Leading Group Members To Change

What keeps most small groups from experiencing real life change? The breakdown is application: the point where the rubber meets the road.

Our churches are filled with smart and isolated people who don’t change. We’ve addressed the isolation issue by getting folks connected to a small group, but they still seem to know about the bible and know what’s required for Christ-likeness… but they still don’t change. The solution is application.

Defining Application
Application often refers to a process of surface treatment… paint, decals, or make-up added to a house, vehicle, or face to dress it up. In our high-tech culture application also refers to a bit of software intended to fulfill a very specific and limited purpose (“There’s an app for that”).

Our definition of application is more like the latter and hopefully not at all like the former. Application is the process of allowing the truths of God’s word to actually influence our thinking and ultimately, to change our behavior in specific and tangible ways. Application is where truth meets life.

What keeps most small groups from experiencing real life change? The breakdown is application: the point where the rubber meets the road.

Overcoming the Head Culture
Back in the 60’s a new retail niche called a Head Shop emerged. Amid psychedelic posters, macramé, and incense you could find all the paraphernalia you would need to care for your joints, deal with roaches, and cultivate your grass (so I’ve been told.) In fact, most Head Shops had everything you needed… except the key ingredient.

Excuse this bizarre metaphor, but I believe that many of our churches are glorified Head Shops. We cater to the head… knowledge… and create a culture, an expectant atmosphere, a specialized language, and even paraphernalia… without the key ingredient: application.

I grew up in a religious tradition that functioned as if knowledge alone would transform people. Truly serious believers immersed themselves in the Head culture: Sunday morning teaching of the Word, Sunday school (age graded instruction), Sunday Night and Midweek Service (more teaching). Any gathering… a youth event, choir practice, or deacon’s meeting was invariably marked by a devotional (mini-sermon). Small groups were called “Bible Studies” for good reason. The radio provided a steady stream of world-class bible teachers who systematically added content to our overflowing skulls.

We operated on the premise: “If we just teach people the right things they will change.” If we are going to move past the surface, the first thing we will need to do is change a culture that believes knowledge alone is enough.

The Head culture manifests itself in our small groups in a couple of ways. The first is by forcing us to be curriculum-centric. We often define our groups solely on what they intend to study, and devote the bulk (if not all) of the group meeting to a study. I love Bill Donahue’s line: “Jesus did not command us to go into the world and complete the curriculum” yet we behave as if He did. We insure that all the blanks are filled in without taking sufficient time to ponder how each truth should impact our daily lives.

A second manifestation of the Head culture in groups is that we seek out and recruit believers with teaching gifts as our primary group leaders, and then seem surprised when they lean into their gift and just teach. Even if we train our group leaders to facilitate interactive discussion around application, the teaching gift has been so valued in the past that our leaders tend to default back to the role of teacher. Particularly when under stress or time constraints, our leaders find it a lot easier to simply lecture.

Our first goal, then, is to shift from a knowledge-only delivery model to one in which less content is delivered and more truth is applied. Minimize the value of getting through all 12 discussion questions and maximize the value of getting through two questions designed to change behavior. If you have to, put a post-it note in your Bible with the words: “It’s application, stupid.”

What keeps most small groups from experiencing real life change? The breakdown is application: the point where the rubber meets the road.

Expect People to Change

This is a small but significant point: We don’t expect people to change. John Ortberg tells the story of a curmudgeonly old guy in the church of his youth. Everyone knew this guy was irritable, stubborn, and unpleasant, and had been for years. But… no one expected him to change, and he didn’t. It’s easy for us to look at some individuals and fail to believe that Christ can change their beliefs and behaviors.

If the ultimate purpose of small groups is to effect life-change, to see people continuously morph into Christ-likeness, then they, and we, must believe that they can and will change. This will affect the questions we ask and the accountability we require. If people want to change and are serious about actually changing, we’ll need to get serious about accountability.

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Dave Treat
Dave Treat serves as Director of Innovation for Adult Ministries with the Willow Creek Association. He was responsible for the experience design, content and speaker/trainer selection for the WCA Group Life Conference and Small Groups Advanced Training. Dave speaks and trains internationally on small group topics. He blogs regularly at ThinkingSmall.net.

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