If we desire our small-group members to grow and flourish, we must recognize what holds them captive. Sometimes a sin pattern or incorrect theology can cause someone to be held captive. Other times, it is much more subtle—something they themselves may not even realize. And unfortunately, people who mean well can be the ones causing our captivity. Thankfully, small-group leaders can play an important role in helping group members break free. Here are three boxes that can hold group members captive.
The Denominational Box
This is built each time a denomination creates its own rendition of what Scripture is stating but that rendition contradicts, adds to, or tweaks what the Bible really says. In many instances these denominational ideals are referred to as "denominational distinctives." That is, expectations, guidelines, or doctrinal ideas that are considered distinctive to that one group of believers. For instance, several major denominations have declared that drinking alcoholic beverages in any amount is wrong. However, I believe most pastors, even those that are part of those denominations, would agree that Scripture only says drinking to the point of drunkenness is sinful.
While past generations may have been striving to be good Methodists, Lutherans, or Baptists, younger generations are leery of these titles. Instead, they are longing to become mature followers in right relationship with God, allowing the Bible, not a particular denomination's thoughts, to affect the way they live. Today's believers are wary of accepting denominational distinctives, and they become suspicious of church leaders, churches, and denominations who try to push these on them.
Small-group leaders must be willing to encourage their group members to think critically through their beliefs, digging into the Bible for themselves. Leaders can also help group members to understand those beliefs that unite believers—even focusing on something like the Nicene Creed.
The Local Church Box
This confining and debilitating box is built each time a local church creates stated or unstated expectations that go beyond biblical expectations for those who are part of that body of believers. This box has a profound effect on those who attend that church.
These decisions can leave church members angry, confused, and embarrassed. I remember talking with a small-group leader after a conference I led. She was heart-broken that her young adult son had declared he would never go back to church. The small rural church had transitioned to a contemporary worship style with a worship band. Many in the church didn't like it, though. So when the lead pastor moved on, leaders in the church declared that drums would never be allowed in that church again. Some in the meeting even declared that drums were satanic. This small-group leader's son had been the drummer. She was hurt by this unnecessary action that had caused her son to fall away.
When local church boxes are built and people are forced into them, the levels of bondage are overwhelming. Individuals forced into this box carry heavy loads placed on them by those who mean well but miss the mark. We must recognize that sometimes what is determined to be an important addition to the constitution and bylaws is actually a passive form of spiritual abuse.
Small-group leaders can help group members name these unfortunate experiences. And by naming them, healing can begin. They can also empower group members to be involved in the decisions made in the church and connect them with appropriate church leaders when they have concerns.
The Family Lineage Box
Realizing this box exists and that it may have huge positive or negative effects on us is vital to the transformation of small-group members. The family lineage box includes those attitudes, actions, and expectations that were taught and reinforced by family members—whether they were intentional or not. Because these influence us from birth, they have a huge impact on us, even if we don't know it.
Dan B. Allendar, Ph.D. put it like this, "The cast is sometimes obvious—our parents, siblings, spouse, mentors, abusers, and friends. But sometimes an important role is played by a grandparent we barely knew or a person, a family secret, who stands in the shadows offstage. We are defined by the people in our lives."
The family lineage box is filled with statements like, "Men never cry or talk about their feelings," "We don't discuss what goes on in this house to anyone," and "There are two things people never talk about: religion and politics." The family lineage box may also include things like how to dress when one goes to church, where to go for vacation, or what roles family members should play.
Family lineage boxes are what hold many small-group members captive forever. No box has a grip on us like this one because no other box is as apt to demand we remain silent more than this one. To speak badly about our family experiences is to speak badly about those who have loved us first and most. We may even believe that they will never love us again if we step outside of the box or reveal the family secrets.
Small-group leaders can challenge family beliefs that don't line up with Scripture and help group members critically reflect on their own backgrounds to see what expectations or beliefs may be holding them back from transformation. It is especially helpful for small-group leaders of couples' groups to explore this box with group members because these deeply engrained beliefs often cause marital tension.
If we're going to work in tandem with the Holy Spirit to set group members free, it's essential that we recognize the boxes that hold group members captive. Only then can we work with the Spirit to lift them out of those boxes, breaking the bondage of the ongoing emotional and spiritual tension they cause.
—Rick Howerton is the Global Groups Environmentalist for NavPress Publishers and a regular blogger. This article is adapted from his blog; used with permission from the author.