This lesson comes from our experience of a “shift of culture” in a traditional small group.
CAVEAT: The content below was originally written before the pandemic, so please apply it with wisdom and discernment.
I can remember been in many small groups, even leading a few of them. Many of them were great. Some of them even multiplied and grew into new small groups, but the vast majority did not reflect biblical community. Instead of ordinary people doing life together and joining God’s work in the world, I noticed that we were coming to fill our own minds and feel good about ourselves, we were not growing.
I’m not against small groups at all, they have a place especially for those with questions, and for caring for each other. The problem isn’t with small groups. The problem is that small groups have been hijacked by the subtle power of consumerism.
Instead of using our collective time and energy engaging the life that is happening amongst us, our focus was on consuming the latest small group curricula, often jumping from one 8-week study to the next. “Studies” became the point, with videos of guest pastors replacing the local leadership.
But again, I’m not down on small groups! The original passion I felt in the first few studies I lead still drives me today, and my conviction is that true biblical community has not been tried and found wanting; it has been difficult to find and not tried.
But when it has been tried it almost always turns into a movement that revitalizes the church, mobilizes ordinary people to join God’s mission, and turns the world upside down.
A change in perspective
Small groups need to be engaging with life, both within the group, and with those individuals or families from outside the group they are connected with. I am not talking about a service project, or even some outcome you want to achieve. Both are very good and often give us opportunity to be in relationship with others, but what is needed is engagement with life.
To engage with life, I have found the key paradigm shift to change an existing group, is they need to come to a different belief about how “growth” happens. If we believe that growth primarily happens by sharing of information, sharing what our expectations are, perhaps even demonstrating how to do things, we will for ever be stuck.
There are jobs which do work like this. Perhaps if you are an accountant and you prepare taxes, you will read the rules and then you can prepare the tax returns. Growing people up is not like this as all, there is not one book we can read to learn to grow up. Not even reading the Bible will grow a person up! If you go to seminary, you will find there quite a few professors who have a whole lot of knowledge about the Bible, but you would not want to be like them.
I am not at all invalidating verses like 2 Timothy 3:16, where it says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching … ” What I am saying is, we can read this with one of two perspectives. Here I am concerned with our belief about how we grow up. If we don’t grow up by believing the right theology, what is the process?
The engine of maturation is our emotions that move us. We need a soft heart!
Jesus said in Mark 8:17 “Jesus asked them: ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?’” It is with a soft heart that we can begin to see, and where the understanding develops, or from our perspective the “growth” happens.
Putting discipleship at the center
As we yearn for developing a soft heart, our whole perspective changes. I cannot guarantee we will be able to effect a change of heart in those we lead, but I can guarantee we ourselves will grow as a result. We ourselves must have a soft heart to invite the same in another person. This is the essence of discipleship.
By shifting our focus to that of inviting soft hearts, everything for us changes. Instead of focusing on the outcomes we desire, instead of focusing on the fruit of the process, we are instead focused on the beginning of the process. Then we can let God’s design unfold in His timing.
We have totally messed up discipleship. In our Industrialized society, we as adults are focused so intently on outcome, that we all now believe if we strive for an outcome, we will get there. This is not God’s plan at all, we can’t and don’t control the process of growing up, this is something that happens to us. It’s a good thing we can’t get into the womb, because if we could we get in there and mess the fetal development up too.
Our focus then is on inviting a soft heart, on creating a relationship context for the heart to be vulnerable, and giving space for a disciple to find their own sense of agency. This is our center for discipleship.
The mission takes care of itself
With today’s focus on controlling the outcome, the resent movement of “Missional communities” didn’t work out as hopped. Yet we are still left with the idea of being a sent. Jesus clearly sent His disciples on a mission.
Shifting our focus to that of inviting a soft heart, the implications of this would mean we focus less on evangelism and mission, less on controlling the outcome, and more on developing "practices that expressed the gospel with integrity."
In other words, if we focused more on cultivating our church culture to be the embodiment of the body of Christ, rather than focus on "outreach" per se? We see that "mission" would basically take care of itself!
This is not a new idea; there is evidence that the early church was not particularly concerned about mission either. I saw a friend post this quote from the late Alan Kreider recently. (Note the Didascalia is an ancient Christian treatise written to instruct churches in proper worship and church life):
"The Didascalia’s authors were not particularly concerned about mission. They assumed the churches were growing but didn’t write much about growth. Significantly, they didn’t urge the clergy or laity to evangelize. According to their understanding, spreading the message was God’s work, and it was their calling to be 'helpers for God.' Instead they wanted their communities to develop practices that expressed the gospel with integrity, both in their members' relationship to outsiders and especially their behavior toward each other."
(from The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, p. 226).
There is one last part in seeing a shift in a group from a traditional small group to a village on mission, and that is to provide a space for the training of leaders. This is not to fill them with more information as most training today does. This is to give them space to ask questions, to process what a different perspective looks like, to find growth in themselves. And then insight how to communicate this with others.
In essence this is to restore our intuition about how we grow as human beings. Intuition is knowledge without words. If culture is functioning right, culture will bring the right intuitions with us, but we have come undone.
Culture has taken a materialistic turn, and it is now more dictated to by the dollar, seeking individualization rather than relationship. We need to again ask “what do I see?”. And if we can open our eyes to read others right, we will find the intuition that joins us there.
It is our experience that it is both “seeking soft hearts” and “our intuition and insight restored in the leaders” that multiplies a group.