There’s a growing hunger in churches, particularly in small groups, for something deeper. So small-group pastors and leaders are dismayed to realize that discipleship may not actually be happening in groups like they think it is.
Church leaders, including small-group pastors, are eager to engage in discipleship, but they’re not sure how to make that happen. And some, frankly, aren’t sure people will be interested. How do you make people want to grow, especially if they’re content as they are? What would it look like to have small groups where people were growing spiritually, and being formed into the image of Christ?
Group members tend to go one of two ways: they’re content and oblivious to what a transforming community would look like, or they’re dissatisfied with their group, but they assume that this is as good as it gets. Both types don’t know what they’re missing.
Ruth Barton, founder and president of the Transforming Center and author of numerous books on spiritual formation and leadership, sat down with me to talk about why community is essential to our spiritual formation. She offered some insights on how leaders can take small groups to a deeper level.
Transformation Is a Must
Christians are meant to change, to become more like Christ, Barton asserts. The place that change happens is in community. Transforming community is not a nice add-on to the Christian life, it’s meant to be the core of the Christian life.
“If we’re going to church and not changing, that’s a message that is contrary to the gospel. Our testimony is contrary to the gospel. That’s alarming,” Barton says.
More and more churches, feeling that same alarm, are looking to facilitate spiritual formation small groups. Yet many are uncertain about how to do that, especially if leaders themselves have not experienced a transforming community, or can’t articulate the difference between a spiritual formation group and a traditional group.
Barton argues that there is a clear difference between traditional groups and spiritual formation groups—what she calls transforming communities. At the same time, spiritual formation cannot be considered simply an option or an “advanced spirituality” program that only the “really deep” people can handle.
A Group’s Focus
While every group is different, let’s consider three broad categories of groups. These might be placed on a continuum. In each of these groups, transformation is possible, even if it happens coincidentally. But only in the third type is transformation the stated purpose.
The first focuses on building friendships and community. Typically, the group goes through a Bible study or reads an inspiring or instructive book, but the focus is doing life together, building community, and providing connection and friendship. These groups typically come together around affinity such as life stage, age, or common interest. They’re sometimes referred to as “prayer-share-care” groups, and they often form out of people’s desire to know others in their church or neighborhood.
The second has an emphasis on learning. They study the Bible, learn to pray, perhaps even serve together. These are all great disciplines, but it’s very easy for group members to keep the experience intellectual as they analyze the Bible, debate theology, and keep the discussion theoretical—only talking in vague terms about how they will apply what they’re learning. They may or may not share the struggles of their life or the truth about themselves.
This type of group can also tend to focus on each person’s individual walk with God outside of the community. The group members study the text and perhaps compare notes about what they’re learning or even experiencing with God, but they don’t see the experience of community as part of the way that God transforms them. These groups form out of the desire to know more about God or the Bible. Other times, they form simply because they think small groups are what they’re supposed to do.
The third type of group is what Barton calls a transforming community. This group studies the Bible, prays, and serves, but it also engages in other spiritual practices such as group spiritual direction. They come together because they believe that the very act of coming together forms them spiritually.
The group practices spiritual disciplines: listening, spiritual direction, intercessory prayer, welcoming the stranger (i.e. true biblical hospitality). The group’s structure offers a way for people to share more deeply, to discern God’s will, and to reveal their true selves. These groups are not based on life stage or other external affinity, but rather, on a “shared desire for God, and a willingness to pray for one another in that desire,” Barton says. “That desire brings people together more effectively than mere affinity.” In other words, they form not out of a desire for community or knowing about God, but a desire for God himself.
A Call to Deeper Community
The truth is, as many pastors realize, not everyone wants to be transformed. Whether due to fear or just feeling comfortable where they are, many resist change, even though they may feel disappointed in their own inability to grow or change. A transforming community requires that members actually want to be challenged and changed, Barton says.
“The transformational dynamic of any group, far beyond the external affinity, is the willingness to want to be transformed,” she asserts. “A transforming community is made up of people who are interested in being transformed by Christ’s presence, have a desire to be transformed, to be on a journey.”
Barton has decades of experience with this third type of group. The organization she founded and leads, the Transforming Center, offers a two-year spiritual formation program specifically for church leaders. Each cohort consists of 70 to 80 men and women.
They attend nine retreats over a two-year period. Each retreat includes five teaching sessions, as well as a four-hour block of solitude, followed by a time for participants to meet in small groups. They debrief their solitude experience by engaging in the spiritual practice of group spiritual direction. “The only question is, ‘How do we open to the presence of Christ together?’” Barton says. The group members engage in spiritual listening, helping one another hear from God.
Barton uses the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 as a model for spiritual community in the Transforming Center retreats, the same passage she uses in her latest book, Life Together in Christ. The conversation of those two disciples “drew Christ to them.” Likewise, our honest conversation about how to open ourselves to the presence of Christ is the first step in actually experiencing that presence, she says.
In her book, Barton writes: “Spiritual transformation is the process by which Christ is formed in us—for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others; it results in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God.”
All people are, as Dallas Willard famously wrote, in the process of spiritual formation. Our spirits are constantly being formed by what we do, what we read, our experiences, and the company we keep. Christian spiritual formation, specifically, is focused on changing our heart and actions to be more like Jesus. Unfortunately, Barton says, churches often promise that change, but don’t deliver it.
“We could all admit that we’ve been in groups and church but don’t ever change,” Barton said. “It would help us to move forward if we would acknowledge that change and transformation requires more than intellectual pursuit.”
