There’s a growing hunger in churches, particularly in small groups, for something deeper. So small-group pastors and leaders are dismayed to realize that discipleship may not actually be happening in groups like they think it is.
Church leaders, including small-group pastors, are eager to engage in discipleship, but they’re not sure how to make that happen. And some, frankly, aren’t sure people will be interested. How do you make people want to grow, especially if they’re content as they are? What would it look like to have small groups where people were growing spiritually and being formed into the image of Christ?
Group members tend to go one of two ways: They’re content and oblivious to what a transforming community would look like, or they’re dissatisfied with their group, but they assume that this is as good as it gets. Both types don’t know what they’re missing.
Ruth Barton, founder and president of the Transforming Center and author of numerous books on spiritual formation and leadership, sat down with me to talk about why community is essential to our spiritual formation. She offered some insights on how leaders can take small groups to a deeper level.
Transformation Is a Must
Christians are meant to change, to become more like Christ, Barton asserts. The place that change happens is in community. Transforming community is not a nice add-on to the Christian life, it’s meant to be the core of the Christian life.
“If we’re going to church and not changing, that’s a message that is contrary to the gospel. Our testimony is contrary to the gospel. That’s alarming,” Barton says.
More and more churches, feeling that same alarm, are looking to facilitate spiritual formation small groups. Yet many are uncertain about how to do that, especially if leaders themselves have not experienced a transforming community, or can’t articulate the difference between a spiritual formation group and a traditional group.
Barton argues that there is a clear difference between traditional groups and spiritual formation groups—what she calls transforming communities. At the same time, spiritual formation cannot be considered simply an option or an “advanced spirituality” program that only the “really deep” people can handle.
A Group’s Focus
While every group is different, let’s consider three broad categories of groups. These might be placed on a continuum. In each of these groups, transformation is possible, even if it happens coincidentally. But only in the third type is transformation the stated purpose.
The first focuses on building friendships and community. Typically, the group goes through a Bible study or reads an inspiring or instructive book, but the focus is doing life together, building community, and providing connection and friendship. These groups typically come together around affinity such as life stage, age or common interest. They’re sometimes referred to as “prayer-share-care” groups, and they often form out of people’s desire to know others in their church or neighborhood.
The second has an emphasis on learning. They study the Bible, learn to pray, perhaps even serve together. These are all great disciplines, but it’s very easy for group members to keep the experience intellectual as they analyze the Bible, debate theology and keep the discussion theoretical—only talking in vague terms about how they will apply what they’re learning. They may or may not share the struggles of their life or the truth about themselves.
This type of group can also tend to focus on each person’s individual walk with God outside of the community. The group members study the text and perhaps compare notes about what they’re learning or even experiencing with God, but they don’t see the experience of community as part of the way that God transforms them. These groups form out of the desire to know more about God or the Bible. Other times, they form simply because they think small groups are what they’re supposed to do.
The third type of group is what Barton calls a transforming community. This group studies the Bible, prays and serves, but it also engages in other spiritual practices such as group spiritual direction. They come together because they believe that the very act of coming together forms them spiritually.
The group practices spiritual disciplines: listening, spiritual direction, intercessory prayer, welcoming the stranger (i.e., true biblical hospitality). The group’s structure offers a way for people to share more deeply, to discern God’s will and to reveal their true selves. These groups are not based on life stage or other external affinity, but rather on a “shared desire for God, and a willingness to pray for one another in that desire,” Barton says. “That desire brings people together more effectively than mere affinity.” In other words, they form not out of a desire for community or knowing about God, but a desire for God himself.