Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource Meaningful Application in Small Groups.
Our churches are filled with smart and isolated people who don't change. We've addressed the isolation issue by getting folks connected to a small group, and they do seem to know about the bible and know what's required for Christ-likeness—but they still don't change.
The solution is application.
Application often refers to a process of surface treatment: paint, decals, or make-up added to a house, vehicle, or face to dress it up. In our high-tech culture, application also refers to a bit of software intended to fulfill a very specific and limited purpose ("There's an app for that").
In small groups, our definition of application is more like the latter and hopefully not at all like the former. Application is the process of allowing the truths of God's word to actually influence our thinking and, ultimately, to change our behavior in specific and tangible ways. Application is where truth meets life.
Overcoming the Head Culture
Back in the 60's a new retail niche called Head Shops emerged. Amid psychedelic posters, macramÉ, and incense you could find all the paraphernalia you would need to care for your joints, deal with roaches, and cultivate your grass (so I've been told.) In fact, most Head Shops had everything you needed to get high—except the key ingredient.
Excuse this bizarre metaphor, but I believe that many of our churches are glorified Head Shops. We cater to the head (knowledge) and we create a culture—an expectant atmosphere, a specialized language, and even paraphernalia—without the key ingredient: application.
I grew up in a religious tradition that functioned as if knowledge alone would transform people. Truly serious believers immersed themselves in the Head culture: Sunday morning teaching of the Word, Sunday school (age-graded instruction), Sunday Night and Midweek Service (more teaching). Any gathering—a youth event, choir practice, or deacon's meeting—was invariably marked by a devotional mini-sermon. Small groups were called "Bible Studies" for good reason. The radio provided a steady stream of world-class Bible teachers who systematically added content to our overflowing skulls.
We operated on the premise: "If we just teach people the right things, they will change." If we are going to move past the surface, the first thing we will need to do is change a culture that believes knowledge alone is enough.
The Head culture manifests itself in our small groups in a couple of ways:
- It forces us to be curriculum-centric. We often define our groups solely on what they intend to study, and devote the bulk (if not all) of the group meeting to a study. I love Bill Donahue's line: "Jesus did not command us to go into the world and complete the curriculum." We ensure that all the blanks are filled in our workbooks without taking sufficient time to ponder how each truth should impact our daily lives.
- We recruit believers with teaching gifts as our primary group leaders. And then we seem surprised when they lean into their gift and just teach! Even if we train our group leaders to facilitate interactive discussion around application, the teaching gift has been so valued in the past that our leaders tend to default back to the role of teacher. Particularly when under stress or time constraints, our leaders find it a lot easier to simply lecture.