The pastor had decided to start a small group. Everyone says it is the way to grow your church, or to grow a deeper sense of community.
Thursday night a dozen people showed up. They met. They left in frustration.
What went wrong?
They all brought conflicting expectations.
- Some wanted the group to be a “Bible Study” — but they disagreed about what that meant. An intellectual analysis of the text? The text as a springboard to talk about their feelings? Maybe they should read a current Christian book together.
- Several wanted it to be a “Prayer Group.” But would they take on a ministry of intercession? Or would they practice contemplative prayer and meditation?
- Some wanted fellowship. Would that mean casual conversation over a meal, or deep sharing of struggles in life and faith?
Small groups can be any of these things.
Let’s imagine John Wesley was the organizer. (I’ve been blogging about Wesley and his distinctive approach to Christian community for a while. You can find the other posts here.)
What would Wesley’s kind of small group be?
In his “Rules of the Band Societies” from 1738, Wesley suggested a way for all the members of the small group to come with the same expectations.
First, as the leader, he casts the vision:
The design of our meeting is, to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed.”
I’m thinking the sign-up sheet for that group would languish for a while in my church.
How about you? Would you sign up?
That is a completely counter-cultural vision for small group life. We should not assume, though, that it was any more appealing in 1738. Do you think everybody was just eager as can be to tell their sins to a small group once a week?
Before we write it off as impossible, let’s ponder two things.
1. It is still possible to cast a clear vision and make it a condition for participation. I recently met with a prayer group at a church. The woman who started it asked a whole bunch of people “Would you want to be part of a prayer group I’m starting?” If they said yes without hesitation, they could be in. If they said anything else, including “I need to pray about it,” they were out. Six said yes. The group changed their lives. Could an accountability group start with that clarity?
2. It is actually easy to find groups outside the church that have agendas much like John Wesley’s. Consider any 12 Step organization. To join, you admit your life has become unmanageable and only God can restore you to sanity. You know a little way into the program you will do a thorough confession of all your faults and failings. People join because they know they need God’s grace, healing, and help, and they know that the group is where they’ll find it.
We might find ourselves more open to Wesley’s small group vision if we took our problems living as Christ intends (aka our “sins”) half as seriously as 12 Steppers consider their addictions.
We might find ourselves much more open to Wesley’s small group vision if we reframe “telling other Christians about our struggles” as “a way to find grace, and support, and encouragement.”
The small group designed around telling the truth, hearing the truth from others, and walking together toward Christ’s call might just be the path toward growth.
What kinds of small groups have been life-changing for you?
What might it take to make Wesley’s vision workable today?
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