Why don’t people engage in transforming community? Barton says our evangelical tradition has been influenced by, and highly values, a “heady and intellectual approach. Our tradition has tried to convince us that if we just know about God, we’ll change. Those of us who have been around the block a few times know that it is not true.”
“I think people really do believe mere study will change them. But it doesn’t. Study has great value, and it’s a necessary foundation, but study alone will not change us,” she says.
Still, Barton believes that groups focused on study are necessary and provide a foundation for transforming community. It’s an essential starting point, but not where we are meant to stay forever.
“I want to cast a vision that groups can be more. It’s very challenging and some people are simply not up for it. Some groups are not ready for this kind of interaction, or, for some groups, what is most needed is basic biblical literacy. Discipleship, study, hermeneutics, these are essential first.”
From this foundation, groups can begin to listen to God together. “This way of being together would work well with people who have biblical literacy first,” Barton says, noting that those without a strong understanding of the Bible might easily go the wrong way. “This type of group presents risks for those who don’t have biblical underpinnings,” she says. That is why leaders, especially, need to know and understand the Bible. They need that foundation of discipleship in order to guide a transforming community.
But assume group members do have plenty of knowledge about the Bible and about God. Why do people stay in groups where study of theological facts is the main focus?
“We stay safe by just staying at a surface level,” Barton asserts. “But the deeper patterns don’t ever get exposed. The false self is made up of sin patterns that help us survive, things we developed as coping mechanisms in childhood—as part of our impulse to survive. We needed them, but eventually, they keep us from abandoning to God the safety and control. All of us do it, because it served us well. But it no longer serves us well. A true spiritual journey is going to confront those places and go deeper, but that can be scary for people.”
Barton’s organization and writing are dedicated to challenging leaders to go deeper so that the church can become a place where people actually do change and become more like Christ.
“We need to drive a stake in the ground and talk about, and engage in, practices that take place in community,” Barton says. “We need to be honest enough to say that doesn’t happen in many groups. Often, it’s because leaders don’t know how to lead a group in that way. No one has provided them a structure. In the practice of group spiritual direction, for example, you have to give the group space for the Spirit to lead.”
A Challenge to Leaders
If small-group leaders and pastors want to see more transforming communities in their ministry, they need to engage in this sort of community themselves. If you’ve never experienced a spiritual formation small group, it’s difficult to lead others into that experience.
The leader’s “job is to do the personal processing themselves, so that they can bring a prepared self to their leadership context,” she says. “A leader needs to experience this first, in order to lead others in it. A senior leader needs to cast a vision from the pulpit, that spiritual formation is not an elective. Real transformation is possible, when we gather together in the trenches of transforming community. People need to be taught what spiritual formation is, they need to understand how rooted it is in biblical truth.”
Barton believes that just offering an experience—like a seminar or a class on spiritual formation—is a big mistake. Groups should always be about spiritual formation, rather than creating a separate ministry, class, or program.
“You have to define the work, and actually do it. A senior leader needs to have gone through it, and be engaged in this kind of community on an ongoing basis. It’s never a program.”
Group Spiritual Disciplines
So if spiritual formation groups do more than just study the Bible and pray, what does that “more” consist of? What spiritual disciplines can be done in community?
“One of the spiritual practices that groups can engage in is welcoming the stranger, the person who is different from you,” Barton says. “Your faith is sharpened by your willingness to walk with a stranger. If your group is based on affinity or similarities in your life stage or theology, you’re going to have a real difficult time welcoming someone who is different. But it is that welcoming that forms us. If you’re in a group that’s homogeneous, you don’t get that opportunity. In a spiritual formation small group, you assume even people who are different are there by God’s design, that God wants to stretch you by being with people who have different personalities, theology, gender. The discomfort of welcoming a stranger can be very fruitful.”
The groups that are part of the Transforming Center also engage in group spiritual direction or discernment. Discernment is a practice that works best in community, so that we don’t let our own selfish desires take over, and proclaim that God told us to do something contrary to Scripture.
“Discernment needs to happen in the context of community,” Barton says. “It’s safer. We don’t just get carried away by weird thoughts. There is a check and balance. And as we discern God’s will together, we can pray prayers of intercession. It’s something you can’t do by yourself. It’s amazing what comes through when we’re together in this way. We truly belong to one another in Christ, not on the basis of affinity or externals.”
As a small-group pastor, how can you implement this at your church?
- If you are a small-group pastor, you need to make sure you’re exposed to this kind of group. Barton’s book Life Together in Christ contains small-group questions and instruction, and would make a great guide.
- Although some groups begin as social or intellectual groups, keep talking about how all groups should have transformation as their goal. Don’t make spiritual formation an optional or separate program. Instead, make it the underlying reality of all you do as a church. Even if a group initially gathers around affinity or a desire for friendship, challenge those groups to go deeper by simply making transformation a goal, and by engaging in spiritual practices together as a group.
- To get some new groups started, invite small-group leaders to be part of a turbo group to experience it first before separating to start similar groups. Again, Barton’s Life Together in Christ, or her previous book Sacred Rhythms would be excellent materials to go through together.
- As those leaders start new groups, issue an invitation to the congregation to join groups that are not based on affinity or life-stage, but as Barton says, “come together because of a shared desire for God, and a willingness to pray for one another in that desire.”
- Guide and coach existing groups to help them become transforming communities. Use Go Deeper with Spiritual Disciplines for practical tips.
Keri Wyatt Kent is the author of ten books, and co-author of several others. She writes and speaks on spiritual formation, and is a regular contributor to SmallGroups.com Learn more about her writing and speaking at www.keriwyattkent.com.