As a new believer I was often asked to consider joining a small group. I tried a couple and decided they were not for me. One group consisted of a few emotional women who spent most of the time crying and complaining. I wasn't good at crying, so I never went back. The second group looked more promising as we gathered for refreshments—until a woman just about impaled me to the wall asking, "So, what is the shape of your soul?" I remember being quite embarrassed. I didn't know my soul had a shape and I was at a loss for words!
Now, years later in my spiritual journey, this very question seems appropriate to ask, but only in the stage of small-group growth where relationships and trust have been developed.
Small groups function for different purposes according to the vision of the individual church. Healthy small groups create powerful venues for spiritual growth. It is important for the small-group director to assist leaders in understanding and implementing a few tools. These tools will help create the environment where small-group members are comfortable, open, vulnerable, and accountable as they journey together in their Christian faith. Trust and comfort do not happen immediately. Forcing an environment for self-revelation and truth-speaking too early in the group's life will inhibit the natural process of authenticity and often result in group members hiding behind the mask of falsehood.
Here are a few tools that will help create an environment for appropriate disclosure and authenticity in your small group: spiritual storytelling, covenant building, listening skills, asking appropriate questions, and group prayer.
Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone likes to listen to stories! Encouraging and assisting members to share their story paints a picture marked by the presence of God. Each story is different describing the imprint of God in unique ways. Sharing stories early in the life of the group is part of the "getting to know you" process that begins the bonding and building of trusting relationships.
Most small groups are as diverse as the spiritual journeys of those in the group. Hearing a few defining moments, on-going spiritual growth, yearnings, and goals inform and encourage the group. A spiritual autobiography is not only the testimony of one's conversion, as central as that is to that person's faith, but it is the story of God's presence before personal belief—and God's presence as they travel through life. The spiritual autobiography becomes a chronicle of an individual's pilgrimage in their quest to know and to follow God.
As stories are shared, group members begin to learn and understand more deeply about their forming group. Bonding begins to develop as connections, similarities, doubts, tensions, and perhaps failures surface. Often recognition and connection occur as one listens to another's journey as the spiritual peaks and valleys, dark nights of the soul, and joyous or quiet celebrations are shared. Thoughts of "I'm not alone in my struggles" pepper the minds of the listeners. Knowing some deeper details of each another helps the group understand mind-sets, responses, personalities, and expectations. Authenticity begins to surface, trust starts to develop, and the small group connects in the safe environment of the gathering.
Believe it or not, every small group has a covenant. It is either assumed covenant or an intentionally designed covenant. In order to become a healthy small group where authenticity, trust, and appropriate disclosure develop, the group must consider designing a group covenant. What are the expectations of each member? Why have they joined the group? What do they want to see happen in and through the small group experience? These are some of the questions that should be addressed. Verbalizing and notating goals and purposes begin the important process of group ownership. Basically, the group decides "what is in and what is out." The covenant becomes the steps the group is willing to take for the growth and edification of the group.