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Walking the Small Group Tightropes: Managing the Tensions Every Small Group Faces

Walking the Small Group Tightropes: Managing the Tensions Every Small Group Faces

by Bill Donahue, Russ Robinson

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Six Ways to Improve Your Balance as a Group Leader Leading a successful small group is like walking a tightrope. You traverse a taut, exciting line, balancing the dynamic tensions characteristic of every group. Drawing from the concept of “polarity management,” Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson help you understand and deal with six dynamic areas every


Six Ways to Improve Your Balance as a Group Leader Leading a successful small group is like walking a tightrope. You traverse a taut, exciting line, balancing the dynamic tensions characteristic of every group. Drawing from the concept of “polarity management,” Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson help you understand and deal with six dynamic areas every group leader must manage in order to create genuine, transforming small group community. Your group is in for unprecedented connection and growth when you harness the interplay between • Truth and Life • Care and Discipleship • Friendship and Accountability • Kindness and Confrontation • Task and People • Openness and Intimacy Effective, life-giving small groups learn how to embrace both ends of each continuum. Walking the Small Group Tightrope will strengthen your sense of balance, help you gain confidence as a leader, and show you how to release the untapped creative and relational energy in your group.

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Walking the Small Group Tightrope

Meeting the Challenges Every Group Faces
By Bill Donahue Russ Robinson


Copyright © 2003 Willow Creek Association
All right reserved.

Chapter One

a change will do you good


The most important thing we can do in any meeting is study the Bible," said David. "I'm not sure it's the most important thing," responded Terry, who at age thirty-four was already a mature Christian. "After all, knowledge puffs up. It seems to me that we should put a stronger emphasis on building relationships. That's why I came to the group in the first place. We get plenty of Bible in sermons and classes."

David couldn't let that one go by without a strong, somewhat sarcastic response. "So you don't believe what Jesus taught - that the truth will set you free?" Pretty hard to argue with Jesus, thought David.

But Terry, a Bible college graduate, had a witty comment of her own, right out of John 5:39. "Right - he said the truth would set people free, not Bible study! Jesus rebuked arrogant Jewish leaders by saying, 'You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.' No one knew the Scriptures like the Pharisees - and no one's hearts were harder than theirs."

David, taking the debate up a notch, responded, "So now I'm arrogant because I believe that knowing Scripture is important! Sure, let's just toss the Bible out the window and spend all our time talking about all our problems and sharing our collective ignorance!"

Ah, yes, it's discussions like this that make small groups fun. Members arguing, personalities clashing, and conflict seeping from every corner of the room. Sort of reminds you of Jesus' group. Thomas challenging truth, Peter telling everyone what to do, Judas dipping his hand into the treasury, Simon the Zealot secretly harboring resentment against the former employee of Rome - Matthew, the tax collector - and Bartholomew sitting there, never saying a word.

Groups can get pretty animated about what they believe. The learning challenge can quickly polarize a group. Will our group focus on truth or life? Should we focus on content, the right understanding of the text, gaining the right information? Or should we spend more time helping members with personal issues, asking them to look closely at their lives, telling us their stories and being real about their needs and problems? Obviously, both truth and life are important. Here's the continuum we face when confronted with the learning challenge.

The challenge is to avoid drifting too far for too long toward one end of the continuum.

Tilting toward Truth

Fundamentally, this challenge requires understanding how Scripture study and small group curriculum help people learn the truth. How should the study guide, inductive questions, and Scripture application function in small group life?

As God's people we're committed to the truth. Both the great acclamation of Psalm 119:89, "Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens," and God's promise through Isaiah, "so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:11), make it clear that the truth is central to community.

An emphasis on truth apart from life will turn you into a Pharisee. A life that's not informed by truth will make you a relativist "blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Eph. 4:14). Paul says, "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)" (Eph. 5:8-9). Look carefully at those words: "The fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth." Truth does matter. And, according to Paul, it must connect with life.

But how do we connect truth to life in community? After all, one of your first tasks in a small group setting is to determine the role Scripture and small group study materials will play in your group.

Sadly, many little communities default to becoming a "truth group," which really means a group focused on doctrine, right and wrong answers, and the accumulation of information. The unstated group axiom is "He who knows the most, wins." Acquisition of knowledge becomes an end in itself. Members subtly buy into the lie that "information is power." Such groups reward members who are information-obsessed and secretly belittle those who are "knowledge-challenged." They view the Bible as a series of propositions and objective facts, disconnected from the life of the divine author and his audience. And so Parker Palmer writes: "The Latin root of 'objective' means 'to put against, to oppose.' In German its literal translation is 'standing-over-against-ness.' This image uncovers another quality of modern knowledge: it puts us in an adversary relationship with each other and our world. We seek knowledge in order to resist chaos, to rearrange reality, or to alter the constructions others have made.... Objective knowledge has fulfilled its root meaning: it has made us adversaries of ourselves."

In groups a preoccupation with truth takes on a more spiritual disguise, one we often wear unwittingly. In the most extreme form, we become preoccupied with finishing the lesson. Leaders expect you to come prepared with every Bible-study blank filled in. After all, the more you know, the more raw material the Spirit has to work with when changing your heart. There is some truth in that idea. But the most dangerous form of truth is a half-truth. God wants a heart to work with, or truth has no effect. In response to the Pharisees, Jesus said, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Matt. 15:8).

Truth groups begin at the right place when looking at Scripture or their small group curriculum. Members ask, "What does it mean?" or "What was Jesus saying when he made that statement?" The problem is that truth groups tend to stay at this level. Correct answers are rewarded by verbal affirmation from leaders ("That's a great answer!") and nonverbal cues from members as heads nod in approval.

Unfortunately, some small group study materials reinforce this mind-set by asking questions that require answers instead of prompting discussions. Groups function like classes with homework, and those who get the homework done get an A. If you didn't get the blanks filled in, you may appear lazy to the group or be embarrassed.

Truth will set you free, but not all truth, just applied truth. Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount with a great metaphor. In effect he says, "If you hear my words, but don't do anything with them, you are as foolish as the developer who built his Florida condominium on the sands of Miami Beach. But if you put them into practice, it's like building on a rock-solid foundation, and no storm will ever bring it down." (Okay, we are embellishing the story a bit). Truth really matters - but only if it moves from the head through the heart and out to the hands and feet.

Leaders: don't let your group consistently slide to the truth end of the continuum. Don't let people spend every moment of group time debating and defining truth, so that you wind up saying, "Oops, only five minutes left, so let's do a quick prayer and head on out."

If the group is unduly focused on truth and doesn't balance study by looking at life, all you will get are well-informed students. It's not a bad thing to understand and know the truth, but what about the life side?

Listing toward Life

Wooing some groups to slide to the other end of the continuum is the life emphasis. After all, it feels sooo good! People come into a small group to talk about their lives, to tell their stories, engage with one another, to learn about one another. Their lives are important, especially to them!


Excerpted from Walking the Small Group Tightrope by Bill Donahue Russ Robinson Copyright © 2003 by Willow Creek Association. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. Bill Donahue is the author of the bestselling Leading Life-Changing Small Groups, Building a Life-Changing Small Groups Ministy (with Russ Robinson), Coaching Life-Changing Leaders (with Greg Bowman), and the Equipping Life-Changing Small Groups DVD.

Russ Robinson, formerly executive director of small groups at Willow Creek and senior pastor of Meadowbrook Church in North Haledon, New Jersey, is coauthor with Bill Donahue of The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry. He continues to speak and write while practicing law in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

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