Summary: Small groups need a structure in place that will enable them to carry out the experience they want to have. If they want the Holy Spirit to do His best work, they must know the environment in which that happens. Here we’ll explore two aspects of what helps create that environment – a clear invitation and a clear purpose.
When I was in college and entering my (cough cough) first senior year, I had to take a science elective to meet my requirements for graduation. When I scanned the possibilities that would fit into my schedule among the other classes I needed to take, they were limited. I ended up choosing an Anatomy & Physiology class.
Although people said it was a hard class, they also said it was a lot of memorization, which I was fairly decent at. So, I figured it wouldn’t be all that bad.
Little did I know I would learn a lesson on the first day of that class that would provide an insight that would change how I would view church life and small group discussions for the rest of my life.
Jesus Christ is a body
Since I was the odd man out (and one of the only males) in a large class of nursing candidates, I walked in and sat at the very back of the class on the first day. The professor walked in and had us pop open our textbooks to the very first chapter and proceeded to tell us there was one guiding principle that we needed to grasp and hold onto that would apply to everything we would study about the human body that semester. This principle was the foundation to understanding the parts of the body and how everything worked together and served its own purpose.
The principle was this…
Structure determines function.
He said that you can guess what function a cell, a tissue, or an organ has by looking at its structure. For example, if something is structured like a tube, it likely transports something. If something is hard and impenetrable, it likely provides support.
Within one minute, it hit me. Jesus Christ is a body and each of us is a part of it (I Corinthians 12:27). This principle applies to Him! Eureka!
How we structure our relationships and discussions determines how we function. If we structure ourselves how God designed, we’ll experience authentic church life how He meant it. From that day on, realizing this type of church environment has been my pursuit.
Small group discussions need structure
Just like the human body takes on a shape because it’s skeletal system allows it to stand upright and do all of the functions it does throughout the rest of the body, small group discussions need “bones” to provide structure for the functions we want them to perform.
As the book The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair points out…
A small group discussion’s “skeletal system” is the understood rules (principles) of engagement that shape our meetings and allow us to move in certain ways and restrain us from moving in other ways.
As I mentioned in the first post in this series, a shape that embodies the structure God has for small group discussions is a circle. We’re going to talk about how we can intentionally assemble ourselves as one, and keep ourselves as one; by learning and sticking to the principles of circle engagement.
Holding this structure will make sure our discussions not only stay healthy, but we’ll see throughout this series of posts how it’s the optimal structure for the Holy Spirit to function in and through a small group. The Holy Spirit can work in any situation, but these are the conditions under which He works best.
Here, we’ll start talking about the bones of healthy small group discussions and that will propel us forward for the rest of this series.
There needs to be a clear invitation
The first component that must exist for small group discussions to be as effective as they can be is a clear invitation. There needs to be an invitation because in order for there to be a leader in every chair, people need clarity around why they’re specifically coming together, why they have been chosen to be involved, who else is invited and what contributions are expected of them.
Without knowing these things, people won’t be ready to contribute in ways that are needed of them. Instead of a group of people exploring together by drawing from the same Source, the discussions are likely to end up in some places we’d rather not see them, like…
- monologues from people that have more to share than everyone else
- off-topic conversations that drifted to who knows where because people went on bunny trails and never came back
- fill-in-the-blank question and answer sessions led by someone who powers through material in search of the right answers
At the end of the gathering, people will be fuzzy about what was actually accomplished and will be less motivated to attend and participate in the future.
You can’t just invite people to a discussion and expect everyone to participate without clarifying what will be talked about and how they can and should be involved.
A clear and effective invitation sets the stage for a healthy small group discussion because it makes people feel like their presence and contributions are highly valued.
The Circle Way says this…
A well-thought-out invitation allows people to begin to imagine their participation with some confidence about what will transpire and what is being asked of them. When we are asked to attend meetings that are loose, undefined, and spontaneous, frustration rises.
If this is done well, you’re gathering is much more likely to contain a group of people with the mindset that there’s a leader in every chair because each person now comes with the willingness and confidence to collaborate with everyone else.
There needs to be a clear purpose
The clear invitation must also be accompanied by a clear purpose. Why is your group coming together in the first place? Without a clear purpose, a group will be a collection of individuals that each bring their expectations for what they would like to have happen for themselves. They’ll arrive with their own motivations, desires, and agenda.
The purpose needs to be laid out clearly before a discussion ever takes place. If it’s not, it opens the door to all kinds of unhealthy behavior.
For example, if the purpose of the group doesn’t include something about every-member participation and collaboration, the door has just been opened up to people shirking their responsibility to be the leader that they are in the ways Christ wants to use them.
They’ll fall right into old patterns of thinking that they don’t need to contribute for reasons like “I’m an introvert” or “I don’t know as much as so and so.”
On the flip side, the door also gets opened up to people taking control and dominating the conversation, like their chair is the only one that contains a leader and they are some kind of special minister to everyone else.
You can see how circles break without clear purpose because all sorts of behaviors become acceptable.
Where people find their purpose
A healthy small group contains individuals that find their purpose within the group purpose. It’s the only way the group can fulfill its purpose.
If the group purpose isn’t defined clearly, individuals won’t know if they should participate. There’s no point in participating if you don’t agree to the point of participating. Those individuals will just hijack the group because they’ll find behaviors acceptable that don’t support the group purpose.
God’s design for a church was that every individual’s purpose would be found within the church’s collective purpose. Here’s how Randy Frazee puts it in his book The Connecting Church 2.0…
The Scriptures tell me I should begin with God’s story and then move to our story before I can truly find my story in the world or hope to know who I really am.
But, people only find their individual purpose when the collective purpose clearly includes them and they feel like the group wouldn’t be what it is without their participation.
You can see how laying out a clearly understood collective purpose for meeting is essential.
Here’s an example of a possible purpose for a gathering…
To lay hold of Jesus Christ in and through us by assembling Him collectively and drawing on His Wisdom for vision, revelation and decisions through every-member participation and collaboration.
Whatever purpose your group agrees upon, it sets the boundaries, it guides the outcomes and it informs the actions the group will operate by.
Once you have this, you start to get a sense of what the group would consider acceptable behaviors in a small group gathering (which we’ll talk about in upcoming posts). You can agree on those behaviors and now be very likely to hold the circle together and accomplish the group purpose.
The group’s purpose needs to be talked about regularly, as it will act as a constant reminder and guide for what is allowed to happen during a small group discussion. If this doesn’t happen, you’ll find a quick and easy slip back into triangle behavior marked by competition and cooperation rather than collaboration, which is the mark of healthy small group.
The rest of the posts in the Made For Circle series are here.