July 3, 2013

Does Your Small Group Allow for the Questions of Life?

 

The common approach to directing small group systems is to prescribe a small group methodology and help people conform to that methodology. In reaction to this approach, other churches have taken a free-for-all approach that basically allows people to lead almost any kind of group they want. I think that a much wiser approach is to facilitate the creation of natural environments where people can answer the questions that they are already asking. This is not about giving people the answers, nor is it about letting them do whatever they want in order to get them in groups. It's about guiding people into honest self-discovery.

The power behind self-discovery is that it frees us to create environments based on powerful questions instead of prescribed, top-down patterns developed by leadership. If we work within the big questions about life and personal significance people are already asking, we will encounter less resistance. Some of these questions include:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I belong?
  • What can I contribute? (how can I impact this world)
  • What’s the next step on my journey with God?

By inviting people in our groups to answer these four questions, their answers will shape the forms of life together that will move them from normal into a group that organically enters community and mission. Instead of stating that group membership will look a certain way, we can teach people these questions and walk with them as they ask and answer these questions for themselves, one another, and of God. As we do this, our groups will have an opportunity to think holistically about the ways they connect. There’s also a bonus: members take ownership in the life of the group more quickly because they are being challenged to answer their own questions rather than questions given to them by the leadership of the church.

As we help groups work through these questions and discover what it takes to move from the normal group stories to missional stories, we will see how the questions can be modified or rephrased. Then, as the group enters into life with one another on deeper levels, we will discover and embrace the differences in people around them. This becomes even more apparent as we enter into conversations with people in our neighborhoods. Just don’t anticipate how or when a group will manifest community and mission. Here’s a surprising personal story about this very issue.

My wife and I were part of a group that met for 10 weeks around the issue of serving “the poor.” This was an experimental group that included people from different socio-economic experiences. Some were from a middle class background, some were raised in generational poverty, one person spent a significant time in jail and another was a successful businessman who had lost everything in the recession.

As we moved through the material, the conversations were transforming. Our new found friends—whom the curriculum labeled as “the poor” — showed me my misconceptions about this group. They would say things such as, “This book calls people ‘the poor,’ but I don’t see myself as part of ‘the poor.’ We don’t sit on our porches in the inner city talking about how poor we are.” In other words, that label was categorically unfair. They did not want us socially well-to-do Christians labelling them and telling them how they should live. I will never forget it when one person said, “We don’t want your money. If all you want to do is give us money, keep it. If you are interested in interacting with us by learning and talking, then you will find no resistance to that.” In a similar vein another person stated, “I have no desire to own a home or become middle-class.” He didn’t want the “good” life, which he viewed as a rat-race filled with stress and unnecessary pressure.

In response to the book’s instructions to middle class people driving to a “poor” neighborhood and walk around to observe what was going on, one person said, “Do you want to get hurt? That’s just stupid.” As we unpacked the comment, it became obvious that Christ is not well represented when middle-class suburbanites walk around an economically under-resourced neighborhood so that they can “minister to it.”

Through these conversations, I realized that if we are going to effectively minister to the “poor” we needed a new imagination, one that shifted us away from thinking that we had something to give to those who are under-resourced. Instead of setting the table and inviting them to eat with us, we needed to learn to set the table together and share what each of us brings to that table. The same is true of all kinds of people who not a part of our churches or small groups. We have plenty of programs for ministering to outsiders. We have more than enough evangelism strategies for explaining the plan of salvation. What we need more of is conversational patterns where we learn to ask these questions:

  • Who am I? Who are we? Who is God and what does that have to do with me and our life as a group? (revealing Missional Communion)
     
  • Where do I belong? Who is my spiritual family? What does this family look like under God’s direction? (revealing Missional Relating)
     
  • What can I offer this world? What can we do today to bring beauty into ugliness in this world? What is God asking me and us to do right now? (revealing Missional Engagement)
     
  • What is our next step on the journey? What is God calling this group to do differently? How can we be prepared for that next leg? (revealing Missional Formation)

As a pastor, part of my job is to facilitate environments where we can explore these questions together. I don’t have to determine all of the structures, curriculum and strategies to make groups work. If I can get people asking the questions above in their groups, they will come up with transformational answers.

(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of MissioRelate, and is part six of the series "What Small Group Pastors Do")

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