Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What Story is Your Small Group or Missional Community Telling?

Group strategies abound. Some refer to them as small group, others as missional communities. There are a lot of right ways to do groups. Some will argue about where they should or should not meet. Others talk focus on things like when they should meet, whether they should be mixed gender to gender specific, whether they should target a specific demographic or be geographically based, whether they should be closed or open, whether they should be long-term groups or short-term groups and whether they should study the sermon or choose their own topics. Should the oversight system be flat or a pyramid? Should the leadership system be based on the advice of Jethro to Moses in Exodus 18 or upon Jesus' strategy of choosing the twelve? And there is quite a bit of discussion about whether small groups of 8-15 or mid-sized groups of 20-50 are preferable. We could talk for hours about the various nuances and distinctions between strategies.

Discussions around all of these issues are important. And no doubt if you have spent any time in the literature about small groups and missional communities, you will have your own preferences and even justifications for the conclusions that you have drawn.

Here's the thing: there are a lot of group strategies that will work. I've seen all of the strategies that are being promoted today flourish. I've also seen them all fail. There is no grouping "silver bullet." There is no magical formula. Anyone who promotes their specific approach as being "the" best or "the" most biblical only stands in a long line of many others who have said the very same things over the last 50 years. I know this only because I once stood in this line myself.

Time, and a lot of listening to the journeys of various leaders and pastors, has taught me that the key will never be found in any specific strategy, although we can learn much from each one that has been developed. Instead, central to the development of group life, whatever specific strategy you adopt, is to think in terms of the story that your groups tell. If the stories being lived in and through the groups are compelling then the group system will develop, even to the point of taking on it's own organic life. If the stories that we live in our groups are not compelling, they go through the motions and we have to prop them up with more structures, new strategies.

Think about it this way: while we, as pastors and leaders, ask all kinds of strategy questions that are related to the topics above, these are not the questions that the group leaders nor the group members are asking—single moms with three kids, overworked accountants who are afraid their job is on the line, teachers who work with kids who are being neglected, (insert a description of one or two people in your church). And the life that they live together in the groups is what make the groups work. If the groups are not working at that level—at the level of the story that they experience—then it matters very little how we tweak the actual strategy.

My point is this: small groups depend upon relationships. A specific strategy cannot produce loving relationships. The strategy can create environments that promote the development of these loving relationships, but only relationships beget relationships. It's organic. It's fluid. And it cannot be forced contrived or controlled.

Assume that finding the right small group strategies is the key to flourishing groups is similar to assuming that a novel is quality because it printed and bound or published on Kindle. The story makes the novel. This does not make the form of the book unimportant. But when reading a good novel, I don't think that much about how it is made.

Therefore, the job for us is to think stories first and then to think about the strategies that will foster what we want to see in those stories.

There are four basic stories that I have observed in groups, and I've seen all of these stories occur in a variety of strategies.

The first story is called personal improvement. This is the group experience where individuals participate because it is personally beneficial. The people involved are either drawn to a topic or to a group of people like themselves, and participation is high until it becomes inconvenient. Nothing in group members’ personal life is required to change to participate. The key distinctive of this story is that people attend as long as it benefits them.

Lifestyle adjustment identifies the second story. People view such groups as beneficial, and therefore group members are willing to adjust their life schedules to prioritize attendance at a weekly or biweekly meeting. Usually people make longer-term commitments to attend such groups because they’re good for one’s spiritual journey. But the group is not great. It’s a good-meeting group that requires some adjustment in schedules, but most often there’s little commitment to living out community and mission beyond the group meetings. The key distinctive is that people make schedule adjustments to prioritize meeting regularly.

The third story is called relational re-vision. In this narrative, groups have a sense of urgency to operate according to a distinct set of practices that will form them into a community that stands out in our world. They recognize that loving one another does not come naturally in an individualistic, fast-paced culture that dominates modern life. They know that they have to learn a new way of living, that it will take practice and that it will take time. The key distinctive here is that the group is committed to learning how to live in community with one another in a way that stands in contrast to typical patterns of life.

Missional re-creation describes the final story. As a group begins to practice these distinctive patterns and the way of Jesus becomes part of its being, the group will follow the Spirit on creative paths of life together as members engage the community. They will engage the neighborhood, determine needs, meet those needs and, as a result, change as a group. Through the dialogue with those in the local context, the actual forms and patterns of life will be shaped by the context. A few from one group might meet with a group of shift workers at a bar they frequent after getting off work early in the morning. Others will adopt a home for mentally challenged individuals. And still others will come around a family that lives in a mindset of poverty and walk with them into a new way of being. The specific form is not the point. The key distinctive is that the group takes on unexpected manifestations that have an organic impact on the world around the group.

Most groups settle for one of the first two stories. Most hope for the latter two. It’s tempting to judge the first two and say that they are off the way of Jesus and elevate the latter two to special Jesus way status. And while in some ways this is true, we cannot make this conclusion. All are on the way of Jesus because the Spirit of God is drawing us from where we are further down the way. We don’t get to take the next step on the way from where we wish we were. Jesus works with us where we are. \

In other words, we don't move into the third and fourth stories only because we have good intentions to do so or because we develop clear vision for them. Groups rise and fall through our life together, the lived experience, not because we mandate something called community or announce that we want to be missional.

When you think in terms of stories, you can see how various groups and specific individuals live all four of them at the same time. The question then we must as is this: What does it mean to develop a system that will facilitate movement from the first and second stories into the third and fourth? 

This is where the call to practice rhythms that will form us into the kind of people who live out the third and fourth stories. This I will discuss in tomorrow's post.

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