"How do we get them to like each other?" I asked, scribbling nonsense on a fresh sheet of paper.
"No idea. There's a section in our leader's handbook about group bonding, though." My friend Taylor and I had just started a college Bible study group, and after hours of brainstorming, we still had nothing.
"What does it say?" Taylor resurfaced the handbook from under an impressive display of desk junk and started flipping pages.
"It says something about discussing promises and commitment," he said, handing it over. "It's called 'group covenant' or something." I quickly skimmed the recommended questions. It was about inspiring ownership in our newly formed community and figuring out ways to keep each other accountable to the cause.
"Let's do it," I said.
A few hours later we all gathered together in an outdated common area connected to the dining hall.
"So, what does the word 'covenant' make you guys think of?" I yelled over the other five conversations going on in the room.
"Halo!" one of them blurted. Everyone else in the room laughed in agreement.
"Halo? Like the Xbox game?" I rolled my eyes.
"Yeah, that's what I thought of, too!" another guy added. They proceeded to tell me about this alien alliance called the 'Covenant' and how they wanted to kill the human race. I looked at Taylor with wide, helpless eyes, like a mouse about to get pounced on. But he had started to speak effervescently about the difference in quality between Halo 2 and Halo 3. The war was over before it even started. There is absolutely no hope once 20 college males start talking about video games.
When things like this happen, I'm tempted to think God has left the room. Sure, God is present when we gather, but what if we're talking about how a video game's plasma grenades are awesome?
But something important was happening during that conversation. I didn't see it then, but it was there and it was profound. We were becoming brothers. At the time, I would have said this conversation was a waste of time. I didn't think life-changing community could be built on a tangent. But in those moments we were being bound and woven together by our common experience: killing aliens. The more we talked about it, the more everyone in the room realized they could be themselves. We all became comfortable in the realization that, even though this was a Bible study group, it didn't have to be ruled by serious conversation and uninterrupted Jesus talk. We could joke around and talk about everyday things like a huge touchdown in last night's game or a sweet action movie with tons of explosions.
I believe without any doubt that these diversions can be the seeds that grow into tangible community. Obviously, the deep discussions are helpful and beneficial, but perhaps the tangents are just as useful. Maybe God purposely wedges those tangents in between your preplanned questions.
Before the Halo incident, discussing deep topics felt forced and awkward, but afterward it was different. When Taylor and I brought up issues like regret and guilt, we found surprising vulnerability. When we brought up evangelism and the problems people have with organized religion, we saw thoughtful honesty and an inspiration to change those negative associations.
We were no longer just a bunch of guys sitting around an open Bible, hoping to become better people. Instead, we were united in our determination to let Jesus' words urge us into spiritual maturity. We were willing to let our peers challenge us to grow beyond the surface level. In this way we became more than just friends—we were brothers. But it didn't come without trust built upon off-topic laughter, silly stories, and wrestling matches.
Small groups are a beautiful way to create authentic community, but they need more than intentionality to be real. They need spontaneity, too. So while it may feel natural to fight every tangent, think again. Next time a side conversation is born out of a new pasta recipe or the hilarious things kids say, try to embrace it. You may not get what you expect, but looking back on the years of brotherhood we shared, I praise God for plasma grenades.
—Justin Marr is a small-group leader, and he blogs at TheSocialHunger.com. This article is adapted from his blog; used with permission from the author.