These are controversial times. You probably don’t have to think too hard about controversial issues that could pop up in small groups. In fact, some of the issues probably already have. What’s the best way to handle them? Should you just avoid controversy in groups? Is there a way for groups to navigate controversy in a positive or meaningful way?
When you consider the conversations between Jesus’ disciples, they had their fair share of controversy. From James and John’s mother asking about seating her sons of Jesus’ right and left in Heaven (Matthew 20:20-22) to Jesus calling one of his group members “Satan” (Matthew 16) to a group member betraying Jesus, which lead to his death (Matthew 26). The controversies in your small groups probably don’t seem so big. But, that doesn’t keep them from being troublesome. Here are some ways to handle controversy in small groups.
Nip It in the Bud
In the words of the great theologian Barnie Fife, “Just nip it. Nip it in the bud!” When group members start in on topics that have nothing to do with the group lesson and threaten the harmony in the group, the leader can simply stop the conversation. Remind the group that its purpose is to apply God’s Word, the Bible, to their lives in a practical way, and that the controversial topic is not part of the discussion. Once the controversy is diverted, then the group can return to the Bible study.
Revisit Your Group Agreement
What is the purpose of the group? Hopefully your groups have a group agreement. If you’d like to form a group agreement, the process is a free download from my study, Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group. The group agreement helps to define and manage expectations in small groups. Every group member has a say in what the group values and what the group is going to be about. Barring the purpose of the group being to air controversial issues, by simply reminding the group members of the agreed upon purpose of the group, the group can move forward and avoid the controversy. But, avoidance isn’t always the best method.
Hear Them Out
If a particular issue has a group stirred up, it might be good to give everyone a fair hearing. The meeting should be structured so that everyone gets to have their say without judgment or condemnation. The leader could set a time limit for each “side” to convey their point of view. This would be a good opportunity to invite the group’s coach to join the group meeting as an impartial observer. The group could even invite an expert on the topic to come and share his or her perspective on the subject.
You should limit this discussion to one meeting. Everyone can have their say. They may agree to disagree. Once this discussion has happened, then the group moves forward.
The most important thing is that each group member feels valued and heard. For any issue that is not immoral or illegal, the group members should be gracious to each other and their points of view. Any attitude that will force the choice between who’s right and who’s wrong will cause the group to either end or divide and will possibly make enemies of friends. There is no point in allowing things to go that far. It’s important for group members to understand those they disagree with. After all, every believer at one point was regarded as “God’s enemy” (James 4:4). Considering God’s patience with each believer, this would be a good exercise in patience with each other.
Think About This
If groups are ever going to do more than just scratch the surface, then controversy or disagreements will come up from time to time. If controversy never surfaces in a group, then you would need to wonder how shallow the group really is.
Of course, these thoughts are not license to stir up every possible issue. This is also not reason to turn group meetings into a circus. But, if an issue is important to a group member, then it’s important to discover the reason why. Sometimes the group’s “curriculum” doesn’t come from the pages of a book. It comes from life.
Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential(Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
You’ve seen how some groups produce great growth in their members while other groups merely tolerate each other. Some groups excel at reproducing leaders. Other groups seem to just go through the motions. What makes the difference?
You could assume that the leader makes the difference. You might be on to something. But, what is it about that leader that makes for a good group? If you could figure that out, then you could multiply that enthusiasm across all of your groups. Let’s dig into what makes an effective group.
What is an Effective Group?
The simplest definition is a group who fulfills their purpose. If the group’s goal is the three F’s: fun, food, and fellowship, then if the group is fat and happy, they are a success. Every group could be a little happier at least. But, there is a difference between the group’s purpose and God’s purpose for the group.
The mission of the church is to make disciples. You know Jesus’ works from Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now, go back and read it again, and really read it this time. (No yada, yada, yada’s allowed). Effective groups make disciples.
How Do You Make a Disciple?
One common Western definition of a disciple is a student. Students study. The more a student knows and the better decisions the student makes, the more they become like Christ, right? The problem is that churches often produce a lot of over-educated members with poor character. If articulating biblical principles was the only factor to growing in Christlikeness, then the Sunday sermon would be all that is necessary. The problem is that sermons don’t make disciples. There are a lot of knowledgeable Christians whose lives don’t reflect much of Christ. After all, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). It would be fair to ask whether your people’s behavior more closely resembles Galatians 5:19-21 or Galatians 5:22-23. Information alone doesn’t produce transformation. There are other elements to making disciples.
