We are in a spiritual war. But how often do we frame our idea of small groups within that context?
Think of groups as small tactical squads. Groups are more than just fellowship-builders. They are more than just support systems. They are units in God's grand army. They are small groups of soldiers that play a strategic part in God's battle plans against evil.
As in any war, soldiers must be given the rules of engagement. Rules of Engagement (ROE) "are rules or directives to military forces that define the circumstances, conditions, degree, and manner in which force, or actions which might be construed as provocative, may be applied." In other words, ROE tell soldiers how to operate together and how to handle issues that arise.
Just like soldiers in war, small groups must be issued ROE in order to successfully navigate the battlefield. There are a myriad of rules that your church might address:
- How long groups should meet
- When groups should dissolve
- When groups should birth other groups
- How to handle conflict in a group
- How group leaders should navigate relational tension
The list could go on and on, and the full list of ROE can become pretty complicated. To simplify things, soldiers sometimes are given a shortened description called an ROE card that provides all the necessary information in an easy-to-read format.
What if your church created ROE cards to give to groups? How might they equip your groups regarding issues on their spiritual and relational battlefields before they arise?
At our church, we provide groups with a small booklet that fits in your back pocket to summarize our ROE. Rather than address every possible scenario, we focus on one thing: connection. If group members connect in healthy ways, the likelihood of division, tension, anger, and misunderstandings goes down tremendously. We boil down connection into what we call "The Four Levels of Connection" based on a talk I heard from Rick Warren.
Level One: Play Together
So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.—Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NLT)
Enjoying one another is critical for small-group members to connect. It's important to have fun together. Our church recommends that groups intentionally plan times for fun. We suggest things like:
- Going to the movies together
- Going out to eat a meal together
- Going to a sporting event together
- Going on a vacation together
- Tailgating before a game
- Having a night out for just the women or men
The point is to find activities that group members can enjoy together because fun activities break down relational barriers. When people are having fun, they let go of their inhibitions and allow their true selves to shine through.
Sometimes people have the wrong notion that small groups must always be serious. But when we set out to have a serious group, everything goes wrong. People are intimidated, and they don't open up. And when no one opens up, it's hard to have a serious group discussion. When we take time to have fun together, though, people begin to open up because they're less intimidated. Sure, we probably won't have a deep conversation at a tailgate, but the point is to break the ice. Then when things get more serious, it's easier to open up on a deeper level.
Level Two: Learn Together
Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.—Hebrews 10:24-25 (NLT)
Learning together creates a deeper bond than only playing together. Most small groups do a great job with this. That's because we structure our small groups around a Bible study or curriculum.
We can't be fully devoted followers of Jesus without learning how he wants us to live. As we learn, we grow in our relationships with God and with others. Therefore, we recommend that groups learn together in two ways: from the Bible and from one another.
First, we encourage groups to use Biblically based curricula to study God's Word together. But it doesn't have to be too fancy. Our favorite thing for groups to use is a weekly study we put together that goes with the weekend's sermon. It helps group members take what they've learned on the weekend and apply it to the rest of their week.
Second, we encourage group members to share their faith stories with one another. Never underestimate the power of people's experiences. Everyone has different backgrounds and different experiences, and God uses those things to teach powerful life principles to one another.
Level Three: Serve Together
In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God.—2 Corinthians 6:4 (NLT)
By "serve together" I don't mean to volunteer at a church function together. Rather, I mean serving those who are outside the church. This level of connection is profoundly different than the first two because it is outwardly focused. The first two levels of connection focus on the needs of the group, but this level of connection happens when groups start focusing on the needs of people outside the group. By serving together, groups reach beyond the walls of the church and impact the community. They get a chance to practice mission and evangelism together.
When a group comes together with an outward focus, something tremendous happens internally: they grow closer to one another. Group members who serve together have shared an experience that knits their hearts together. That's why I encourage groups in our church to serve the community at least four times per year.
Serving together shouldn't be treated as a mere suggestion. It should be one of the highest values. Inwardly focused groups produce an inwardly focused church. And to put it bluntly, inwardly focused churches don't fulfill the Great Commission.
Level Four: Suffer Together
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.—Ecclesiates 4:9-12 (NLT)
Suffering is awful, so we avoid it if at all possible. But suffering is part of life. One of the best things we can do during suffering is go through it with others. In order for this to happen, we need to understand the difference between going to suffering and going through suffering with someone.
Examples of going to suffering might be:
- Saying, "I'll pray for you"
- Sending flowers to the hospital
- Recommending a counselor, plumber, employer, etc.
- Offering advice
- Paying someone's electric bill
These things are all good—they show we care. Yet none of these require a commitment to being present with people throughout their suffering. These examples can be good starting places, but they should be followed by actions that require a commitment to go through suffering with them.
Here are some examples of going through suffering:
- Calling and praying with someone every day until the crisis is over
- Spending the day with a family in the waiting room at the hospital
- Going with a friend to his or her Chemo treatments
- Helping a friend with a collapsed sewer pipe dig a trench for a new one
- Helping someone raise money to pay his or her bills all summer
Going through suffering with someone is one of the most profoundly loving acts you can express. Think of the disciples during Jesus' crucifixion. Judas betrayed Jesus. Then 10 of the disciples ran away. The 10 went with Jesus right up to the point of suffering. But only John remained present through Jesus' suffering. Perhaps it's this loving act that earned John the title "the disciple who Jesus loved."
Imagine some seasons of suffering in your own life. Who went to suffering with you and who went through it with you? Those who went through it with you are the people you hold dearest. Why? Because they held you dear. The deepest connections in our lives are formed with those who go through suffering with us.
Inward and Outward Suffering
There's a difference between inward and outward suffering, and that difference matters. Inward suffering is when a group member (someone inside the group) has a crisis and the rest of the group steps up to help see it through. This builds a great bond between the members of the group and is very healthy for their relationships.
Outward suffering is when someone in the community (someone outside the group and outside the church) has a crisis, and the small group steps up to help see the person through. This not only creates a powerful bond between the group members, but it also builds a great bond with someone outside the church. What better way for a group to serve together than to do it while suffering with someone who desperately needs the love of Jesus?
Our hope in providing groups with these ROE booklets is that they'll wage war against the enemy by investing in the kind of community that God calls us to. And while groups must start at level one, we hope and pray that they all move to level four.
—Alan Danielson is the Senior Pastor of New Life Bible Church in Norman, Oklahoma, and a small-group consultant.