Tuesday, June 02, 2009


The worst groups I've ever been in have been informational. The best groups that I have ever been in have been relational. Let me explain.

In my experience, the best small groups I've ever been in were a heart trip, not a head trip. When a group becomes about information (what we're learning, what we're studying) it tends to be dry and impersonal. The participants, instead of relating to each other, relate to the material, as a third party. This is not community in the deepest sense. It is a shared experience, but not the experience of sharing. Instead of syncing up our lives around Christ, we are simply syncing up our thinking around the material we are studying. It's the difference between going on a trip, and staying at home and reading the map.

In an information group, the book being studied can actually get in the way of relationship. The book can even be the screen people hide behind. If at any point a participant feels they might have to reveal who they really are, they just point their nose back into the text and say, "I really like what the author says here." Then they just read the words from the text, smile glibly, and wait for the next person to talk...about what they like about the text. Presto. Off the hook. After a few months of being a group like this, unless you are a studious type (maybe 5% of the population), you are ready to quit. Your impulse toward community starts screaming inside, "Would somebody please get real!" Your head hurts as you walk out the door following one of these group meetings. But even worse, your heart hurts. You never get to open up the text of your life.

I met with a friend recently who attends another church. It just so happened that our meeting took place the same night as his small group Bible Study. He confessed, "I'm glad I didn't have to go to my Bible Study tonight." He told me about how the group he was in was supposed to spend 30 minutes in fellowship, 30 minutes in Bible Study, and 30 minutes in sharing and prayer. But over time the group had started to spend about 10 minutes in fellowship, over an hour in Bible Study, and about 10 minutes in sharing and prayer. He told me, "There are many weeks when Christ has been doing some awesome things in my life, and I never get to share that." There was a sadness on his face as he said that to me. I don't think you want to skimp on the relational aspects of your group. If you are going to skimp, skimp on the informational aspects. Informational is nice; relationship is needed.

One of the reason why we don't use the phrase Bible Study, and instead say Bible Discussion, is that we don't want to have groups be about the map. We want groups to be about the journey. The word of God is powerful and profitable, but as James makes clear, it's a mirror, and it's greatest value comes when we actually apply what we learn....when we put it into practice. Small groups work best when the emphasis is on application. For most people, the gap holding them back is not the gap between what they know and what they don't know, it's the gap between what they know and what they're living.

Some view small groups as an extension of the Christian Education department of the church. I do not. I view small groups as an extension of the Pastoral Care department of the church.

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