From the Great Commission and from my own experience, I see three key elements in making a disciple: the Holy Spirit, the “curriculum,” and the community. The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the lives of believers. The “curriculum” might be a study guide, but let’s not limit curriculum to that. The community is equally important to the curriculum. Who you join with is highly important in character formation.
The Holy Spirit
While there are diverse opinions about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, you can agree that you cannot give what you do not have. Every believer has the Holy Spirit. As far as being an element of an effective group, at least one person in the group must be saved.
The Holy Spirit guides you (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of God’s Word, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit illuminates your mind (John 16:15). The Holy Spirit gives words to say when you don’t know what to say (Mark 13:11). The Holy Spirit empowers you to serve others (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). Attachment to the Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). While you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see this fruit, it is the Spirit’s work and not just your sweat.
The Holy Spirit is present in the group meeting through his presence, through prayer, through God’s Word, and in the interactions of the group members. The Holy Spirit saturates daily quiet times and spiritual practices. Without God’s presence, there is no power for transformation. While you can become well disciplined, you cannot transform yourself. It just takes more than you’ve got.
In Western thought, which was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, the church picked up the notion that if you knew what was right and made the right choices, then you could live a life that reflected Christ. The problem is that no matter how hard you work, eventually you run out of steam. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It just means that all of that well-intentioned trying doesn’t achieve the goal of Christlike character. And, it’s not supposed to. After all, you cannot become godly without God or other believers. Study is part of the curriculum, but it’s not the only part.
The curriculum also involves your life circumstances. Your problems are your teachers, (and some days you want to skip school). The hardships, trials, and pain of your life cause you to seek better solutions and force you to grow in ways you haven’t volunteered to. But, the curriculum is not only pain and trials, the curriculum also includes serving and sharing and taking a risk with others. You grow by trying new things – serving the poor, taking a missions trip, and loving your neighbors in practical ways.
What is life teaching you? What is serving teaching you? What is pain teaching you? What is your group teaching you? All of these experiences produce a powerful hermeneutic within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.
Now, don’t get me wrong. God gave us a book, the Bible, and God gave us the left side of our brains. That’s not a coincidence. But, those aren’t the only faculties at your disposal to attain godly character.
Over the last nine weeks, I’ve participated in a weekly book club to discuss The Other Half of the Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnationby Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks. This book confirmed many of the things that small group people have known intuitively. The quality of your community is equally important to the curriculum you study. Wilder and Hendricks teach that things like joy, hesed (community), group identity, and healthy correction create the necessary soil to produce godly character.
Hesed is “wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty,” elaborates Bible scholar Darrell L. Bock. You need a loyal and loving community to grow spiritually.
While I would need to write an entire book to explain Wilder and Hendricks’ book, the importance of community is clear in making disciples. You need people to model, instruct, correct, encourage, support, and partner with you in your spiritual development. You need people who love you but are not impressed with you to willingly speak the truth in love. I experienced this personally.
Years ago as a young pastor who was overly influenced by David Letterman, I frequently used a word that was unbecoming to a pastor. My senior pastor lovingly confronted me by saying, “When you use that word, it takes away from who you are.” He didn’t scold me and say, “You are a pastor. You work for me. No pastor on this staff is going to talk like that around here. If you don’t stop it, then you’re out of here.” No, he gently and lovingly told me the truth. I immediately stopped using that word. Who says these things to you? Who stands by you no matter what? How are these things communicated in your groups?
Disciples aren’t made in isolation. While there is a place for solitude and silence, character is forged in relationship with others. Whether on mission fields or in mine fields of emotions, by serving at soup kitchens or through praying in hospital waiting rooms, the bonds of community grow your character.
Think About This
Some groups depend on the Holy Spirit to zap them into godly character. I guess I was never thoroughly zapped. Other groups have diligently studied the Scripture only to become judgmental and legalistic in some ways. Some have solely embraced community only to be led in the wrong direction. But, the combination of these elements produces something powerful. The people of God filled with the Spirit of God and living out the Word of God produces amazing things. Your groups can produce amazing things.
The church could not be more divided over the correct approach to in-person gatherings during Covid Church the Sequel. Should people meet in-person? Should people only meet online? Should masks be worn even by vaccinated people? Should people be vaccinated? Is the whole thing made up? You don’t have to talk to too many people before you hear any or all of the above.
How are you supposed to connect people who feel more comfortable disconnecting again? How are you supposed to form groups with people who haven’t returned to in-person worship? How are you supposed to create groups knowing that differences over Covid might cause more argument than agreement? Maybe this isn’t your problem to solve.
