Last week I was able to tune into portions of Exponential West, a conference specifically for church planters. The focus was on discipleship and was built around the five shifts laid out in DiscipleShift by Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert Coleman.
Though you may not be a church planter, I imagine you're interested in discipleship. After all, that's the heart of small-group ministry. The book specifically addresses small-group leaders. And the questions raised by the speakers get into the nitty-gritty of what group leaders do.
Jim Putman, for instance, asked a telling question: Do we teach people to wrestle with their faith, or just tell them what to believe?
This question hits me especially hard because I've experienced both. I can distinctly remember a well-meaning youth sponsor telling me shortly after I'd started following Christ that I had to cut ties with my non-Christian friends in order to live the Christian life. Looking back, I understand why this was her advice. After all, it's a lot easier to cut ties than to deal with the mess of redefining relationships. It's a lot less risky, too, because it would eliminate the temptation to return to my old lifestyle. But it didn't change me—it simply told me something to do because, well, someone had told me to do it.
On the other hand, I've had amazing men and women ask me difficult questions to help me process my situation, wrestle with difficult answers, and trust God. Through those situations, I've grown in my faith, navigated the gray areas of life, learned to listen to the Spirit, and developed a well-defined identity in Christ.
As we lead discussion in our groups, it's easy to focus on the "right" answers and totally bypass the opportunities to allow our group members to wrestle with the gray and listen for God's voice. It gets us through the study/curriculum/book faster, and we feel pretty accomplished, too. Our group members learn valuable Bible knowledge, but they miss something more important: how that knowledge applies to their life.
A few weeks ago, my women's group was discussing John 7 which briefly mentions the Festival of Tabernacles. One of the women asked the purpose of the festival. Another talked briefly about being in the desert for 40 years. Together, the women pieced together the story. Forty minutes later we'd talked about the use of festivals in Jewish culture, the reason only the high priest could approach God once a year, and how Jesus had changed all of that.
It was a tangent to be sure. John 7 is actually about Jesus speaking with authority to the Jewish people at the festival and the fact that some believed and others didn't. But our tangent led us somewhere important when one of the women exclaimed, "Wow! God did all that so I can have a relationship with him!" The sentiment sobered the group, sending everyone into deep thought. Slowly they started to respond. And tear up. And explain that they weren't investing in that relationship like they could. It led to real prayer requests and thankfulness and ideas about how to build an authentic relationship with Jesus. It led to a shift in our hearts and minds. And it was obviously the work of the Spirit.
It all started with letting God's Word speak directly to the group, being open to tangents, and allowing group members to wrestle with what they were reading. It's easier to point people back to what they're supposed to get out of a passage. Or even to draw the same conclusion without letting group members get there on their own. But that doesn't focus on discipleship or transformation or wrestling. And that's what small groups should be focused on—even if it's a plan that's a lot trickier to follow.