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.
Irrational behavior has no good argument. Yes, Jesus challenged the religious leaders of His day, but He loved them just as much as He loved His disciples. Jesus came to save the lost. The high priest and the others were lost. They just didn’t know it. People who result to anger, cursing or violence aren’t interested in working through a problem. They only want their way. They make it clear that the only way to get along with them is to co-dependently acquiesce to their wishes. As long as you’re willing to stay on the bottom, things will work out just fine for the bully. That’s a hard place to live.How do you deal with an irrational person? Jesus provides some answers for us.
Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.
“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. John 18:19-24
1. Stay Calm. When someone yells at you, it’s hard not to yell back. But, then again, you’re not in Kindergarten any more. If the other person decides to jump off of the cliff emotionally, jumping off with them won’t solve anything. (Remember what your mother used to say.)The Bible tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). This is a proverb, not a promise. Jesus gave no harsh words. He stayed calm.
2. Speak the Truth. When people are upset, it’s easy to start back pedalling and even saying whatever it takes to get them out of your face. The problem is that you lose your integrity in the process. The Bible says, “…a double-minded man [is] unstable in all he does” (James 1:8, NIV 1984).The great thing about always telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said. If you always tell the truth, you’re consistent. But, it’s necessary to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Truth-telling is not an excuse for rudeness.
3. Avoid Personal Attacks. Jesus taught to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), then He got slapped. He didn’t over-react. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t call down 10,000 angels (Matthew 26:53).Jesus knew that His accusers weren’t the enemy. He was fulfilling God’s mission. It wasn’t pleasant. That’s for sure. But, it was necessary for our salvation.When someone challenges you, points out a fault, or falsely accuses you, it’s a natural defense to point out the accuser’s faults. It’s childish, but it’s natural. But, it doesn’t get you anywhere.If what they are saying is true, even if it’s hard to accept, then we need to take it under consideration. If it’s false, then we really don’t need to worry about it.My kids often get hurt feelings when one calls the other a “baby.” I’ll ask them, “Well, are you a baby?” “No,” they reply. “Then don’t worry about what they say.” Now, nobody likes to be called a “baby,” not even me, especially when I am acting like one.
When you’re falsely accused, you need to remind yourself of the truth. You need to be who you are whether others like it or not. When you get into defending yourself to false accusations, you’re just wasting your time. There’s no winning there. “For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Psalm 135:14).What irrational behavior are you dealing with these days? Who is getting under your skin? Pray for them. Ask God to help you calmly speak the truth when you encounter them. Then let God do His work. If you need help getting started, pray this: Psalm 109.Today’s post comes from the devotional blog: galatians419.blogspot.com
By Allen White A couple of guys in our small group in California would wonder out to the sidewalk after the meeting each week to smoke. They would just hang around in front of our house and talk. The other guys in the group were a little jealous of their fellowship and considered taking up the habit themselves. Someone from another group heard about our smoking members. Then, that person passed the news to a friend of theirs. The third person in the chain approached me at church one day, “I heard that you’ve got group members who smoke in front of your house every week. That must be embarrassing for a pastor.” I replied, “Yes, it’s terrible. I wish they wouldn’t smoke. But, I’ve heard that some groups are full of gossips.” Okay, I actually didn’t say that, but I wish I had. Gossip is a small group killer. There is nothing more fatal to a small group than gossip. It is the deadliest sin in group life. The Bible teaches that “a gossip separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28) and “a gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19). The Apostle Paul includes gossip on the sin lists in Romans 1 and 2 Corinthians 12 along with murder, envy, strife, jealousy, rage and deceit. Gossip is serious business. So, what do you do when it shows up in your group? 