Churches employ many different methods or programs to help their members grow in love and obedience toward their Savior. Certainly, a Sunday morning worship service is critical to the health of a church. However, other formats that have opportunities for member discussion can be very beneficial. At Church on Mill we have home groups (Gospel Communities or GCs), Disciplemakers classes, and informal groups that meet to read and discuss Scripture or other biblical books.
It is a beautiful thing to see God working in the lives of his people as they meet, read, discuss, struggle, and pray together. Yet leaders often wonder just how we can best facilitate these groups so that the people in them can be both encouraged in their life (1 Thess 5:11) and lovingly challenged to grow (Heb 10:24). Establishing community and imparting knowledge, two common goals of many small groups, are excellent goals, but are not enough. Rather, in the context of loving community, applying the gospel to our own lives and helping our fellow believers to do the same is more difficult, but more in line with the many “one anothers” of Scripture.
First Things First: What do we believe?
The gospel is that Jesus came from heaven to live a perfect life and die a substitutionary death for his people, thus providing an eternal relationship with God. As believers we must more and more view our lives and struggles through the lens of this truth. That this truth impacts daily life is a critical belief for a disciple. In fact, a prerequisite for discipling fellow believers is to recognize how God has moved in my own life. How has God used difficult circumstances and people or dark suffering to lessen my own attachment to temporary things or to humble a prideful spirit? How has God shown himself to be the only source of real contentment and joy? While a discipler will not have experienced every situation, he can and should trust that the truths of the gospel and the Holy Spirit himself will speak to every situation.
Believing the gospel will necessarily include a gradual, deepening understanding of many implications of the gospel. Some examples of these implications are:
- Our God, the mighty Creator of everything, loves his children immensely. We should consider the cost of the cross and the extent of the suffering of Jesus as we wonder if God loves us or if he wants what is good for us.
- I am a sinful creature in need of forgiveness and mercy. My sinfulness affects every area of my life.
- I am called to a life of repentance and faith. I repent as I recognize my sin, and I trust (have faith) that God will forgive and grow me out of my sinful behaviors.
- As I respond to the gospel I will be sanctified by the Holy Spirit. This sanctification will help me to love him and others more as I grow more like him.
- This world is not my home. Though this seems odd to many people today, we ought to receive comfort that we will someday live without pain and heartache in heaven with our Savior.
So as we seek to encourage fellow believers in their Christian walk, it is imperative that we have right theology and a deep understanding of the gospel. This will determine our responses and ability to love.
Practically what does this look like? How can we move from understanding truth to exposing and grappling with heart issues? We can first rest in knowing that God has ordained that one of the means of applying grace to his people is that one sinful person would prayerfully point another sinful person to Christ. (Eph 4:15-16) That is, we can trust that God means for me (and you!) to be a part of this process, no matter that we are clumsy and sinful and don’t understand all that we will someday understand. So, we should instead say that one of God’s means of grace is that one humbled, sinful person would point another sinful person to Christ.
Consider this situation: a discipleship meeting between two friends. If the goal is to apply the gospel to our lives, minimum requirements are a discussion about life and some source of gospel or Biblical truth (Scripture or a good, Biblical book). Regardless of the source, how do we move the discussion beyond facts and theology to application of truth? In theory: we must prayerfully ask questions and listen. We hope that our friend will tell us what they believe is true about their circumstance, the Scripture we’ve just read, or the chapter we read the previous week. While truths of the passage or paragraph may seem obvious, “knowing what the Bible says” is not enough. We are looking for places where our stated belief and the actual belief that drives our actions are not the same. This is often very difficult to see in ourselves and we need someone to help us see the disconnect between our life and our stated belief.
Challenging a believer about this disconnect is a difficult thing. We should not assume that we have permission for this. We often find that when we try to “teach and admonish one another” (Col 3:16) before we “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bear with one another in love” (Eph 4:2) our efforts are in vain. Likely, our friend will feel more like a project than a fellow receiver of grace. Instead, we should consider a long view. Pray and trust that God will convict and the topic will come up in the conversation naturally. Also we should pray that our desire to bring up the behavior would be motivated by love for the believer, not by irritation that we have about the behavior and/or person. My being irritated by the behavior is likely to encourage the person to cover up or hide the behavior rather than deal with the heart sin that is causing it.
