Making Small Groups WorkMaking Small Groups Work
Dr. Henry Cloud, Dr. John Townsend
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Here's a one-stop small-group leader's guide for gatherings of all sorts---from divorce recovery and marriage enrichment to spiritual formation. Facilitators will learn God's plan for growth and how to promote it; what makes a group work; the roles of members; and how to find solutions for problems including boredom, noncompliance, aggression, overneediness, and nonstop talking. 208 pages, softcover from Zondervan.

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Chapter 1

God's Surprising Plan for Growth

I will never forget the scene. I (Henry) 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.

The "Say-Do" Gap

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 bow 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. I had to learn the hard way how God uses small groups and community.

Plan A and Plan B

I went to college with big dreams and expectations. When I was a high school senior, the Southern Methodist University golf coach invited me to Dallas to tour the school and recruit me to come play golf there in the fall. I remember the excitement of playing a U.S. Open course on that trip and dreaming about playing college golf. One week before I left for college, a tendon popped in my left hand. The severe pain abated with cortisone treatments, but it would come back as soon as the medicine wore off. When I got to school, the coach who had recruited me had left, and I was never pain-free long enough to build on my skills. Finally, after two years of struggle, playing well for a while and then poorly, I quit the game that I had dedicated my youth to.

Feeling depressed and bored with my studies, I tried to keep my lost feelings at bay with parties and dating. One day I was in my dorm room obsessing about my empty life. I could not make the ache go away.

Then something happened that would forever change my life. I looked up on my bookshelf and saw my Bible—the one I had not read since coming to college. I remember thinking, “Maybe something in there would help.” So I opened it, and a random verse jumped out at me: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

I read it again. “What things?” I asked myself. Then I looked at the whole passage. It was telling me to seek God first and then all these things that I was obsessing about would fall into place.

Was that really true? Was there really a God who could do that? And if he really were there, would he? My thoughts raced as I considered God in a way I never had before. I wasn’t just “thinking about God.” I was being presented with a defining choice.

I decided to go for it. Sensing the seriousness, I walked across campus and looked for a church. Alone in a dark, empty chapel, I looked up and told God that if he were really there, I would do whatever he told me to do. If he would just show up, I would follow him and do what he said. I waited for him to “zap” me. I waited for a vision. Nothing happened.

I remember feeling a great sense of both relief and emptiness. Relief because after years of playing around with God, I’d come clean and said I would give it all. But empty because I did not sense him there and knew that if he did not show up, I was alone in the universe with nowhere to go and no way to find my way. Doing it on my own had not gotten me very far. I just stared at the ceiling, still wanting him to zap me. Finally I walked back, cold and dreary, to my room.

A while later, the phone rang. It was a fraternity brother. We hadn’t talked recently, but he was calling to invite me to a Bible study. I remember his saying that it was strange that he even thought to call me, as I was not overtly into spiritual things. But he felt moved to do it—and I felt as if God was maybe showing up just as I had asked.

Maybe I would go to this Bible study and find God. I thought someone might pray for me, or I would pray, and then God would reach down and finally zap me supernaturally. I would be healed. I would feel good again. I’d find answers to all I was supposed to do. A princess would fall from the sky. After all, I was going the “God route” now, and I expected a miracle.

Well, I did not get my zapping. But I met some new people. Bill, a seminary student, led the Bible study. He and his wife, Julie, opened up their home to me. I decided to take a semester off from school to figure it all out. I moved in with them, and they and another small group became my new spiritual community.

Still depressed and lost, I asked Bill why God did not zap me and make me feel better. His answer—one several people had given as I’d opened up about my feelings—was an answer I was beginning to hate. He said, “Well, sometimes God does that, and he just heals people. But God uses people, too.” That was the phrase I hated: “God uses people, too.”

Bill meant that I had a lot to learn, and he wanted me to “get discipled” and learn about the faith. He also wanted me to get counseling for my depression, another way God uses people. And he thought I should be involved in more spiritual community and relationships. I remember thinking that “God uses people, too” was a “Plan B.”

To me, if you were going to get something from God, you should get it “from him,” not from people. That was my Plan A—the real spiritual healing, the miracle cure. I thought that when we pray and ask God to heal or to change our lives, he should zap us with a supernatural something. Lightning, earthquakes, visions, or something like that. Knock me down and fix me.

This “God uses people” seemed a spiritual cop-out. If God did not do something, then people had to. So how was that really God? Even if it were God, it was somehow less than the real thing, the zap. But, since I was getting no zapping, I didn’t have much of a choice. I got involved in all the small group experiences Bill suggested.

Over the next months, people in my groups loved me, corrected me, confronted me, challenged me, taught me, supported me, and helped heal deep pain and loss. They forgave, accepted, and pushed me. I was learning that I was emotionally disconnected and lacked key relational skills, even though I had a lot of friends. I was not as "real" as I thought I had been. My small group friends taught me that my performance and accomplishments provided a flimsy foundation for measuring my life and my acceptance.

My life was changing through being in a small group, as when the sun comes up in the morning. You don't know exactly when daylight occurs. But you know when it has arrived and that it happened through a process.

An excerpt from chapter 1 of Making Small Groups Work by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Copyright © 2003 by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Published by Zondervan™ Used by permission. All rights reserved.