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the Small Group Fitness KitHow to Keep Your Group Healthy and Growing
By THOM CORRIGAN
NAVPRESSCopyright © 2001 Thom Corrigan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTurning Small-Group Problems into "People Opportunities"
"God chooses what we go through. We choose how we go through it." -Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor
"I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me." -Fred Allen, realist
"If this sounds like some sort of science fiction horror story, you should see the horror the 'comfort zone' wreaks on people's lives." -John Roger, pessimist
"I love the world, it's people I can't stand." -Charlie Brown, OPTIMIST
People! As long as the church is made up of people like us, there will always be what optimists call "people opportunities."
The Bible records many cases of God's redeemed people arguing, fighting, conniving, misunderstanding, hurting, and abusing one another. God's people today still make mistakes, make a mess, or hurt one another. We do that to each other because people, redeemed or not, are human. God redeems and renews our fallen human nature, but that redemptive process is completed over time-through adversity and confrontation, through small groups and people opportunities. That's how God smooths out the rough edges of the Christian life: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).
Let's look briefly at five problems that others bring into the small group. This will allow us to see how to turn those people problems into opportunities for growth. Then we'll look at two problems that we as leaders bring into the group that could be self-destructive.
The need to overcome Phariseeism
I grew up in a church which gave the impression that visitors or inquirers needed to clean up their lives before we welcomed them into our fellowship. This performance mentality is a deadly form of the Phariseeism that Jesus continually railed against. Wherever this smug attitude prevails -in a church, in a person, or in a small group-it can spread like yeast leavening a lump of dough and ruin Christian fellowship.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:6). These teachers and keepers of the law drew Jesus' ire because they turned a spiritual relationship into religion. A life of keeping laws, rules, and regulations is no "life" at all, but a slow spiritual death.
Many Christians do not cultivate the fruit that grows out of being vitally connected to Christ. Even those in a position of leadership, if they only talk a good game about Jesus but do not enjoy a vital relationship with him, will eventually starve to death spiritually. They are like the person who walks into a classy restaurant, receives a beautiful menu-handwritten on fine paper, with extensive, eloquent descriptions of the extraordinary offerings-then proceeds to eat the menu!
Those who have never tasted of God's grace are no better off than this menu-eater. Those who once had a relationship based on God's grace, but have fallen back into ritualism or religion, are even worse off (2 Peter 3:20-22). Just talking about God in Christ, without experiencing the real thing, doesn't cut it. If the richness of a daily walk with Jesus is a foreign experience to some in your group, be sure to introduce them to the real thing. Don't let them leave the group having only sampled the menu.
The need to overcome an us-and-them attitude
This inability to appropriate God's grace in our lives, not only leads to a Phariseeism which is incompatible with the gospel, but lends itself to an us-and-them attitude that kills the church. Some churches have a fortress mentality that seeks to protect us by making it hard for them to enter. "Them" is anyone who needs to jump through religious hoops, apart from grace, in order to become part of "us."
This religious mentality stifles small-group life by closing the door to any form of evangelism, outreach, or service (except to perpetuate its own kind). I have found that when Phariseeism infects a small group, admitting faults to one another is harder to do, and reconciliation between groups is rarely considered.
Not only are we saved by the grace extended by a loving Father through the sacrifice of his only Son, but we live by grace as our daily bread. That daily, life-saving grace is the antidote to religious ritualism, legalism, and Phariseeism. This grace will also stir up a hunger for spiritual reality and for relationships with the new people God brings to your group.
Because "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9), our best hope for reconciled relationships is hearts that are healed and minds that are renewed in the image of Christ. Your love, compassion, and honesty could shame others out of their us-and-them mentality.
Confrontation may not be necessary unless other group members are being hurt. Admitting your own bias, bigotry, or brokenness could set an example. If you have bias of any kind-against couples who divorce, parents whose teens are out of control, fat people who lose control of their bodies-confess it.
If Phariseeism appears in your group, turn your experience with adversity and diversity into a parable of grace for the benefit of others.
The need to overcome selfishness
People are basically selfish. We are products more of our culture than of Christ. Our culture emphasizes personal rights over community responsibilities. Our culture overlooks the good of others and insists on "looking out for number one," including suing anyone who "violates" our rights.
The church is comprised of these selfish people. Investing time, energy, or money in our own recreation seems to be more important than investing time, energy or money in the kingdom of God. Given such skewed priorities group members may be unable or unwilling to reach out to each other outside of group time, let alone to others in the church or their neighborhoods.
This prevailing problem calls us to practice a lifestyle of charity and humility. By adopting the mind of Christ, we can know what it means to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3). Some things are better "caught than taught," and this attitude is one of them. You can expose your group to Scriptures dealing with "one another," and pray for the mind of Christ to overcome selfishness, but equally important will be the example they have seen in you.
The need to overcome critical "defeatists"
Another common problem that turns up in groups concerns the skeptics or defeatists. They hail from the We've-never-done-it-that-way-before school of thought, or from the dead-end street of That-will-never-work. Their needling and "wet blanket" remarks not only dampen enthusiasm but seem to challenge our right to lead or to speak. If left uncontested, their challenge undermines the confidence other people have in our leadership and in the direction the group is headed.
