Imagine your church published one of those handy little instructional pamphlets titled: “So you want to be a small group leader?” The packet might sit in a bookstore with its topical comrades of vocational advice and hobby-building, such as: ‘Mastering the art of real-estate’ and ‘Maintaining mindfulness through Chinese Checkers’. When you open the pamphlet, you are greeted by images of the small group leader amidst his daily tasks: saving souls, visiting the sick, caring for orphans, revealing fresh Biblical insights, leaping tall buildings, rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees, restoring a broken marriage, throwing a killer party, mentoring each member one on one, and then praying for them all throughout the day.
You may begin to wonder, not only if you’re cut out for small group leadership, but whether or not Jack and Diane’s Tuesday evening prayer and fellowship with ice cream and decaf coffee is meeting as many of your needs as it should. Such is the dual blessing-curse of leadership idolatry, which we might claim as the unique property of 21st century American evangelicalism. Of course that’s not the case:
Isaiah 30:1-3 “Ah, stubborn children…who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.” Israel sought refuge in a seemingly strong and capable leader, rather than leaning on God himself.
We are always prone to set up leaders, whether in the church or in the world, as demi-gods, as Jesus-icons. Such misplaced hopes always end in disillusionment and frustration, for both leader and follower. The more we cling to human power instead of the God who saves, the more we set ourselves up for humiliation when he/she fails.
We often set up a glass ceiling of leadership which seems impossibly high from underneath, and then when someone magically pops up on the other side, the temptation is for them to hoist themselves up by raising the ceiling still higher. We want more small group or ministry leaders, but then we wonder when no one signs up for a job description that sounds like bench pressing small vehicles.
In reality, small groups are easy. At least, they should be easy. John Butler describes the work of a small group as: “representing the practical application of a church’s beliefs.” Acts 2:42 describes what was happening in early small groups or house churches in similar terms: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Turns out that the small group formula of: Bible, prayer, and snacks may not need quite as much reconstructive surgery as we think.
It does indeed take effort to elevate a small group meeting from mere Bible study or hang out time to genuine fellowship-koinonia. However, that challenge mainly takes the shape of developing a culture of authenticity, not how many commentaries the leader consults each week. Our reformed culture tends to make the error of equating leadership fitness with one’s ability to recite creeds and catechisms.
In synopsis, a small group has one chief objective each time it meets: take a living faith in Jesus, and apply that to life. Or if that’s too long, you can simplify it to one word: Apply. Apply. And then apply some more. The Holy Spirit bears the ultimate responsibility for doing this work in a believer’s life, which happens through Sunday morning worship, as well as in all the other individually received means of grace. However, small groups can offer a context to receive this grace of transforming application in a more direct and wholistic manner than anywhere else, as members open up their lives, complete with sorrows, joys, struggles, and hopes. We grow in giving and receiving the trust, love, and Biblical counsel which incarnates how we receive Christ himself.
If we comprehend this objective of applying faith to life, the whole dynamic of a small group changes. No longer is the goal to extract an obscure nugget of Biblical truth or to make a new friend. The dominant question during preparation or discussion time should be: how does ‘x truth’ about Jesus and his grace meet me where I am today? How does God’s word reshape my actions and perspective within this particular desire, success, or failure? Though it’s far more desirable to shape our needs to God’s Word, rather than searching to find God’s prescription for our needs, the latter approach, if executed faithfully will still lead us to Christ and His grace. In fact, if your group accomplishes nothing except to read a psalm, openly share meaningful prayer requests, and then pray, you’ll still be ahead of ninety percent of the pack. None of these exercises requires anything but a willingness to open our lives to God and other believers.
This article was first posted on Reformation21.