As small groups get started for another year (in my part of the world) I thought it might be useful to write something on ‘How to be a small group member’. But then I thought better of it.
I remembered something from a management book that I once read in a moment of weakness. It was called Start With Why, and I can save you the trouble of wading through its 250 padded-out pages of case studies, personal stories and general fluff by summarizing its one, short, helpful point. It’s wisest to start by asking why you’re doing something, before moving on to ask how you’re going to do it, and then in turn think about what you’re going to do next.
An obvious but useful thought.
So rather than asking how to be a better small group member, let’s start with why.
Why belong to a small group at church?
Three common answers spring to mind.
Because that’s what committed Christians do. Christians go to small groups like tradies go to the pub. It’s what we’ve always done—except that for most of the last two millennia of Christian history, we haven’t. Small groups (as we know them) weren’t really a thing before about 50 years ago.
Because that’s the expectation set by your church. In many churches, to be a true-blue member you’re supposed to come regularly on Sunday, give money and go to a small group. This is actually not a bad rule of thumb by which to recognize committed church involvement, but is it really an adequate reason for going to small groups? Because I kind of have to in order to belong to the club?
Because it’s a great way to get to know people and feel part of the church community. This feels better, and at least has a bit of relational zip to it. It is indeed hard in a church of even moderate size to really get to know people over a quick cuppa on Sunday morning. Small groups usually help with that.
Even so, I’m not sure any of these reasons are going to motivate us consistently to drag ourselves out the door every week at 7:30pm at the end of a long day to engage in chit-chat with a bunch of other tired people. Not to mention the fact we still haven’t said anything related to … you know, God.
Does God have a why for us to join a small group?
He does as it turns out.
The reason God gathers us together in Christian communities is not just so we get to know people or feel the warmth of being part of a group of like-minded people—it’s for a specific purpose.
Of the many places we find this purpose in the Bible, one of the clearest is in Colossians 3. This extraordinary chapter starts by summarizing the foundation and essence of the Christian life: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (vv. 3-4).
Our new life is summed up in one word: ‘Christ’. We’re united with him in his death and resurrection. His life is our life.
The rest of the chapter is about living in light of that stunning truth—that is, killing off every vestige of our old fleshly life (anger, lies, malice, that sort of thing) and clothing ourselves instead in the new Christ-like life that we’ve been given, “which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (v. 10).
The punchline is in verse 17. Since our life = Christ, then everything we do—every word and every deed—should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
What does this have to do with why God gathers us into Christian communities, including the little communities we call small groups?
Everything, and it is spelled out in verses 12-16. This new life in Christ is essentially and unavoidably a team life. It’s something we do together as God’s chosen and beloved people:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Three things stand out in this paragraph:
Our team life is complicated by the ongoing sinful vestiges of our old selves. There’s a constant need for humility and kindness and forbearance. We all have growing to do.
The over-arching characteristic of our community life is love—which isn’t so surprising, given that it is a life lived in the name of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.
Our task—in love, and with much patience and kindness—is to increase the rich presence of the word of Christ amongst each other by speaking it to each other. The word of Christ is what grows and changes us to be like Christ. The more it permeates our lives, the more each word and deed of our lives will be done in his name.
The reason God calls us together in community is so that the Word of Christ can dwell richly in our midst and grow us to be like him. This happens as we love each other by patiently, kindly and humbly speaking that word to each other in any way we can.
The passage mentions a number of ways we can do this—it speaks of teaching and admonishing and singing and giving thanks. We could easily flesh that list out with other speaking verbs like reminding, encouraging, exhorting, discussing, chewing over, and asking-the-kind-of-dumb-but-obvious-question-that-helps-everyone.
Whatever mode of speech is involved, the content is ‘the Word of Christ’ and the purpose is to help one another grow to be like Christ.
Now there’s a why to get us out the door on Wednesday nights.
Small groups aren’t about helping me feel part of things, or helping me to connect with people, or even expressing my commitment to church. In fact, they are not really about me at all. The reason to go to a small group is that God has called me to love you and be an agent of your growth in Christ. I go because you need me to speak the Word of Christ to you (and because I need to hear it from you).
The how of belonging to a small group flows straight out of this why, and is not very hard to figure out. It would include things like this:
We should turn up every week, unless there is some important other reason—because is there really anything more important in your life than the job God has given us to do with each other in a small group?
We should come ready to speak in love. Read and prepare the passage in advance if that helps, and take the initiative to speak in any way you can to help others understand and apply this part of God’s word. Ask questions. Answer questions. Grapple hard with the text in front of you. Share what you see. Look out for people who were just about to speak but got cut off, and invite them to contribute. Open up about your own struggles to put the word into practice. There are scads of opportunities to allow the ‘word to dwell richly’ in your group—and that’s your task.
This why also generates a copious list of don’ts that I find very easy to compile (by thinking back over my own thoughtless, self-oriented behaviour in small groups over the years). Don’t sit on your hands during the discussion. Don’t try to save face or protect yourself. Don’t leave it to everyone else. Don’t jump on your hobby horses when they pass by. Don’t stick tenaciously to your point in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Don’t try to make yourself look good. Don’t give the lazy pat answer that you could have given without even looking at the text. Don’t take the group off to some other interesting passage that you like, unless it is vital for understanding the passage you’re actually reading. Don’t be afraid to open up and be honest about your struggles.
I’ll leave you to figure out your own specific list of how-to’s, because it will be a little different for each person in each different group and circumstance. But if you can grasp why God wants to you go to small group this Wednesday night, then how is not so difficult.
At least, it’s not difficult to understand. Doing it consistently and lovingly? Well that’s that the challenge the word of Christ brings us as we start a new of small group life together.
Feel free to share this article with your church or small group members. It might be a useful discussion-starter sometime early in the year as you talk about group norms and goals together.
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