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.