Small Groups: A Paradigm for Christian Community

Over the last several years, the Church and society have seen a distinct increase in the small group movement. Many agree the reason for this has been the societal changes of the past few decades. Our society has become an addicted society-addicted to substances, behaviors, and relationships. People in today's society struggle to cope with drug abuse, sexual abuse, family fragmentation, loneliness, lack of community closeness, high crime, and numerous other difficult problems. A longing for meaningful relationships is prevalent. The Church can be the agent through which this longing can be filled. Small groups can provide a nonthreatening environment where people can build trust in each other and help each other deal with his/her own struggles.

In the Church, small groups can be far more effective than in a secular setting. In Christ-centered small groups which have a specific curriculum and focus, an atmosphere for spiritual healing and growth is prevalent because the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and insight from Scripture can be presented. Small groups can also be a tremendous evangelism tool as the Church presents the Gospel to those who are seeking help.

A group can have a significant influence, positive or negative, on its individual members. Social psychologists define a group as a collection of people who interact regularly in fairly structured and predictable ways, who are oriented toward one or more specific goals which are aimed at satisfying certain shared needs, and who have a feeling of group identity and solidarity. They feel themselves a part of the whole, sharing a common fate.

Small groups have a strong element of peer pressure because of regular interaction and orientation toward specific goals. However, when Christ is not the center, the peer power of the group can be negative. People can be led to look to something, someone, or their own selves as their higher power. One story that illustrates the negative power is about a young college student who was a political activist on her college campus. Being politically radical, she was even into trying to overthrow the system of government at the school. However, during this time, she joined a religious cult group on campus and shortly thereafter, to the surprise of her family, underwent a drastic personality change. The girl who had been so strong-willed and independent became meek and obedient. Within three months, she was obeying everyone to the extreme, even to the point of giving herself to any guy who demanded she do so. For four years she lived under the influence of this group.

Although small group influence without proper direction can be abusive, there is a positive influence when Christ is the focus that can bring people to wholeness. I have heard many testimonies from people who have received Christ as Savior, had their marriages miraculously put back together, had suicides prevented, addictions broken, etc., as a result of the positive influence the Christ-centered small group had on their lives.

John Wesley (1703-1791) had a fervent ministry of evangelism which addressed social concerns through small groups. Wesley had a highly organized system of group life including these groups: society, class meeting, band, select society and pertinent band. These groups provided group experience at various levels. Although Wesley received much criticism about his emphasis on confession, "Confess your sins to each other" (James 5:16) continued to be one of his most quoted scripture verses. These were meetings of small groups of people for the purpose of prayer, reading, and sharing.

Frank Buchman (1878-1961), a Lutheran minister, was the founder of the Oxford Group movement (later known as Moral Rearmament) which spread rapidly. Although he was very controversial, his impact on Christianity in the twentieth century cannot be denied. Buchman believed the greatest hindrance in a person's knowing God was the appetites of the flesh. His concept was that everyone was in need of change and people should meet together for confessions and prayer. His principles of change were instrumental in the starting of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement.

Garth Lean in his book, On the Tail of a Comet, writes extensively about the life of Frank Buchman. "The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others, straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker . . . and from nowhere else" (152). Shoemaker experienced a change of life through Buchman's ministry which started a 20-year association. Shoemaker later had an effective ministry to alcoholics at Calvary Church in New York City.

Lean further quotes Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist, regarding Buchman's effect on the church. "Before Buchman the church felt its job was to teach and preach, but not to find out what was happening in people's souls. The clergy never listened in church, they always talked" (153). Many spin-off movements dealing with social ills have found their roots in the AA movement where Buchman's ideas were so influential.