I believe the best way to respond to negative thinkers is with Scripture passages that emphasize faith and hope. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). Remind your group members, as did Jesus, that the only "constant" is change itself. Jesus continually challenged the status quo. With parables of the kingdom, such as the parable of the new wineskins (Luke 5:36-38), Jesus brought about the new life he talked about. The Christian life is a walk of faith, and God will continually confront us with new experiences, so that we might learn to trust him with more and more of our life.
The need to overcome "self-made" individualists
Another type of person who presents a problem to most groups is the self-achieving independent person. Such persons have made their own way, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps (so they think), and pushed past all obstacles. Don't confuse this person with someone who is highly motivated and goal-oriented. The difference is in the attitude of the heart.
Self-made individualists don't think they need you or anyone else in their life. They often have another agenda, maybe one outside their awareness, or one from their past they've suppressed. Deep inside they may have been scarred by broken trust and unreconciled relationships. What the small group awakens in them-and what they have yet to experience-is their need to have their heart touched by God and their need for honest relationships in community.
You can have an immense impact on these individualists if you will love them, no matter what they do or say. You might have to prove that you are on their side, but in the long run, love and consistency will prevail.
The apostle Paul summarizes this paradox of what to do with people who are so problematic yet so necessary for your group to grow: "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want" (Galatians 5:17). We are imperfect people who need the ongoing work of salvation and reconciliation. And you have been invited to participate in that wonderful process. It's called Life in Small Groups!
So, you need (and are) people who have problems!
A group without problems is hard to believe. Like the couple who claims their married life is devoid of any disagreement, we must ask ourselves, Were they ever really married? If a couple does not feel safe enough to let down their guard and reveal who they really are, in what sense are they married? Likewise, if your group claims to have no problems, you should wonder, Are they even breaking the surface?
I believe that small groups need to get to the level of "storming," that is, when we move from formation and normalized relationships (where everyone learns how to be "nice" to one another), through crises and confrontations, to a place of real honesty. Once there, we can say in all honesty, "I do not agree with you," or "I don't like it when you do that."
This storming level is also called "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). That's when God does some wonderful work of reconciliation and restoration in our group. When we honestly work through stormy problems, the group will likely enter a time of greater productivity in building relationships and community.
We leaders also bring our own problems to our groups. Isn't it wonderful? As well-educated, trained, or experienced as we may be, there are areas of our life that the Lord may want to work in. This can be threatening because many of us have been taught not to let down our guard and not to let others get too close.
Such thinking runs contrary to Scripture. Jesus lived with and taught a group of 70 people, but spent more time with the Twelve, and even more with three apostles in particular-James, Peter, and John (who enjoyed a closer relationship with Jesus). Evidently, even our Lord needed close fellowship with a few others.
We leaders need a small group for the same reasons as Jesus, but with the additional reason that we are sinful and need the group to deal with two problems most prevalent among small-group leaders.
The need to be in control
Most leaders feel a need to be in control. We like to keep things nice and neat. But this outlook grabs us at the very point where we need to let go: If we are going to have successful small-group ministries, we must release appropriate amounts of control and responsibility to people we have selected, invested in, and equipped to lead in some capacity. But in doing so, we run into control problems.
We fear being out of control. We speak of controlling forest fires, teenagers, tempers, thoughts, actions, feelings, and destinies. When we are out of control we feel powerless, overwhelmed, and helpless. We fear being out of control and losing control-of ourselves and others. As we struggle to find new ways to regain control, we may explode with verbal violence against ourselves or others. Or we may feel a bit paranoid-even paralyzed, and develop any number of stress-related illnesses.
Obviously some control, however minor it may seem, is critical to our health and well-being. Unfortunately, the greatest stressor of all is one we have no control over whatsoever, and it tends to drive us crazy. We cannot prepare enough for it, respond quickly enough to it, or adapt our thinking and behavior enough to "handle" it.
This stressor is called CHANGE-rapid, troublesome, unsettling, uncontrollable CHANGE. Change is a creation of our God. He put into motion a system of continual change: Day into night into day ... spring into summer into fall into winter... water into ice into water into vapor.
We can readily acknowledge and appreciate our inability to control seasonal change. Why then do we think we can control other aspects of change with godlike expenditures of time and energy, all in the name of protecting the status quo? Is it possible that we, too, hail from the We've-never-done-it-that-way-before school of thought, or from the dead-end street of That-will-never-work?
The fear of failure
Another problem that leaders bring to a group manifests itself in various ways, some very subtle. Imagine this all-too-common scenario:
You go to the home of the group host, or maybe you host the group yourself. You set up chairs and make sure everything is in order. You greet each person who arrives, introducing any newcomers to the regulars, and vice versa. You open in prayer, make necessary announcements, lead with an appropriate ice-breaker, and share some personal history. Next you turn to the Bible, read the selected passage, teach from a prepared outline, and answer any questions that arise. You then ask if anyone needs prayer, especially on issues related to that day's topic, and pray accordingly. After closing the meeting, over coffee and cookies, you attempt to touch base with each person who attended.
So, you say, Where is the problem? We covered every necessary part of group life tonight. Right?
Well, yes, but with one little difference. It wasn't we, it was I. The problem here is just that: I DID IT. We leaders bring the problem of our ego to a group. If I am one part of the group, which is functioning as a microcosm of the greater Body of Christ, then we have a wonderful picture of the church as described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. ("Now the body is not made up of one part but of many....
Excerpted from the Small Group Fitness Kit by THOM CORRIGAN Copyright © 2001 by Thom Corrigan. Excerpted by permission.
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