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.
Our first goal, then, is to shift from a knowledge-only delivery model of small groups to one in which less content is delivered and more truth is applied. Minimize the value of getting through all 12 discussion questions and maximize the value of getting through 2 questions designed to change behavior. If you have to, put a post-it note in your Bible with the words: "It's application, stupid."
Expect People to Change
This is a small but significant point: we don't expect people to change. John Ortberg tells the story of a curmudgeonly old guy in the church of his youth. Everyone knew this guy was irritable, stubborn, and unpleasant, and had been for years. Bu no one expected him to change, and he didn't. It's easy for us to look at some individuals and fail to believe that Christ can change their beliefs and behaviors.
If the ultimate purpose of small groups is to effect life-change—to see people continuously morph into Christ-likeness—then they, and we, must believe that they can and will change. This will affect the questions we ask and the accountability we require. If people want to change and are serious about actually changing, we'll need to get serious about accountability.
My first real experience with spiritual accountability began when my men's small group attended a Promise Keepers event. Charles Swindoll challenged us to take seriously the practice of accountability, which he defined as "asking each other today the questions that Jesus will ask us someday." Examples:
- Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising?
- Have any of your financial dealings lacked integrity?
- Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?
- Have you spend adequate time in Bible study and prayer?
- Have you just lied to me?
We carried cards in our wallets with a variation of these questions. The last one was the hardest to answer truthfully.
No one has taken accountability more seriously than John Wesley. His "bands" were similar to our small groups in that they were small and met regularly. The similarity may end there, if you look at the steps they took to ensure that they went beyond talk to application:
- Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?
- Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?
- Do you desire that in doing this we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?
- Is it your desire and design to be on this and all other occasions entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart, without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?
Now compare your group's "icebreakers" to Wesley's. These questions were to be asked of each band member whenever they met:
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with? How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
Perhaps the ultimate accountability question is from Andy Stanley: "What question are you hoping I won't ask?"
Imagine the transformational possibilities if we went beyond these hard-hitting but "generic" accountability questions to very specific questions demanding that we actually apply our latest learning to our individual situation. The underlying question that must inform all others is this: How will you live differently because of what you have learned?
A surprising and non-intuitive question is this: What might we learn by living differently?
Act Your Way into Thinking
The Head culture has conditioned us to want to know all the facts, to consider the ramifications, and to be reasonably assured of the outcome before we begin a course of action. But faith demands that we act in obedience before we understand fully or see certainly.
In his remarkable book The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch says: "We must live our truth" (emphasis mine) and "We need to act our way into a new way of thinking." Based on his years of observation, strong theological foundation, and the illumination of cognitive science, Hirsch points out that for follower of Christ, behavior often must precede belief.
Small groups provide the encouragement, safety, and accountability required for most people to "Just Do It." I had been in a men's small group that frequently discussed of our need to engage in practical serving opportunities in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. I knew what was required by Scripture and expected by my peers. I just never got around to putting feet to my knowledge. I avoided application until I heard men tearfully describe their experience of serving the homeless and invite me to join them. I decided to just do it. Exposure to the experience changed me in a way that knowledge of the truth never had. I had acted my way into a new way of thinking.
Application is the key to seeing life transformation in groups. Successful application will require us to overcome a contrary culture, expect it to work, value accountability, and ultimately act our way into thinking. It will prevent your group, and your church, from becoming just another Head Shop.
—Dave Treat is the Discipleship Pastor at Friendship Church in Athens, AL. You can read more from Dave at his blog, www.ThinkingSmall.net.