Sunday school became the dominant small group movement in the late 1800s. Because it was not limited to a single denomination, it had a broader effect than did the Wesley group meetings. Lyman Coleman says, "By 1950, 75 percent of church members were involved in Sunday school . . . by 1970 Sunday school with its emphasis on age category, on-site location and Sunday-only meetings was clearly in decline" (Bird, 27). However, the small group idea was moving to the forefront as a result of the emphasis on life issues, flexibility of meeting sites, and days. The small group has been through some dramatic changes over the past two decades and is hard to define; nonetheless, it is meeting a core need in today's society. Small groups are popular in many different denominations, areas, and classes of people; therefore, churches can be flexible in responding to the various needs of its community. In recent years we have seen Sunday schools become more small-group oriented and addressing felt needs. John Vaughan, professor of church growth at Southwest Baptist Seminary, Bolivar, Missouri, asserts that even though small groups play a strategic role in the assimilation and equipping ministry and that most large churches survive through instituting small groups effectively, Sunday school should still be emphasized. "He notes that some churches emphasize home groups, some Sunday school, but only a few do both well" (Bird, 28-29).

Overall, the small-group movement cannot be understood except in relation to the deep yearning for the sacred that characterized much of the American public. Indeed, a great deal of the momentum for the movement as a whole comes from the fact that people are interested in spirituality, on the one hand, and from the availability of vast resources from religious organizations, on the other. As a result, small groups are dramatically redefining how Americans think about God" (Wuthnow, 23-24).

There is a spiritual vacuum and hunger for meaningful relationships in this addictive society. A church that is prepared for the future must have a healthy combination of corporate worship of God and small groups which focus on relationships and felt needs.

Long before small groups were a popular trend, the Apostle Paul wrote about the church filling the role as a caring community (Ephesians 4).

The church is an evangelizing, preaching, teaching, disciplining, sending community. It also must be a therapeutic community where people find love, acceptance, forgiveness, support, hope, encouragement, burden-bearing, caring, meaning, opportunities for service, challenge, and help in times of need. Within the church community, people can find others who share "like precious faith" and who value the spiritual issues that secular therapists so often overlook (Collins, 1986, 30).
With the breakdown of the family, many people are without mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Small groups provide family ties and assistance in developing one another relationships. Breaking through the isolation and pain, "God sets the lonely in families" (Psalm 68:6).

The Christ-Centered Small Group
The wheel  represents a Christ-centered small group. The spokes are the group members, and Christ is the hub. As the group members come near Christ, the hub, they also develop a closeness with one another.

Lack of personal growth is often seen in small groups when a group member's problem, the group leader, or a philosophy becomes the center. Although sharing of struggles is good, if given center stage in the small group, it may cause group members to become manipulative, selfish, and/or irresponsible which will cause confusion. They may learn to cope but will rarely come to a point of healing.

When the group leader becomes the center of the small group-the spiritual or psychological guru-group members may form a dependent relationship with him/her. Group leaders should stand with (or hand in hand with) group members but not as lord. Paul writes, "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm" (2 Corinthians 1:24-2:1).

If a philosophy becomes the center of the small group, an emptiness or even deception among group members is the likely result. Philosophies that mislead groups include intellectualism, speculations, or good-sounding arguments that neglect Christ as being preeminent. "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8).

The sounds which come from an empty head will reveal its hollowness. After delivering a sermon, grandpa was approached by an "educated" visitor who wanted to correct his language. He began: "You used the phrase aching void. I wish you would tell me how a void can ache."

"Well, not to speak of a hollow tooth, don't you sometimes have the headache?" was grandpa's silencer (Brownlow, 28).

So then, what is a Christ-centered small group? Through all discussions (pain, victories, misunderstandings, anger, opinions, frustrations, etc.), it is the responsibility of the leader to bring the discussion back to a personal level that focuses on Jesus Christ. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).

Construct a poster board using the Christ-centered wheel. Place a group member's name on each spoke with Christ as the hub. The leader and co-leader will be identified as spokes also. Place the wheel on the wall where it can be referred to regularly.