1. Be Proactive. Even though your group is filled with wonderful people, the first place to deal with gossip is on the first day of the group. As your group talks about their group values, you should formulate a group agreement. These are simply the things the entire group agrees to. This can include when and where the group meets, the frequency of meetings, childcare, etc. A key value for your group is confidentiality. What is said in the group needs to stay in the group. Period. Your group should be declared “Las Vegas.” Nothing in the group – comment, prayer request, joke or off-the-cuff remark – should be repeated outside of the group. Sometimes the rules get blurry. Let’s say a group member requests prayer for a mutual friend, let’s call her Jane, who is not in the group. Jane is having some tests for a serious health problem. One day you bump into Jane’s husband and tell him that you are praying for Jane and her health issues. The problem is that Jane hasn’t said anything to her husband. She was afraid that the news would affect his heart condition, so she didn’t want to worry him unnecessarily. (This is a fictitious story. I am not telling tales out of school here). Now, you get the picture. Gossip, as benign as it might seem, is a missile that will sink the whole ship. Who would ever share another prayer request or personal issue in front of someone they feel that they can’t trust? If the group lacks trust, relationships are broken down. There is no more group. Confidentiality is the foundation of group life. Creating a small group agreement and reviewing it periodically will help to insure trust in the group. 2. Even Gossip in the Group About Others is Dangerous. Gossip shuts down trust. Even if the gossip is about someone outside of the group, it certainly makes the group wonder what this person says about them behind their backs. Gossip of any kind will diminish trust in the group. If the group lacks trust, then the members will not open up. The leader should redirect the gossiping member with “Let’s keep our discussion to those present in the group.” Then, take the member aside and personally talk to them about gossiping and the harm it can bring to a group. What is gossip? Well, the rule of thumb is that if the person you are talking to is not part of the problem or part of the solution, then it’s gossip. 3. Act Quickly. If something about your group is told outside of the group, deal with it as soon as you are aware of an incident of gossip. Don’t interview every member of the group. The offended person should go directly to the offender. As Ross Perot once said, “If you see a snake, kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” As Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). If the offended person isn’t willing, then you as the group leader must step in. The first step is to pray and ask God for wisdom. Ask Him to prepare the way and to work on the offender in advance. If you’re eager to confront the offender, then you should probably pray some more. If you’re reluctant to confront, then you’re probably in the right place. Unless you heard the offender tell the gossip yourself, you must give them the benefit of the doubt. Tell them what was said outside of the group, and let them know the harm that it caused. Hopefully, they will admit their fault before you have to ask them directly. If they don’t own it, then you have to ask: “Do you know who told this outside of the group?” If they admit to the gossip, then they should be given an opportunity to confess to the group. If they don’t admit it, then you must take the next step and bring a person with you who either heard the gossip or is somehow involved in the incident (Matthew 18:16). If the person did gossip, but won’t admit to it, more than likely, he will stop coming to the group on his own. Most people are not so callus as to offend the group, lie about it, and then continue participating in the group. But, don’t be surprised. 4. Bring the Issue Before the Group. If the person is repentant, then give him an opportunity to confess to the group and seek their forgiveness. The best scenario is that the group will forgive and everyone will be reconciled. This is ideal. But, it may take time for the group to trust the person again. Reconciliation isn’t necessarily automatic with forgiveness. Over time, as the group bears with one another, they will be able to trust each other again. If the person won’t admit their fault, then the gossip must be addressed in the group in the person’s presence. This shouldn’t be presented in an accusatory way, but simply stated: “Someone in the group broke the group’s confidentiality by saying _______ outside of the group. What do you know about this? How did this affect the group?” The offender might come to repentance in the meeting. 5. As a Last Resort… If the group is certain about who committed the offense, then the last resort is to ask the offender to leave the group. Jesus taught us, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). In this case the “church” is the group. The question is how should believers treat “pagans and tax collectors”? As with anyone who is not in relationship with God, believers should love them, even if they’re an enemy (Matthew 5:44) and challenge them with the need for repentance. When the person repents, then the process of reconciliation should begin. Few other issues are as harmful as gossip in a small group. But, if the leader deals with the issue quickly, chances are the group will remain strong. If the issue is not dealt with, it won’t go away. In fact, it will become a greater problem. Gossip is not just a bad habit, it is a prideful sin. The gossip is pleased to divulge information that other people don’t have. It makes them feel powerful. As a group leader, the issue becomes how to serve a person who needs gossip to make them feel significant. What are they lacking? What are they misunderstanding about their relationship with Christ?