People are Connecting
In a recent edition of Wired magazine, Jennifer Berney wrote about her preteen son’s experience during the pandemic. “Over the past year, many parents like me have watched their children withdraw, become sullen and angry, and develop difficulty sleeping and eating. Getting West (her son) to shower and eat became an intense negotiation. Little seemed to cheer him, and yet I heard a clear lift in his voice when he played Minecraft while talking over Discord with his friends. He often carried his laptop downstairs and gabbed into his headset while finally eating the sandwich I’d offered him hours before.”*
People are created for community. It’s like we can’t be kept apart. There is a natural tendency to form community, even when it’s difficult or when circumstances dictate against it.
Now, most of you reading this post are not forming groups for preteens, but here’s the point: your people are finding community. Whether they are connecting in-person or online, they are connecting. The other night I looked out the window to see my wife Facetiming on the porch, or so I thought. When I looked again, I saw only her picture on the phone. I thought, “Is she Facetiming herself? This isn’t good. I need to be more available…” What I discovered was that she wasn’t Facetiming to herself. She was sending a video reply to her childhood friend in California over the Marco Polo app. People are connecting. So in those places where they are connecting, how can you help them grow spiritually together?
Get Out of the Connecting Business
In the first sentence of Exponential Groups: Releasing Your Church’s Potential, I wrote, “Everybody is already in a group.” Most people are in multiple groups – friends, families, co-workers, neighbors, Facebook, group chats, Slack, and the list goes on. People are created for community. The people in your church already connect with other believers on a regular basis. Rather than wearing yourself out trying to get them to de-group in order to re-group, leverage their existing relationships to start groups. Stop working so hard at creating unnatural connections that won’t last.
I spent a lot of years trying to place people into groups. They would fill out a sign up card or inquire from the website. After all, I was their pastor. I’m supposed to help them, right? But, here’s what I discovered – most people who inquired this way weren’t serious about joining a new group. Maybe they were emotionally motivated by a sermon, so they signed up. But, they didn’t show up. The people who I helped the most tended to show up the least. There is a better use of your time.
Where Do Your People Find Community?
The Wired author continues, “Minecraft exists outside of Covid. Villagers don’t have to stay 6 feet apart or wear masks, and players can avoid death simply by shifting to Creative mode.”* While I have four Minecraft players in my family, I’m not sure you could create a small group meeting within Minecraft or on Twitch. But, the thought of a meeting place apart from Covid sounds pretty good. Relationships are formed on these platforms. Where there is relationship, there is potential for small groups. But, you don’t have to become an expert in this.
Years ago I had a leader who started a small group on a commuter train. Every Tuesday morning on the commute from Stockton, California to San Jose, Jennifer led a Bible study. Eventually, her group filled up an entire section of the train. I never cast vision for “Commuter Train Small Groups.” I never read a book on it or attended a seminar. I had never thought of it. Jennifer came up with the idea. She just needed permission and opportunity to start the group. The same is true of any person in your church connecting with other people in any space – digital or analog. How can they start a group in that community?
Think About This
You can’t provide community for people — just like you can’t provide sanctification for them. But, you can create an environment in your church to promote community (and sanctification). You can provide guidance and guardrails. You can supply an easy-to-use curriculum and a coach to guide them. You can offer a trial run at doing a study with their friends. You can lead a horse to water…
What opportunities do your people have to start groups with their connections?
*”Missing Peace” by Jennifer Berney. Wired. Volume 29, No 7. p. 22-23.
2021 is not like 2020. Thank God! But, 2021 also isn’t a return to 2019. Are you prepared to navigate this new season of ministry?
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t seen anything like this in over 30 years of ministry. But, the question I keep asking myself is “What does this make possible?” There are some big possibilities for 2021. Here’s what I’m seeing:
You will receive One Video per Day for the Next 5 Days to help you navigate Small Group Ministry in 2021.
Why Do You Need a Small Group Reset?
1. Small Groups are not working the same as they were even two years ago. 2. The need for Small Groups has never been greater. 3. Everything shifted, so 2019’s Small Group Strategy isn’t going to do it. 4. We shouldn’t wreck anything that’s currently working, but we have to admit it’s not working for everybody. 5. It’s time to take a breath and to reframe your Small Group Ministry by asking some fundamental questions like:
What is a small group in your church?
How is your church meeting the unique needs of 2021/2022?
What are your people willing to do? Meet in-person? Meet online? Wait it out? Start a new group?
How do you want to build your groups?
How are your groups uniquely suited to meet the needs of your community?
Why are groups more important than worship services in 2021/2022?