Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who lived during the rise of Nazism. He was a prophetic voice to the German Church, recognizing the evil of Adolf Hitler long before most of the world. He valiantly fought Hitler's takeover of the German Church and was eventually imprisoned and executed for his role in an assassination attempt against the Führer.
As part of his fight to preserve the true gospel of Jesus Christ, he founded an underground seminary for aspiring pastors because the traditional seminaries had been taken over by the Nazis. However, this seminary provided not only academic and pastoral training, but also whole-life training, teaching them to be and make disciples of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer and his students all lived together on a large estate in the German countryside, and it was against this backdrop that he wrote Life Together, a treatise on Christian community. In it, Bonhoeffer described what he believed Christian communal life should look like. He also laid out a morning routine that he found helpful, and (with a few minor adjustments) it makes an interesting framework for a small-group meeting.
Trying It Out
My small group has been reading Life Together and decided to try out his plan. It was an interesting experiment. The prayer time at the end was one of the best group prayer times I've ever had. There was a long list of prayer needs, but praying for each of them didn't become just a list to get through. Because the group is slowly becoming a true community, I was able to genuinely pray for the things that they need and the group was able to participate in that prayer without becoming bored.
If you decide to experiment with this, I'd encourage you to share the responsibilities with your group members. Have one person choose and lead the reading of the Psalm, another lead the singing, others read the Scriptures, and ask a few people to bring food for the meal. Sharing responsibilities will not only lighten your load, but also allows others to feel ownership of the group. It can also help prepare them for potentially leading their own groups in the future.
I hope this proves to be a valuable experience for your group as it was for mine. Follow Bonhoeffer's plan below at your next group meeting, using the small-group ideas to guide you.
Pray from the Psalms
From ancient times in the Church a special significance has been attached to the common use of psalms. In many churches to this day, the Psalter constitutes the beginning of every service of common worship. The custom has been largely lost and we must find our way back to its prayers. The Psalter occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures. It is God's Word and, with a few exceptions, the prayer of men as well. (From Life Together)
As a group, read a Psalm responsively. The main reader can read the odd-numbered verses, while the group reads the even-numbered verses in unison. Make this reading a prayer to God.
Sing a Hymn
Why do Christians sing when they are together? The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word. All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn. The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words.
Have someone in the group select a worship song or hymn that will be commonly known to the group members and lead the group in singing it.
Read the Scriptures
As a whole the Scriptures are God's revealing Word. Only in the infiniteness of its inner relationships, in the connection of the Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping, will the full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord be perceived. This is why common devotions will include, besides the prayer of the psalms, a longer reading from the Old and the New Testament.
Have one member in the group select and read aloud a chapter from the Old Testament and another member select and read aloud a chapter from the New Testament.
Sing a Hymn
Again, have someone in the group choose a song that will be commonly known to the group members and lead them in singing it.
We have heard God's Word, and we have been permitted to join in the hymn of the Church; but now we are to pray to God as a fellowship, and this prayer must really be our word, our prayer for this day, for our work, for our fellowship, for the particular needs and sins that oppress us in common, for the persons who are committed to our care.
Spend a few minutes discussing what group members' prayer requests. Then spend time praying for those needs. Bonhoeffer recommends that the group leader be the person who prays aloud.
Not until the fellowship has been nourished and strengthened with the bread of eternal life does it come together to receive from God earthly bread for this temporal life. Giving thanks and asking God's blessing, the Christian family receives its daily bread from the hand of the Lord. Ever since Jesus Christ sat at table with his disciples, the table fellowship of his community has been blessed by his presence.
The fellowship of the table teaches Christians that here they still eat the perishable bread of the earthly pilgrimage. But if they share this bread with one another, they shall also one day receive the imperishable bread together in the Father's house.
This one's pretty simple. Eat together! Enjoy a meal or even just some snacks.
—Will Johnston is the Small Group Catalyst for National Community Church in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @willjohnston. Copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.