To help the group stay focused, it is important to follow a biblically based curriculum. God's "word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Psalm 119:105). The Word as a lamp shows specific steps for our feet. The Word as light provides general direction for the path. As in an automobile, we may not be able to see beyond our headlights, but we still get to our destination.

A Biblical Perspective for Small Groups

In the book of Galatians the Apostle Paul gives considerable time to refuting the teaching of the Judaizers. They were trying to convince the new converts that faith in Christ alone was not enough. They urged the new Christians to keep the Mosiac law by being circumcised (Galatians 5:2-6). Paul maintains that mixing the law with faith is not the means of salvation.

Paul emphasizes freedom in Christ: "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13). Although this book was written to the churches in Galatia, Paul often talks in terms such as brethren and one another. "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not be conceited, provoking and envying each other" (Galatians 5:25-26).

The goal of small groups is to help each other "keep in step with the Spirit." Instead of becoming conceited, provocative, and envious, helpers are encouraged to treat their brothers and sisters with love and concern. In Galatians 6:1-5, Paul presents principles that will help any small group leader as he or she helps others overcome obstacles that may hinder a person's freedom in Christ.

Help for the Trapped
"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin . . . " (Galatians 6:1). Note that Paul looks to the brothers for help. This could also refer to brothers and sisters in Christ. Someone has taken a "false step." The person has been trapped, overtaken by a sin. Perhaps they need the help to which Hebrews 12:1 refers: "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles."

Kennon L. Callahan says that "most new members join a church longing for and looking for help, hope, and home" (213). People who have been overtaken by a sin are sitting in churches but are afraid to come forward. This verse places on the believer the responsibility of helping his fellow believer. Creating an atmosphere of understanding for the entire church (the 20-60-20 referred to in Chapter 10) will free people to help others become free.

Helped Helpers. "You who are spiritual should restore him gently" (Galatians 6:1). Those who are noncarnal are the spiritual helpers. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:1, "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly-mere infants in Christ." Unhelped helpers often transfer their baggage to other people. Some small groups led by unhelped helpers often go in circles without purpose. One such group was a codependent group of ladies that has met for six years. The same ladies rehashed the same problems each week. Such groups can cause harm to its members because they learn unhelped behaviors from unhelped helpers.

Being a helped helper does not mean a perfect helper or a helper without problems. The helped helper is aware of his baggage and is working on it. The helper is helping his fellow believers focus on Christ instead of the baggage. David had his struggles-family problems, adultery, and murder. David said, "My sin is always before me" (Psalm 51:3). Far from being perfect or without problems, David had a heart for God (Acts 13:22). Without question, David was a helped helper.

The method of help is gentle restoration. Paul's instruction is to "restore him gently." To restore means to set the bones or mend the nets. Another way to look at restoration is to help a person put the parts back together in his or her life. A gentle touch is needed much like a nurse's providing physical therapy to a person recovering from a broken limb.

Humble Helpers. "But watch yourself, or you may also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). This verse warns against the conceit that is mentioned in Galatians 5:26. An arrogant, overconfident, or self-proclaimed spiritual giant goes against the atmosphere of surrender so badly needed in a small group. "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you" (Romans 12:3).

Humble helpers will not scold the weak or work to develop the group around themselves. These helpers do not point their finger or glory in the failings of others. They understand it is only by the grace of God that it is not they. God gives grace and exalts the humble helper. Being a humble helper is not to be confused with being a weak person. Paul writes, "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Hand-in-hand helpers. "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Paul emphasizes the responsibility of the believer to the fellow believer who has taken a "false step." The goal is to help the fallen person place their dependence upon the Spirit of God. We are to "accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1).

Paul is concerned for the Galatians because they were placing themselves back under legalism. He said to them, "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort" (Galatians 3:3)? Now he is calling for the brothers and sisters to be hand-in-hand helpers by assisting with the burdens of fellow believers. We are to "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another" (Romans 12:15-16).

