I will never forget the scene. I was doing a training session with seventy-five ministry leaders on how to build small groups that change lives, and they were getting excited about the possibilities. On that particular afternoon I talked about the psychological and relational healing that people experience as they open up with others in a small group. I told of miracles I had seen, and I tried to cast a vision of how life-changing their ministries could be if they learned a few simple concepts.
Then it happened. A guy in the middle of the room just couldn’t take it anymore, and he erupted. “I can’t allow this to go on any longer!” he said.
“Allow what?” I asked, somewhat taken aback by his interruption. “This distortion of the Bible,” he said. “I can’t allow it.” I asked what he meant by “distortion of the Bible.” God knows, that is the last thing I would ever want to do, so I wanted to hear him out.
“People grow in one way — through teaching the Bible, preaching the Word of God!” he said. “All this stuff about vulnerability and opening up to each other in groups is not in the Bible. You are distorting the way people grow. We are to teach the Word and let the Bible do its work.”
“Well,” I said. “Let’s see what the Bible itself has to say. Let’s see, for example, what Paul thought about ?opening up’ to each other.” You could feel the tension in the room.
I opened my Bible and read: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange — I speak as to my children — open wide your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:11?13).
I went on to read other passages that affirmed the basic power of community and relationships and the New Testament’s commands for us to walk in community. I gave an apologetic for how the body of Christ helps us grow. But the man was not buying in so quickly. Instead, he gave me a lesson from his own experience. “I grew by learning the Bible and walking in the Spirit,” he said. “My life changed by learning that one truth. Then when I learned more about the Bible, my life continued to change. I was radically transformed by the Truth. Before that, I was a mess. I was out of control, and a lot was wrong. God changed my life by that one truth.” I know the ministry he was involved in when this all happened. I also know enough about life change to describe what I thought had happened.
“I am sure that learning the Bible and walking in the Spirit were huge for you, as they are for all of us in the spiritual life,” I said. “I cannot imagine trying to grow or change without those two things. But I also know enough about the ministry you were in to know that other things happened as well.
“You were a college student, floating and lost. You were, as you say, ?out of control.’ Then a leader from the ministry reached out and in very real ways befriended you. He told you about God. He taught you some of the truths you are talking about.
“Then he did something else that was key. He invited you to become part of a small group of students that he led. Together you studied the Bible and learned God’s transforming truths. But you did much more. “You also, in that small group, lived out and experienced those truths. You opened up to each other about your struggles. You confessed your sins to each other. They offered and helped you feel God’s forgiveness. You held each other accountable. When you went through tough times with school or your girlfriend broke up with you, the group supported you, cried with you, and helped you sort it out. They prayed with you, and you sought God together.
“Next they recognized your talents and abilities and encouraged you to use them. They challenged you to take risks, to grow and stretch. In fact, you are probably here today because they pushed you out of your comfort zone more than once.
“When you failed, they comforted you, but did not let you quit. You grew because they encouraged you as your family never did. “Also, they modeled how to do life. They showed you how to relate and accomplish things in ministry. They let you watch how they did it and then try it for yourself. In that process, you became a lot of who you are today.
“As that community did studies on relationships, you confessed how you fell short in your dating life and you began to treat others differently, starting with them. You learned how to give acceptance and be honest with others — confronting them when necessary, holding them accountable, and being more real than you had ever been. “I could go on about your involvement with that community and small group, but I think we get the picture. You are right when you say your life was radically transformed. And you are right when you say that God’s truth and learning to walk in the Spirit changed your life. But you are wrong when you say that all growth, even your own, comes only from ?teaching and preaching’ or learning the Bible. For that is not what the Bible says.
“Your growth also came from the role that the body of Christ, your small group and your leader, played in your life. They delivered the ?goods’ you learned about in the Bible. They obeyed what it said to do, and you were the beneficiary. “Now, the question is, why do you do one thing and say another? Why do you receive those gifts of God and yet tell others that they are to grow some other way? Why do you rob them of what you yourself have experienced and what Paul commanded the Corinthians to do?” I said.
The room was silent. Everyone was reflecting on their own experience of change through spiritual relationships and small group communities. The man I’d addressed just looked at me and then went on with some sort of “yes, but?” about the real value coming out of teaching and preaching. But he was caught, and the others knew it as well.
I did not really fault the man for his position. He had inherited it from many teachers before him. In fact, he and I met later on and had very good talks. He eventually came around to thinking we were “saying the same thing,” as he put it. At least, he began to say that small groups and community are a valid part of the process. Whether or not he would say they are as valid as teaching was a little harder for him to do.
But I could understand where he was coming from. It was the “say-do” disconnect. Often, what we say or what we believe is not really what we do or what happens in real life, even when things go well. We say that one thing causes growth, when in reality we do many things to accomplish that growth. The say-do disconnect is common in the church.
We hold up, and rightly so, Bible study, spiritual disciplines, and direct relationship with God as the paths to spiritual formation. We talk about them, teach on them, practice them, and read books on them, and they slowly become a paradigm in and of themselves of how we grow. And they are vital.
Even so, at the same time, we are doing other things as well. We are connecting with each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other, confessing to each other, and doing a zillion other things the Bible tells us to do in community. All these produce growth, healing, and change. Yet we don’t often have a theology for those actions. We do them by happenstance or because our church has decided to “get current” and have some small groups. But we don’t hear much biblical teaching on how we grow through connections with other believers in a small group, at least as being a part of doctrine.
In short, while we have a cultural movement of small groups in the church, we often lack a theological vision for their role. Nor do we have practical ways of how to do that vision. We have not given small group processes the weight the New Testament does. As a result, we often experience a stagnated, limited version of being in relationship with God. If by chance we do experience growth through groups, we don’t recognize God’s role in it. Without a theological vision for growth through small groups, we lose it.
I felt for the man and his limited view that all God does comes through the Bible or direct intervention. I felt also for the people under his teaching. But I was not judging him — because I used to share his view. One thing should be clear. Small groups are not an add-on, secondary concern, or fad. What happens in a good small group is part of the very work of the church itself. It is primary, and should be seen that way. God is very much for the process of his people getting together to help each other grow.
Copyright © 2003 by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
Excerpt from Making Small Groups Work, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Published by Zondervan Used with Permission.