In one to one disciple making, we often find that the process makes us feel inadequate. Good! May we always trust in God alone to bring about heart change in the lives of all of us. Pray for God to move and to teach us as he does.
Small Group Facilitating
Consider a different situation: facilitating a small group discussion. We have some material to discuss in the group, perhaps a reading that has been assigned or a sermon previously heard. A group discussion seeks the same lofty goal of helping people understand what they believe and why, and where their lives reflect beliefs different than Scripture. However, there is an added joy/difficulty of having the conversation amongst a group of sinners rather than just two! The facilitator must learn to balance the needs and personalities of many people.
In a group discussion the facilitator should consider that the goal is not to only wait for responses until someone gives “the right answer.” Instead, the facilitator should encourage the group discussion, and allow the conversation to move and grow as people discover and learn for themselves. Consider that perhaps half the group will learn by vocalizing what they are thinking or have heard; the physical act of speaking helps them to understand better. Others may struggle to formulate responses as long as other people are talking, so some silence is helpful. Their thoughts may not be fully realized until after the group has left and they are able to process what they have heard. We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will continue the conversation with people after they leave. This means that we don’t always need to “settle the issue” before we move onto the next question. Yet if a group member verbalizes something that is clearly unbiblical, the facilitator should make sure that someone gently addresses this so that people don’t leave confused about what is true.
Some small groups (such as GCs) are meant to promote long-term community. The facilitator can cultivate this in a couple ways. First, help the group to think of themselves as a unit. Ask “how can we as a GC help or pray?” Also, actively look for others (besides yourself) to answer a group members’ question. This can help members grow in respect for each other and begin to see themselves as belonging to something besides their own individual life. We are more likely to practice the “one anothers” if we view the “other” as part of us (Eph 1:9-10, 3:4-6).
Continuing on the right path
Each group or pair of disciples has its own dynamic affected by the varying personalities and interactions in the group. Groups may find over time that they tend to move away from gospel centered conversations into advice-giving, joking, finger-pointing, or gossip. How can we prevent this? Back to the idea that our true beliefs will guide our actions, our tendency may be to direct the group toward what we believe is the most helpful- even if that isn’t the gospel. However, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that unites people who otherwise would never share a meal because they have nothing else in common. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that changes sinners so they can love and reflect Christ’s character in all their situations. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that teaches us to forgive and love rather than manipulate and coerce. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that reminds us that the one who ordains our suffering suffered for us on the cross. Though it can be tempting to distract the group from “heart work” by turning to entertainment or practical advice, the real work of the Holy Spirit is done in conversations grounded in the gospel. If we seek to have gospel-centered relationships, we must seek to have predominantly gospel-centered conversations.
As we love and encourage fellow believers, we will get to experience joyful times when people respond positively to the gospel. We will inevitably also experience times when people turn away and continue or walk on a path that leads them farther away from the Savior. Regardless of the outcomes of our discipling relationships, there are a few things that are helpful to remember:
- God is in control.
- God loves these people more than we do.
- We learn better when we figure out or come to a conclusion on our own.
- Sometimes God allows difficult circumstances so that we cannot be complacent in the place where we are. This does not necessarily mean that God is punishing us for past sins, but does mean that he can use it to bring us to a better understanding of his character or his love for us.
- When we identify an area of our life that needs work, we ought not to resolve to “do better next time.” Instead, we ought to pray to stop believing the lie that makes this sin seem more appealing than obedience to God.
- We don’t have to fix it today.
It is not a simple thing we believers attempt to do, pointing people to Christ. We find that, among other things, our sinfulness, presumptions, and lack of knowledge often get in the way of discipling fellow believers. Yet as we recognize our own failings, we can practice that beautiful cycle of faith and repentance and lean more heavily on our Savior to do what he will. In fact, that was likely his goal for this day all along.