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.
Last year I published a book that I literally started writing 25 years ago, Leading Healthy Groups: A Guide for Small Group Leaders. While I had led various groups prior to then, in 1994 our church launched groups for the very first time. Having gleaned from Dale Galloway, Rick Warren, Pat Sakora, Jeffrey Arnold and his Big Book of Small Groups and a few others, when it came to leading leaders, there were a lot of things to figure out. We could only prepare our leaders so far before we began to discourage them or scare them. The rest of their training came as they needed it.
Starting back then, I began collecting my leaders’ questions
as well as the answers I gave them. This was the start of the book. As our
groups multiplied, so did the questions. I added all of those to the file.
Then, when I served a larger church, we would survey our 400 or so group
leaders to see what problems they were facing or what issues were coming up in
their groups. I wrote a weekly blog with answers to the relevant questions for
all of our leaders. This was the start of allenwhite.org.
Train their coaches by giving them answers to
their leaders’ potential questions.
Create streaming video training to send out to
their group leaders.
Put the book directly in the hands of their
leaders so they have answers as their questions arise.
I’m not the first person to write a book for small group
leaders. In fact, originally, I didn’t even intend to write a book. But, as my
leaders asked questions, I saved the answers. Now, the answers are available to
you and your leaders.
Excerpt from Leading Healthy Groups By Allen White Copyright (c) 2018. I suppose if you’re going to lead a healthy small group, it would be a good idea to know what a healthy one looks like. Plenty of examples come to mind of unhealthy groups — groups where one member dominates the discussion; groups that have great Bible studies, but don’t live out what they’ve learned; groups that become unto themselves and never attempt to reach others; and groups that just hang out, but really don’t ever move in any direction. But, our focus is on health, not the opposite.
Healthy groups fully accept every member.
Every person matters to God and should matter to your group. Some group members might be a little rough around the edges or challenging to meet with, but none are less important or more important than anyone else. God has a reason for putting them in your group. Groups have to accept people where they are, because they can’t accept them anywhere else, can they? Acceptance is communicated through listening and giving equal time. Acceptance is expressed through intentionally getting to know those who are different from you instead of instantly gravitating toward those you are fonder of. Jesus directed groups this way, when he said, “Love one another” (John 13:34) and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus modeled this in who he associated with: tax collectors like Matthew; sinners like adulterers and bad hand washers; Samaritans who were racially different; and many others who the religious establishment looked down upon. Acceptance is one of the most precious gifts any person can give another. Healthy groups accept others.
Healthy groups center themselves on God’s Word, the Bible.
One of the key purposes of a healthy group is to become more like Christ. Every group has three powerful resources at their disposal to grow in Christlikeness: the Bible, the Spirit, and the group. Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This transformation takes place through each person’s willingness to surrender, the direction of Scripture, the power of the Spirit, and the support of the group. These ideas will be more thoroughly explained in Chapter 5. Regardless of the type of group you lead, these elements are essential for healthy groups to make disciples.
Healthy groups are serious about helping their members grow.
(and group members are open to receiving help). This could involve encouragement and support to start a good habit or break a bad one. This can also involve confronting sin in the lives of their members. For most people, encouragement is much more appealing that confrontation. While the group should accept people as they are, the group should also love them enough not to leave them there. As the group grows in their relationship with others and their relationship with God, the group cannot shy away from hard things. Healthy groups are serious about help.
Healthy groups live like Jesus was serious about what he said.
When Jesus told his disciples that out of 633 laws in Scripture only two rose above the rest: love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-39), he intended for his followers to love God and love others above all else. Jesus wants his followers today to treat “the least of these – the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, and others who lack basic needs” as if they were serving Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). While taking all of Scripture into account, Jesus wants his disciples to surrender themselves to God and live life in a selfless way. He wants his followers to “go and make disciples,” baptize them, and teach them to obey all Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). What if these weren’t just suggestions for better living? What if these weren’t merely nice platitudes where you could hit a mental “like” button? What if Jesus was serious about what he said? What if he expects his followers to actually do it? Obeying Jesus is a sign of group health.
Healthy groups are on mission.
The group is not just about itself. Groups members should constantly seek out people they and the group can serve. Who is the next person to invite? What neighbor needs help? Where can the group serve together locally or globally? Sometimes the greatest coping strategy for dealing with life’s woes is to focus on someone other than you. When groups align their mission with Jesus’ mission, they benefit from walking in obedience to Jesus’ commands. They benefit those who they serve. But, most of all, they benefit themselves with not only the blessing of obedience, but with a new depth of understanding God’s teaching through their experiences.
Healthy groups multiply.
This is not a popular topic among small groups in North American culture where groups want to stay together forever. I both understand and respect that desire. It’s natural to form a bond and “keep the family together.” But, it’s supernatural to think of others and the groups they will need. I don’t mean to sound spooky, but our connection to God is supernatural. His guidance through prayer and the Bible is supernatural. This makes identifying and developing new leaders possible. This causes hearts to change in favor of every disciple making disciples. To reach the world, and especially the next generation, this sort of selflessness is required. Every group should seek God about its direction and its future. Your group may find other values in addition to these that you desire to integrate into your group life. You can certainly add these to your Group Agreement. But, don’t replace any of the priorities mentioned here. That’s a lot to think about. These are things to focus on and strive toward. The accomplishment of all of these things will take a lifetime. But, on the other hand, nothing will ever be accomplished if you don’t start today. Today is both the culmination of what your life has become and the first step toward what you life will be. Your group is a big part of that. Pre-order at 30% off and free shipping before 8/15/18 here. Order the paperback or Kindle edition on Amazon starting on 8/15/18.