Friday, 27 November 2015

The curse(?) of church small groups

As a pastor, I have oversight of the small groups and small group structures at our church. One day I decided to ask our friend 'Google' what people think about them. I stumbled over a few blogs and short articles. One person reckoned they'd discerned the eights habits of effective small groups. Another article was titled, 'Fix my Small Groups! 6 Church-Tested Solutions.' Still another person had figured out eleven reasons why small groups usually fail. And then finally, one author leads to the dramatic conclusion declaring it was now time to 'euthanize this small group sacred cow' claiming they simply don't work.

Clearly, there is some feeling around the topic. I've talked to a number of church leaders from a range of denominations. Most of them believe that small groups in theory are a good thing but on the ground they're notoriously difficult. There's a range of reasons given for this. People aren't committed enough (or are too busy). There's that annoying person who always dominates the conversation (and if you can't think of anyone in your group who does then it's probably you). Groups always talk about doing something good 'out there' but hardly ever do. There's that other annoying person who always wants to talk about their foot because they think something's wrong with it and want sympathy all the time.

Small groups are messy. They involve people and so are frustrating, uncontrollable and ultimately are hard work. But then again, there is always the 5% of groups that give you hope. Everyone gets on, they talk about deep issues and have great Bible studies. And we ask ourselves why can't every group be like 'that' group (or worse, we ask how can we make every group like that one).

The question we often ask is: 'Are our small groups effective?' This question, though, misses the bigger point. I don't want small groups that are 'effective'. The question we should be asking is, 'do small groups grow good disciples of Jesus?'

A cursory look at the New Testament shows that small groups can be effective in creating and growing good disciples. Jesus had 12 committed guys who followed and learnt from him all the time. Times have since moved on. We don't see religious gurus roaming the countryside followed by their most devoted disciples. We can't simply pull the New Testament stories into our own context.

Still, small groups are important in church. David Ford in his book The Shape of Living says:

'Small groups that seek God and God's desires together have been at the heart of most of the major developments in the church over the centuries. They have also been fundamental to its ordinary flourishing, and they continue to be the most important single level of church life...Whenever such a group breaks out of routine and has an intensive time together or with others, transformations tend to happen.'

The problem with many small group structures is they become too mechanised and packaged for easy unpacking in another place with another set of people. The issues, the questions and the style of operation lack imagination and contextual significance. The hard work of figuring out what it means to 'do life together' to study the Bible and become disciples of Jesus is taken away from us, and we end up getting thrown together with a manual on how to do small groups according to the church's wishes and then left to it.

Obviously I'm being facetious and cynical, but the main point still stands. We relinquish the imaginative responsibility of being discipled and discipling others for a quick and easy pull-something-out-of-the-box approach.

So on the one hand, we see in Scripture and through church history that small groups are good things. But on the other hand, small groups are far too often routinised and dictated for them to be of any particular meaning.

So how can we redeem small groups? I would love to hear your feedback and ideas, but I have three of my own to get the conversation started.

1) Scripture needs to be wrestled with in a meaningful way
I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of realising a few days ago that a non-scripturally based 'small group' (like the 'Huddle' groups that are promoted by 3dm) could possibly do a better job of discipling Christians than the myriad of small groups where attendees supposedly gather to discuss the Bible.

Someone once said to me that in our small groups it's like we ascend Mt. Sinai, we meet with God and he gives us the glorious ten commandments, but instead of bringing them down and giving them a home in our lives, we leave them on top of the mountain and walk back down. Instead of finding ways to be shaped by Scripture as we discern it in our small groups, we tend to move on in our lives and give it no further thought.

During the course of his Master's thesis, a friend of mine asks what would it look like if small groups wrestled with Scripture together and then spent time figuring out what that would mean in their lives. Instead of going off individually to 'apply' it to our lives, what if we worked together to make Scripture meaningful in our lives, to allow it to shape us and form us in our small group.

2) The need for groups to be 'organic'
The word organic is overused and misunderstood. We assume that for something to be organic it must come about naturally and free from outside constraint and control. Unfortunately for all of us, the Christian life isn't 'organic' in that sense. The Christian life-like anything we want to achieve-has to be worked at. It requires patience, discipline and faithfulness.

In much the same way, small groups don't come about naturally. But I do think they need to be 'organic' in the sense that they reflect the individuals in a specific group. Maybe early on a group needs more guidance, but as they grow together and find their ways of relating and learning, the group itself needs to take on a life of its own that reflects the imagination, creativity and ways of being of those that take part in it.

This means there is no 'one-size-fits' all style of group. It's up to each group to work hard at figuring out what works for them, how they want to operate and what's meaningful for them. But to get to that place requires patience, grace and discipline, and even then, it won't always remain the same. As people come and go, the group will shift and change.

