Monday, June 24, 2013

What Small Group Pastors Do, Pt 7

Train People in Relational Intelligence

My friend Kevin Calligan is a licensed Christian counselor. Through the years, he has worked with people ranging from the chronically ill to those who just need an emotional tune-up. And of course, there have been numerous couples who have come to him for counseling. In his work with couples, he realized that the skills they did not possess were the same basic skills needed to make any relationship healthy. Gary Smalley came to the same conclusion in his book, The DNA of Relationships. He writes, “The exciting concepts and methods hammered out in our marriage intensives aply to all relationships, not merely to marriage. I made this discovery for myself as I saw major improvements taking place in my home and with friends." The difference is that it’s socially acceptable to seek out and receive relational training for the sake of our marriages. We just don’t think about a need to be trained to relate to one another in our friendships. And we don't often think that we need this kind of help in our small groups.

The work of sociologists Will Miller and Glen Sparks has focused on cultural patterns that undermine social connectivity in American life. They have identified mundane cultural patterns that are shaping how we live and are much more basic than the broad category of individualism. In their work, they pinpoint things like: the average American watches 28-34 hours of television per week; the alarming rate of relocation of the American family; and the extended length of the average workweek. Such patterns shape the lives of the average American church attendee more than the story of the Bible, the way of the cross, or the practice of silence and solitude. Miller and Sparks are speaking about the basic disciplines of the American life. For the church in North America to successfully develop a people that live out the Kingdom of God, then we must call out these American disciplines for what they are. Our current struggle with small group ministry has clearly shown we cannot super-impose practices of the Kingdom over the practices of the American way.

Our common ways of doing life train us in how to live un-relationally. If we want to see groups flourish, if we want to see groups make a difference in the world, we need to equip people in some of the basic elements of relating well to others. Here are four levels of training in Relational Intelligence

Level 1: Making Room Training

I use this name because of the influence of Randy Frazee and his book Making Room for Life. In it he challenges specific patterns of American suburban living and provides alternatives that are practical and concrete. The point of it is to reframe how we spend time and make room for relationships. It really does not matter if we have great relationship skills and have a overwhelming desire to connect with other if we don't have the time or space in our lives for people. A few years ago I wrote a six-week series entitled The Beautiful Life. It is a church-wide initiative to help people see the problem and begin to embrace a simpler life. We repeated this theme with another church-wide initiative about three years later entitled Undivided. Recently, Max Lucado and Randy Frazee have produced a small group curriculum piece called Making Room for Neighbors. Tools like this are really helpful to wake our people up to the fact that relationships won’t just happen if we don’t make room for them.

God is calling the church to a simple life that has room for love. The complexity and chaos that rules life today is subtly eroding love. We were made for more than work, stress, and church activities. God did not design us to find life through small group meetings alone, as helpful as those might be. So much of what has been touted as "missional" fails to recognize this. How can we be on mission in this world when the way we do life really does not look that much different than the average moral American citizen? We might have a different message, but if that message has no tangible, practical impact on the now of our lives, we should not be surprised when our groups fail to make a difference. When we make room for relationships, we realize that we are actually starting to live the way we were designed to live.

Level 2: Basic Skills Training

When I was a teenager, I participated in 4-H and FFA. While much of what we did was centered around our agriculture projects, there was another side to these organizations that city dwellers don’t see. These organizations emphasize the importance of learning good social skills. I don't remember going to any kind of formal training, but I do recall how I learned the basics like how to introduce myself to others, how to show interest in people and get to know them, and how to work as a team to make decisions together. At one retreat, we learned the finer details of table manners and tips for remembering people's names (although I still struggle with that one).

If you stop to ponder it, many of the one another passages are reminders about how we should treat each other socially. As I stated above, we just need the skill training to do this well. Specifically, people in our churches and groups need to process:

· How to greet another person when they come into a room.

· How to ask questions of a person to get to know them.

· How to listen to another person.

· How to invite a few people to your home for a meal and make them feel welcome.

· How to share life with people who are significantly different in personality and interest.

· How to relate to people from different ethnic backgrounds.

Relational conflict cannot be avoided in group life. Every valuable group leader training book I’ve reviewed addresses this topic. Additionally, almost every book I’ve written I has stated something about group conflict. Conflict is the great mountain range that keeps people from the Promised Land. If groups are not prepared for it, they cannot endure the rough terrain. The fact is that we don’t need to train our leaders more in how to navigate conflict, or “manage” it—a concept beyond me. By the time a group enters into conflict, it’s too late to equip them to effectively deal with it. When someone is frustrated or even angry at another group member, they don’t want to hear something like, “You know what you are experiencing is normal. This is called the “conflict stage’ of group life.”

Level 3: Growing in Love

Paul's great prayer in Ephesians 3 points us in the right direction regarding the goal of training, or what might often be called "discipleship."

"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, o that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:16-19)

In this passage, Paul prayed that the Ephesians would grasp the vastness of the God of love and be rooted and established in love. God is inviting us to take on his character, which is self-sacrificial, other-oriented, and a choice-based love. I’ve always known that love was important—I quote it multiple times when officiating weddings—but I never connected discipleship with growth in my capacity to love God and others.

If this is the case, and I believe it is, then all that we do under the label of “discipleship” or “spiritual formation” is about growing in our capacity to be like Jesus in his love. However, it’s at this level of relationship training that we must go deeper within to discover the wounds that hinder us from experiencing and giving love. This is a journey from what Henri Nouwen called the house of fear into the house of love. Here we discover the roots that lie behind the fear and keep us bound up within ourselves and hinder us from risking love.

If you are learning to play a musical instrument, it is helpful to have a teacher who will teach you how to develop the skills for the kind of music that you are practicing. This is where this level of training is critical. Those who are seeking to move beyond the normal group experience need a missional music teacher, someone who can “coach” them in the ways of love. Someone or something outside the group may be required to help this group process how they are growing in love with one another.

Level 4: Missional Engagement

This final level of relating is where I wish we could all begin! For some communities it will be. They have developed good relational skills on the first three levels and are fully ready to engage their neighbors, friends, family members, and a co-workers in missional dialogue. Notice I'm not categorizing this level as evangelism training or social ministry training. This is training in the art of dialogue, listening, and maintaining a graceful presence with others in our circles of life.

The key to healthy engagement that creates life-change is dialogue. This relates to the importance of helping people answer their questions. Groups that are on mission are not going out with ready-made answers or grand plans for social change. Instead, they are engaging people in honest conversations, seeking to hear others, then returning to a conversation and sharing their lives in response. Through dialogue, they discover what God is up to and then through the process they see how God wants to provide life and ministry in that context.

[This post is adapted from Chapter 11 of my book MissioRelate]

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