Are Small Groups the Mini-Me Church or the Real Thing?
How we answer this question reveals our understanding of what the church actually is: if we see the church as the formal meeting where a set series of events performed by appointed people must occur then we will try to reflect those values in all our meetings. The result will be formal small groups which follow a set order – like a mini-church. In the process we will encounter a high requirement for pre-meeting preparation, a lot of difficulty making the meetings feel natural and not forced; the group members will tend to follow the order rather than relate naturally with each other.
However if we consider the small group to be the real church we will cultivate relationships and involvement between each member of the group. The form will be secondary to the function and the emphasis will be on relationships not on program.
There’s an interesting encounter recorded for us in John chapter one. A couple of John’s disciples decided to switch from following John to following Jesus. They were looking for a rabbi to teach and inspire them. The deal with rabbis was that the disciples would spend most of their time observing what the rabbi did and interacting with him as he lived his life. So they tagged along, following Jesus as he walked by. Jesus noticed them following him and he pushed them to declare their intention. “What do you want?’
We might have given an explanation stressing how much we respected him and could we please follow him so he could teach us to be like him in every way . . . but that’s not what they did. Or was it?
Their reply was, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” To our minds this is a dumb response – of course he was staying at the local Holiday Inn, who cares about that? This is one of those times when we lose the point in the translation of the words. If we ever hope to understand the bible we must learn to look past the word we read – the words are just the vehicle used to carry the meaning; to get to that meaning we also need to understand the concepts and culture of the speakers. Their answer was an open request to become his disciples; they wanted to be where he was, doing what he did, learning what made him tick. They intended to follow him until the time that he decided they had learned enough to launch out on their own: training complete. They had no idea how long this might take but time was not the point.
Jesus’ reply to them was, “Come and you will see.” He was accepting their request but the interaction gives us a huge insight into what it means to become a disciple.
With teacher and disciples living in close quarters we realize that they would see literally everything the master did, every interaction, every passing comment, every attitude and reaction. Talk about transparency!
Times have changed and so have cultures. We find ourselves dealing with limited time and the need to hurry up the process of discipleship (we run our lives on fast-forward most of the time.) We live in an opaque society where too much transparency is not seen as a positive thing. We like our space and feel crowded if others are constantly with us. We could try recreating the first century but we’d be doomed to fail. What works for us is to get our heads inside what Jesus was doing and see if we can extract the principle so we can apply it to life today.
It’s a given that the need for discipleship is as great today as it was when Jesus was on earth. Our solution to that need has been to chase efficiency – one person can teach a crowd and reach more people all at once. Jesus did that at times, so did Peter and Paul, so it seems reasonable that we could use that approach, it must be scriptural! Not so fast! This wasn’t the only method they used and it has more limitations today than it did back then. Literacy was not as widespread and the society worked on rote memorization of important statements – they learned by listening. Even then, the real discipleship happened in the course of daily life. Jesus lived out his life in plain view of his disciples, creating and using teachable moments from the events of life. The real connections were relational and they were deep. Teaching is not about telling students the answers to life, it’s about shaping character and transforming behavior, helping them work out how to live, and this demands two-way interaction. Vision is taught by observable demonstration. Questions and answers, teachable moments, challenges and even confrontations are the tools which shaped the early disciples. There has to be a meeting of the minds before transformation occurs. It’s not enough to be able to say the right things, there has to be the evidence of deep personal change. There is no substitute for quality two-way interaction between teacher and disciples and without it we produce shallow disciples who can say the answers but are not motivated to live out what they say. The result is a feather-weight church of people who have a thin veneer of “Christian behavior” applied over a base of selfish human nature. No transformation. It’s not necessarily a case of “bad people” but it is a case of bad practice. We think that talking at people for an hour on a Sunday morning will have a big impact on those who gather but the sad fact is that well over 90% of what they hear is totally forgotten within hours, 98% forgotten within a few days. Talk about preacher depression! People retain a far higher percentage of the things they do and say – we call that “active learning” and it’s how we learn most things in life, it’s how we move from theory to practice, from pretending to being.
It’s not hard to see the principle: the reprogramming and transformation demanded by the life of faith comes from in-depth relationship between learner and mentor. Love or hate the big meeting, it can be a vehicle for celebration, for mass encouragement, for inspiration, but it can’t cover the demands of producing mature disciples. That happens elsewhere or sometimes it doesn’t happen at all in what we call “church life.”
How well does your church train and develop disciples whose lives are deeply transformed and where does that action take place? While Jesus could have worked exclusively with large gatherings, it’s interesting to note his emphasis on just 12 inner circle followers.The crowd switched from listening to the sermon on the mount and eating food Jesus miraculously provided to chanting demands for his crucifixion – there was no deep transformation, just people seeking a thrill.
Who is in our close circle and how are we investing in their lives? Where are the small-group powerhouses in our church?
- The Pathetic Alternative to the Corporate Church (citesimon.com)
- Who are you anyway? (ptl2010.com)
- A Biblical Model for Small Groups: “Check Yo Self” (followthenarrowroad.com)
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Posted on April 18, 2012, in Active faith, Participation, Relationships and tagged church, connecting with God, discipleship, Jesus, learning styles, personal transformation, preaching, relationships, small groups. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.