“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.”