There are many different types of small groups that you can start. Some groups are prayer groups where their primary purpose is to pray. Other groups are Bible study groups where, guess what, their primary purpose is to study the Bible. The type of group I am suggesting over these 6 weeks is a Holistic Small Group.
This term, Holistic Small Group, is a term coined by Christian Schwartz in his book, “Natural Church Development“. There is not a single purpose to this group. Instead, the small group is holistic, in that each element is intimately connected to one another. Three core elements are summarised by the words, “Head, Heart, Hands”. Let me begin with Hands, discuss Head and then Heart and finish with the challenge and tension of Hands vs Heart.
In the Great Commission Jesus says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It’s not enough that people know God’s truth. It must be applied. James says it well, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). If someone can’t apply God’s Word the problem may be that they don’t understand it but it could be that they don’t know how to apply it. And even then they may need to train in order to develop the spiritual muscles to apply it. Physically, I could show you how to do a one-arm push up. I could clearly explain it to you. But, if you are like most people, you will not be able to do it. No amount of effort will help. If you don’t have the strength then you will be stuck. Spiritually is no different. Too often we are asking people to do something they are spiritually unfit to do. It’s not a question of understanding or desire but one of unfitness. If you are seeking to bless and not curse the first step may be learning to be silent and not cursing and once that is mastered then moving on to learning how to bless. Growth is a process. Granted, sometimes God miraculously gives growth but more often than not it comes from Spiritual training. Paul wisely tells Timothy, “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). It is for these reasons that in this group process the Bible study finishes with a discussion on how you will apply the passage. It’s important that the group process moves people to becoming doers of the Word. The application may be different for each member as we are all at different levels of growth. Knowing what you want to do and doing it are two different things and so you move from the desire to do to practising what you will do. A whole third of the group time is given to practising because it’s that important. It’s best to teach less and practice more than know more and not be able to apply it. Obviously, before we can apply we need to know.
There are many, many passages that talk about the need for us to change our minds (eg. Rom 12:2, Col 3:2) The transformation toward Jesus requires thinking. Thinking about Scriptural truths and challenging our current thinking is essential in the Christian walk. It is through thinking that God graciously gives us understanding (2Tim2:7). Within your groups you will want to give people time to think, to question, to wrestle with God’s truth. Through discussing the passage, without judgement, the group members can explore what God’s Word has to say to them. Often God’s Word is very, very clear and people filled with God’s Spirit understand it easily. The challenge for many is not what God’s Word says but the inability to apply it. The command to love our enemies is not difficult to understand but can be terribly hard to live out. However, it is through intentional thinking that we can find ways to apply Scripture to our lives. But our faith is not just about our heads. The Christian faith is filled with emotion and feelings and we need to consider them also.
We are emotional creatures. If the environment is safe we are less defensive, more open, more honest. If I ask you “How are you doing?” you will answer according to the safety of our relationship. The strength of discipleship in a group is that we can open our lives for others to speak into areas we cannot see, areas we are afraid to go into, areas where we struggle to make any progress. In a group we get to stand with one another in these dark areas, these scary areas and challenge them together. However, unless I feel safe with you it is unlikely that I will show you these dark areas. If there is judgement then I am unlikely to be open. If I am struggling with pornography will you stand with me, as a fellow sinner, without judgement, and help me overcome it through God’s grace? If I feel safe in the group, knowing that you are for me and not against me, then I am likely to share my darkness, my struggles, my stuckness. It is through developing intimacy in the group that I am best able to discuss how to apply God’s Word more meaningfully and relevantly to my life. Taking the time to worship God together, to pray for each other’s needs, to dialogue about God’s Word, to hear what each other likes and dislikes will lead to greater intimacy.
A challenge that comes from developing intimacy is the need to multiply. If left unchecked, intimacy may become a barrier to new people. The group, once open, becomes inward looking and self-focused. The message of Jesus is one of outward looking and reaching out. One of the greatest challenges to intimacy is the dividing of groups. There are two ways to develop intimacy and multiply.
The first approach is to maintain a closed group. That is, the group doesn’t allow new people to join. Multiplication, however, can still happen if each member of the group is encouraged to belong to a group and to lead a group. If this pattern continues then generations of groups would be established. The strength of this approach is that personal and leadership development happen together. The original group members would grow from members, to leaders, to coaches, to Disciple Making Movement leaders. In this way the group maintains an outward focus without losing the intimacy of the original group.
The second approach is to have an open group. This group permits new people to join. Once the group becomes too large multiplication occurs through developing new leaders who birth a new group. There are other ways to describe the birth process. Positively, we can say ‘birthing’ and ‘planting’ while negatively we can say ‘splitting’ and ‘dividing’. Those against multiplication are likely to use these negative terms while those in favour of multiplication will use the positive terms. ‘Splitting’ relationships doesn’t sound nice. ‘Birthing’ a new group sounds painful yet a joyful as a new ‘baby’ group is born. ‘Planting’ implies hard work but fruitfulness comes to mind. ‘Dividing’ sounds less than the original.
The strength of this approach is that some group facilitators are very good at developing leaders and inviting new people but not so good at coaching them. This allows them to release group members into a system (hopefully) with trained, gifted coaches who will take those new leaders and continue to develop them. The weakness of this approach is that if too many new people keep joining the group then intimacy falters. It is difficult to share intimately with those you don’t trust. One solution to this challenge is to close the group for a season and have times of openness where growth can occur. Adding just one person every 3 months means that you would double your group every two years which would lead to a new group being established every 2 years.
In reality, both approaches will be needed at different times. The important thing is to continue to develop intimacy without losing an outward focus. In the small group process described in week 2, there is ample opportunity to develop intimacy while maintaining an outward focus. These two elements need to be balanced with the application of God’s Word to our lives. Intimacy builds the safe environment for change to take place while an outward focus is what gave us the opportunity to belong to a group and one which gives others the same opportunity.
What is strongest in your group, Head, Heart or Hands? What is weakest? What about for you personally? Which one feels most comfortable for you? What has surprised you as you apply this process? What’s working? What’s not?
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