A hand-in-hand helper does not take personal responsibility from others. The helper should avoid dominating other people. Caution must be taken because some people who are dependent on any type of authority figure will cling to the helper. Paul states, "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm" (2 Corinthians 1:24-2:1). We should not force-feed people with instructions, Scripture, or even Jesus Christ. Our work is to stand with them-not independent of one another (independence) or leaning on one another to the point that when one falls, the other does also (codependency) but standing together as hand-in-hand helpers and in so doing "fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34).

Helper Traps
Sometimes helpers are less effective because of their own dysfunctional background, distorted views of God, and personal misbeliefs. With this in mind, it is easy for layworkers, pastors, counselors, and group leaders to fall unknowingly into helper traps. Galatians 6:3-5 provides awareness for common traps faced by most helpers.

Delusion. "If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself" (Galatians 6:3). Feeling spiritually or morally superior to those receiving help is a sure way to deceive one's self. Sober thinking reminds us to watch ourselves closely, or we "may be tempted." Concerning conceit, David writes: "For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin" (Psalm 36:2). The Pharisees were known for their self-righteousness. "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like all other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector' " (Luke 18:11). Such conceit eliminates a person as a helper. Pride results in delusion. Jeremiah writes, "The pride of your heart [has] deceived you" (49:16).

Lack of self-examination. "Each one should test his own actions" (Galatians 6:4). A helper must always examine himself first. Are you in a right relationship with God? What about your attitude, your motives? An examination of yourself can help prevent conceit and pride which leads to deluded thinking. True examination helps a person recognize that he or she is nothing without God. "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:31).

An effective small group leader will join other group members in self-examination. True examination will show that we all have weaknesses-laypeople, pastors, counselors, and denominational leaders. "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12)!

Lack of self-esteem. "Then he can take pride in himself" (Galatians 6:4). The correct kind of pride is not an excessive or unjustified evaluation of one's self; instead, the grounds for our boasting are through the Holy Spirit. Our true identity is in Jesus Christ. Many have an identity problem because their identity is in their church affiliation, ethnic pride, code of morals, or social status. C. S. Lewis says:

It is no good trying to "be myself" without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call "Myself" becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop (189).

Don Matzat, author of the popular book, Christ Esteem, describes our need as Christ esteem, not self-esteem. It is amazing what will happen when we quit focusing on our self and esteem Christ. Paul writes, "And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Corinthians 5:15).

A friend once told me about his difficulty in receiving compliments. When he received a compliment in his early walk with Christ, he would say with a pious ring, "It's not me, it's Jesus." He then graduated simply to pointing with his finger in the air, "one way." He finally realized he only needed to say thank you to the one giving the compliment. Then at night before he went to bed, he would thank God for using him.

Approval trap. "Without comparing himself to someone else" (Galatians 6:4). Our character, commitment, and effectiveness in the Lord is to be tested in the light of God's approval. It is easy to get caught in the approval trap by comparing ourselves to others. Being approved by God is based on a solid foundation; whereas, the approval of others is relative because it is based on imperfect people.

I have seen well-meaning believers try to sing like certain Christian artists, preach with the same mannerisms as a TV preacher, or copy the latest Christian fad in order to meet the approval of others. Being "in Christ" makes each believer unique in Christ.

Sameness is to be found most among the most 'natural' men, not among those who surrender to Christ. . . . Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with Him everything else thrown in (Lewis, 190).

Lack of Personal Responsibility. "For each one should carry his own load" (Galatians 6:5). People often claim contradiction between this verse and "carry each other's burdens" in verse 2. Instead, these two verses provide a balance in being a people helper. Yes, we are to "carry each other's burdens," but there are some loads that only God and you can carry. This verse emphasizes personal responsibility. Everyone is responsible to God for who he or she is and for their own actions. As helpers, we are to offer a helping hand but not take away one's own personal responsibility to carry his or her own load. Our own load is those private, personal burdens that only we and God can carry. "Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13).

 

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