Small groups started this week. About time. Not a moment too soon, in my view. I’m sure it makes sense to have a small group holiday in August (because people are on theirs) and to delay the start until October (because September is a time of figuring out who we’ve got to work with). But that two month gap always makes me nervous. I worry that people aren’t getting what a small group provides in terms of support, encouragement and accountability. And I’ve found those things to be crucial to my own Christian life.
Small groups have a treasured place in the (albeit short) history of Christ Church Balham. They can be a nightmare. And I’ve been in some shockers in my time. I’ve run some shockers in my time as well. But Rosslyn and I are hopeful for this years’ Growth Group (in case anyone is reading this!). The best thing to do when they’re like that is shut them down. But they can also be a great blessing; usually when you’ve got a good leader and keen members. And I remain a massive fan of the latter of those two options.
Our small groups have provided a place for people to take their first faltering steps in spiritual leadership. From the very beginning we’ve had to throw people in at the deep end. We’ve tried to provide then with what they need in terms of instruction and on the job training. A few sink. Usually they swim. No one drowns. But it does take a while for the doggy paddle of the inexperienced novice to become the front crawl of the seasoned pro. And, if you’ll allow me to continue the analogy, our swim squad is getting better year on year. Partly that’s because the coaches are becoming clearer about what we need to do and how we need to do it.
But my principal concern about the summer absence of small groups comes out of my convictions about what they offer. When they’re not happening, it’s not immediately obvious to me where we get the following things. And that makes me nervous. In a good way!
You see, small groups provide a great place for people to grow in their faith. We can ask the questions we’d feel awkward about asking in a sermon. It’s difficult to put your hand up halfway through one of my sermons to stop me and ask what one earth I meant by the last thing I said. And I fear if everyone did that we may never get to the end of the sermon. In the security of a group of people we’re growing to love and trust we can begin talk openly about faith in Christ. Together we can figure out what God is saying in a passage and personally apply God’s word to what we think, what we love and what we do. We grow together in our knowledge of God, what He’s done for us and what He requires of us in groups.
And small groups provide a great place for people to find their encouragement. Most of us struggle to live the Christian life without some support. We’ve all tried to. Usually it doesn’t end well. But the Christian life is not meant to be a solo undertaking. That’s why, when the Spirit unites us to Christ, he invariably joins us to a church family. The support we need usually comes in the positive form of encouragement. Very occasionally we need the chastening correction of a leader we respect or a friend we trust. And small groups allow the kinds of friendships we need to take that kind of rebuke on the chin to develop. But mostly I need encouragement to do what’s right. Not correction when I don’t. Most of us are no different.
And lastly, small groups provide a great place for people to develop their skills. They’re not meant to be a surreptitious midweek seminar. But this is where an approach to reading the Bible is caught as it’s taught. By example. We could run a three-week ‘Handling the Bible Correctly’ course. And we can give people the new NIV Proclamation Bible containing all the right interpretation by all the right people. But that’ll only take us so far. It’s as we study the Bible with others and under the influence of a leader who’s down the hard yards of preparation that we pick up how to observe, interpret and apply the text. That can only make a hugely positive difference in our own habits of Bible reading.
I’m delighted that our weekly small groups have started once again. It’s been a nerve-racking summer. There don’t seem to have been too many casualties. But I’m sleeping a little easier now. Our Bible study groups may be small and imperfectly formed but in God’s kindness they continue to have a big impact in our church life. Long may that continue.