David was a man after God's own heart, why did he have a tendency to be a womanizer?
- Why does God seem nicer in the New Testament than he does in the Old?
- If God wants us to pray, why doesn't he answer my prayers?
- If God takes care of his followers, doesn't he realize that Christians in the developing world have it bad?
Those are big questions. However, most of the honest questions are closer to home.
- Can I pursue justice and a large screen LCD TV at the same time?
- Is it OK to tithe off my net income or should it be off my gross income?
- Is it materialistic to hold out for a leather interior in a car?
- Can I love people who hurt me and at the same time avoid them?
Of course, I should note that we can have honesty in our groups at different levels. Honesty doesn't mean we share every thought with every person in the group. But we can model and encourage group members to grow through honestly sharing where they are at spiritually and let them express where they would like to be.
Apply the Scriptures
Small groups also help people change as they open up the Scriptures and apply them to day-to-day life. My friend Darcy is a bright, young career professional with an amazing sense of humor. She's s a superb storyteller and can hold the attention of any room. But her humor had a dark side. She would often explain that her words came out before she really thought about them. Sometimes it was no big deal, but from time to time she would accidentally put others down or offend people. It bothered her, but she didn't really know what to do about the dark side of her humor.
One evening her group dove into a discussion of James 3, a text that describes the power of our words. James's letter rang in her ears. Her group was keenly aware of her quick wit and sharp tongue, but they had grown accustomed to it. Actually, the real truth was that they had learned to avoid it. For some reason, on this evening, Darcy seemed ready to surrender her mouth to Jesus.
The group was floored when she blurted out, "I've got to do something about my mouth!" Darcy went on to explain how she felt she had no control over the words that came out of her mouth. As she began to apply James 3 to her own life, she told the group she would appreciate their help. One of her friends in the group cautiously asked how she might tame her tongue. Darcy thought for a minute, then suggested to the group that she might quit watching a favorite TV show that encouraged her sarcasm. As much as she liked it, the show only fueled the darker side of her humor. Would the group be willing to ask her what she was putting into her mind? They agreed that they would.
Darcy began to change through applying the biblical truth. At first glance, this seems so obvious. Of course we should apply what we have learned, right? But a small group is one of the few places where application can be discussed. In my personal devotional time, I think about ways to apply what I've read, but not as deeply as when I'm with a group. And while sermons usually contain applications, it's inappropriate in most worship services to interact with the preacher while he's on the platform speaking. (In fact, in my church you will be politely escorted from the auditorium.)
But a group can encourage each person to ask, "How will this truth change my life?"
A few years ago I met Kent Odor at a small-groups conference. As I talked with him during a lull in the conference, I realized he wasn't an ordinary pastor. He was a brilliant thinker and well experienced in the small-group world.
I was fairly new as a small-groups minister, and since he was a veteran, I asked him to be a mentor and guide, and he agreed. Over the following years I would call him and pick his brain. No matter how big or small the issue, Kent would listen as I detailed the problem. He wasn't quick to offer solutions; instead, he would probe with more questions. Only when he realized I had run out of ideas would he then begin to fill in the blanks that I couldn't quite figure out.
I began to call him Obi-Wan after the famous Jedi Knight from the Star Wars films. Not because he could move things with his mind, of course, but because he was a mesmerizing blend of wise sage and mystical professor. He would look at me and ask a question, and no matter how I answered I knew I wouldn't be in the same ballpark. But he never made me feel small or dumb. He just kept pressing me to grow and learn—not through lectures but through listening.
When we listen to others, their perspective often challenges us. Chip experienced strong encouragement through a handful of simple questions. About a year earlier, he had accepted a job transfer. It was a move up in the company, and it meant he could provide better for his family. But few transitions are easy, as Chip came to realize. Eleven months into the new job, his old house still lingered on the market in Minnesota, his sons were struggling in their new school, and his wife felt isolated and abandoned by her old friends. As Chip shared his struggle with his men's group, he wondered out loud if the move was a mistake.
There were sympathetic nods. Then Earl, a fairly confident older man, asked some questions. "Chip, you said months ago that you were certain God led you to this new role. Why do you doubt that now?" Chip reminded Earl of the struggles he had just shared. "So are you suggesting that following God should be without any difficulty?" Chip replied that he knew that problems were part of life. Earl finished his challenging words with, "Could it be that God has your attention in a different way during this difficult time and he wants to help you grow?" The group was stunned. But Chip knew that Earl was right.
We often throw around clichés about trusting God, but trust is demonstrated primarily in the hard times. Chip was encouraged to reaffirm his own understanding of God's direction in his life. Chip's group listened to him, and then he listened to them.
This pathway of change shouldn't surprise us. The writer of Hebrews simply says, "Encourage one another" (Hebrews 10:25). The writer knew there is great power in positive words that help us realize that living for Christ is possible. And we can become more like him with his help and our effort.
—Bill Search; adapted from Simple Small Groups. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group (http://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com), copyright © 2008. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.