We live in a world of independence. We want to do everything ourselves. People can order any item they wish online. Customers like to go through self check-out lines at stores to avoid conversation with an employee. We get our food "to go" instead of going inside the restaurant. And after a long day at work, we tend to relax by watching television or reading by ourselves. Some of us like to stay social by chatting with people online or sending text messages by phone. Even our nation's birth came from the concept of independence.
But one of the main outcomes of our independence is loneliness. And our country is packed full of lonely people. In fact, sociologists call our country "The Loneliest Nation on the Planet."
Jenny is a good example. She wakes up early and drives to her job alone. She sits in an isolated cubicle and talks to people on the phone all day. In her attempts to sell her company's product, she never makes a relational connection with her customers, and her business seems to prevent her from taking needed breaks and talking with fellow employees. She even eats her lunch in the confines of her cubicle. At the end of the day, she is exhausted. She gets in her car and buys dinner through a fast-food window. As she pulls into her driveway, she notices her neighbor smiling and waving at her. Jenny offers a nervous smile as she pulls into the garage, closing the door immediately. I'm too tired to talk to anybody right now, she thinks. Eating her dinner by herself, she watches television. Before going to sleep that evening she thinks, There must be something else that life has to offer.
We are surrounded by lonely people, like Jenny, who are afraid of relationships. They have been taught the lie of our culture that they must be independent—not relying on anybody for anything. But in reality, most lonely people are miserable.
As small-group leaders, we hold the cure to loneliness: community. By allowing God to use us, we can show people a different way to live: together. In Genesis 1:26, God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness …." God is a community in himself, and he created us to walk in community, too. By helping people find community in our small groups, we help break the chains of loneliness. And when those chains are gone, people are free to reflect the image of our Creator!
Understand Everyone Won't Be Best Friends
Still, we need to have a proper understanding of how relationships really work in small groups, and we need to avoid becoming bogged down by unrealistic expectations.
For example, Jim and Katherine ran into some fellow small-group leaders in a restaurant and decided to share a meal together. Jim and Katherine asked their friends how their group was doing. Immediately, their faces lit up as they talked about how well everyone was connecting. Close friendships were forming and their group even enjoyed spending time together outside of their regular gatherings. Throughout the rest of the meal, Jim and Katherine felt like they were failures as group leaders because their group was not as close as their friends' group.
In truth, Jim and Katherine held a false expectation in their minds. They believed that a connecting small group will always have people who are becoming the best of friends. This is a lie that can trap a leader in the chains of false expectations.
Every group has a unique personality because of the different personalities of the people involved. Some groups will connect more than others; they may even develop close friendships and do so quickly. Other groups will never reach this level of intimacy. But that doesn't mean the group failed to connect.
In group life, "connecting" refers to developing a growing relationship with a specific group of people. It is that simple. For some groups, they will connect through intimate friendships. Other groups will connect by simply showing up each week. It's good for a leader to carry hopes to have a group of close friendships. But a leader should also celebrate if they simply have a group that keeps showing up!
Don't get caught in false expectations of basing your group's connection on intimacy. For each group will connect in different ways and on different intimacy levels.
Trust Is a Vital Ingredient
Whatever level of connection and friendship develops in your group, trust will play a part in solidifying those relationships.
Tom was a part of my first small group. I noticed early on that Tom seemed nervous and shy during our discussion times. One day he approached me, one on one, and explained that he was afraid to pray in front of people. Tom requested that I never call on him to pray during our group gatherings. I assured him that I would not embarrass him like that.
Several weeks later, Tom was hosting our small-group get together. Before we began our dinner, he announced that he was going to pray for the evening meal. We all bowed our heads as he gave thanks for our food. I was grinning from ear to ear!
What empowered Tom to overcome his fear of praying in front of our group? Trust. Over a span of several weeks, Tom learned that he could be himself around the group. When the group accepted Tom, he developed a trust in us.
While everyone in a small group might not become best friends, it is crucial that small-group participants establish a strong trust with one another. This trust must be established early within a group's existence. Although trust will take time to grow, plant the seed immediately.
Here are two easy ways you can begin to establish and build your group's trust level:
- Establish a "Come as you are" environment. Let people know they can be genuine.
- Have your group commit to the following statement: "What is said in the group stays in the group." Nothing destroys trust faster than gossip.
Once you have established a trust within your group, guard it well. Trust always determines the health of a group.
Seth Widner is Family Pastor of The Journey Church in Fernandia Beach, Florida.
—Copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today. Used with permission.