3) Accountability
I don't know anybody who likes the feeling of someone looking over their shoulder-especially when it comes to my Christian walk. After all, isn't the Christian walk simply about me and Jesus? Well, maybe for a select few like St. Anthony who was able to remain focussed by himself. But for the rest of us less holy folks, we need each other. Christianity isn't about me and Jesus. It's about me, Jesus and all those others who are on the same journey.

Small groups can be a great place to help keep us accountable. And I'm not talking about confessing all our sins and darkest, deepest secrets. But I'm thinking about things like, 'Last week in response to our study, you said you wanted to be more patient with your kids, and you came up with a plan. How is that going for you?'

Obviously there is always room for judging people to come in and use it as a measuring stick, but hopefully most people are generous and simply want to be supportive.

Overall, small groups aren't about ticking the 'good Christian' box. They are about growing disciples of Jesus. The question isn't, 'how can I make my small group effective'. The question is, 'how are we growing great disciples of Jesus?' Maybe some would argue they are the same question, but I think the emphases are miles apart.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Listener and Preaching

So what feels like 10 years ago, I began a three-part series on preaching. This final instalment will reflect on the listener and preaching. When thinking about biblical preaching, my starting point is with God. He is the one graciously at work through the sermon event. Half the time when I hear a sermon I seem to be thinking about lunch, the other half I'm wondering what I would have said if I were given that particular text to preach--a downside of being a preacher I guess. But the problem with listening half-heartedly is that sometimes we are so focused on other things that we miss what God is calling us to, what he's saying to us that day, the type of person he wants us to be.

Now I'm not saying that all preaching is good preaching. And I'm definitely not saying that we don't need to have our critical brains functioning so we can discern whether the preacher is truly preaching Christ or something else. What I am saying is that if God is at work speaking to us through the preached word, then perhaps it's a good idea for us to sit up and listen. So to finish off this blog series, I have a list of three dispositions we should have when it comes to being listeners in the sermon event.

1) Have faith that God will speak
A lot of people in churches talk about expectation. 'We should expect God to move.' 'You should expect God to do a miracle.' The problem is that God doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do. You can't expect God to do anything. He's the boss and we are not.

The more biblical approach is faith. We believe that God has acted in the world in the past. We see how Jesus came to earth. We see how God has taken hold of our lives and brought us into relationship with him. And so we can have faith that God will continue to meet and speak with us. Faith doesn't demand anything of God. It simply understands his character and trusts that he will do what is best.

When it comes to the preaching act, we need not expect that God will speak to us because in fact he may not. Maybe the person in the second aisle from the back needs God's comfort, and he intends on speaking to them that day. But we should have faith that God is at work speaking to his people which includes you.

2) Prayerfully listen
As I alluded to earlier it can be a real challenge to listen throughout a sermon--whether that's because it's boring or that the sermon is so overwhelmed with illustrations that you aren't sure what's trying to be communicated or any number of other things. But listen we must. Not because the person up the front wields the power but because God may well be speaking to us. And how can you hear if you aren't listening.

Karl Barth once said this about Scripture:

'It is not the right thoughts about God which forms the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about [humans]. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham's spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.'

What Barth is saying can also apply to preaching. The content of preaching should not be about how we must present ourselves to God, but about how he has searched and found his way to us. It demonstrates God's grace and love and how he has drawn us into relationship with him. Thus through preaching we are challenged as to how we live in relationship with this God and what he is calling us to. This exchange is not merely about information but primarily about relationship between God and the hearer. This requires prayerful listening.

3) 'What is God calling us to today?'
The final disposition is about asking ourselves the question, 'What is God saying today?' A lot of people decry the ineffectiveness of preaching. You often hear complaints from preachers that all their hard work counts for nothing because it never spurs the congregation to action (unless it's that theologically dubious person they are so fond of on the internet). If I'm being honest, I've felt the same thing. However, I'm also of the school of thought that for the most part, preaching is a long arduous journey that develops and builds over time. Preaching is like a coral that takes a long time to develop and take shape. People are slowly shaped and transformed as they encounter Jesus through the preached word.

Having said that, I also believe that it's all of our responsibilities to stop and take a moment to reflect on what we have heard and ask ourselves the question of what God is calling us to today. Is it to be more patient? Is it to think about how I/we (remember we don't go on the Christian journey by ourselves-we go with a community of people) can demonstrate the love of God to others through the way we live? Are we being convicted because Christ isn't the centre of our lives?

I'm not sure about anyone else, but once a sermons done, that's it, I don't give it a moment longer. I start thinking about morning tea and wondering what biscuits are being served. But, we need to take time to stop and ask God what he is saying and what he's calling us to. The only problem is that we mightn't like the answer.