When I saw Gran Torino earlier this year there was a powerful scene that moved me deeply, although I wasn’t exactly sure why.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the scene.  It’s when Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, takes the young boy, Thao, to the barber shop to show him…model for him how men interact.  Walt strolls in and speaks to the barber in very rough language and is greeted in return with the same gruff banter — all done with a surprising warmth between the two men.  He tells Thao to go out and do the same thing.  When he does, the barber acts  incensed and deeply offended and grabs a shotgun in feigned outrage.  So what was the difference?  Thao spoke in the same off-color language as Walt, but the response was the complete opposite.

I have found this same situation in my own life.  At times associates, friends, or family members’ “friendly” barbs and “funny” insults have been very hurtful and offensive to me.  However, there are those people in my life who are closer than a brother that could say the very same thing, and I would return the banter feeling a sense of camaraderie — not of outrage.  Why is my response so different for them.  Why do I feel so different?

In processing this, I’ve come to believe the difference lies in knowing the heart of people through the battles of life.  My closest brothers have walked beside me when the battles were raging the hardest.  They were there when I was wounded and helped carry me when I was completely disoriented and couldn’t make sense of anything.  I knew they had my back, which allowed me to pursue healing rather than spend all my energies defending myself and striving for justice, or medicating and anesthetizing the pain.  They reminded me of my true identity as a restored son of the Sovereign Lord.  These few had seen me at my worst but also saw what was deeper.  To me, these individuals have “earned” the right to speak to me anyway they want because I know their heart for me.  I know they love me deeply and that provides freedom from misinterpretation.  I know their jokes are simply jokes because they have showed up for me over and over again.  For those whose hearts remain hidden from me, who haven’t been in the valley with me, who don’t know my heart and my greatest wounds, I can get riled up when they hurl insults in  a “humorous” way.  I don’t know what’s behind that…and it makes all the difference.

Now I’m not suggesting that we begin speaking to our closest friends in course and off-color language, as done in the movie, but how can we nurture this depth of relationship in our small groups?  How can we begin to know others’ hearts more intimately?  I believe it begins with authenticity in our groups.  By leaving your false-self behind and bringing your true-self and offering it to the group.  Of course this is risky and we have all felt the sting of offering a piece of our hearts only to have it rejected, minimized, or in other ways mishandled.  But this is also the only way to really begin to come alive.

In Rick Howerton’s book on small-group community, he states there are seven principles groups must practice if they want to live authentically:

  1. There are mysteries found in the Bible - God is static but our understanding of Him should be dynamic as He continues to reveal Himself to us.
  2. The fact that life is messy – In sharing our messes, we become free to be ourselves and free to support one another as we continue the journey to be more like Jesus.
  3. Personal imperfections - We will judge ourselves, as well as those around us, until we accept our personal imperfections.
  4. That God is always present even when He feels distant – God sometimes uses what we perceive as distance to force us to reach out to other believers.
  5. Respecting others without having to agree with all they do or say – God created us as individuals, and no two of us are exactly alike physically, philosophically, or spiritually. Differences shouldn’t divide a group. Instead, they should bring it together as group members benefit from one another’s diverse perspectives and experiences.
  6. Confessing our failures at the right time with the right people – In most instances when our moral failures are confessed to others in the right setting at the right time (with those who have covenanted to keep confidences and care deeply about the confessor), the person confessing experiences healing.
  7. Satan is at work in the world – Christ-followers should be aware that Satan is more than a fictional character is an enemy on the attack, looking to destroy friendships, family members, and belief systems. Most importantly, he looks to kill hearts.

What kind of transformation would we experience if we knew those members of our small group so deeply that we never had to try to interpret what they really meant? What if we knew their heart for us and they knew our heart for them. Put these principles to action in your group and see how you experience change together.

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In his book, Destination Community, Rick Howerton describes authenticity in small groups as

…the willingness to openly share our pasts as well as what is continually unfolding in our present spiritual journeys. Small-group members will know they are living lives of authenticity when they are ready for their personal stories to be revealed…the good and the bad, the successes, struggles, and embarrassments.

It occurred to me recently that it wasn’t until I was ready to get real with God that I began to get real with my small groups. When I became desperate enough, through my brokenness, all inhibitions crumbled, and I dared to shake my fist at God and accuse him of abandoning me–when I allowed myself to name what I was feeling–that’s when I finally got real with God. And His response floored me…He spoke tenderly. As I allowed my heart to be heard at last, God initiated me into a healing journey and in the most amazing way, when I got real with God, God became real to me.

How many of our small groups encourage a posture of getting real with God and with each other? Would you feel comfortable with a group member accusing God of being a liar? Would you call that person sacreligious…a heretic? Yet Jeremiah did just that in Jer. 20:7.

O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.

The level to which group members are able to be authentic or to get real with God, is the level of redemptive community the group will experience. What are some ways you have been able to invite group members into deep authenticity? How have you seen a person be transformed by getting real with God after finally giving up of trying to “defend” Him?

Below is a poll to gauge the level of authenticity in your small group. Answer the question honestly (there’s that idea of being real again) then check back in a week or so and I’ll post the results along with some thoughts on how to invite groups into a deeper level of authenticity.

Looking for a vibrant small-group meeting? Here are 4 distinctives of a successful small-group on the road to redemptive community.

1. Questions and opportunities for group members to tell their stories before getting into Bible study. Many groups utilize “ice-breaker” type questions.

2. Interactive and more discovery-oriented Bible study. The discovery approach to Bible study is one of the expectations of small groups today.

3. Some level or variety of experiences. This can range from creating events as part of the meeting, utilizing the five senses, to engaging a video or movie clip with applicable follow-up questions and conversation.

4. If media is used, the group should focus on a screen for no more than 15 minutes. The longer a group turns away to watch a TV or monitor, the more good group dynamic is lost.

Serendipity seminar and consulting director, Rick Howerton, identifies six primary types of small groups in his book, Destination Community. Clearly communicating a small group’s focus is vital to obtaining and retaining followers, organizing them, unifying them, and directing them to accomplish a God-given vision:

1. Disciples-making groups for believers wanting to develop spiritual disciplines and go deep.

2. Community groups for believers and non-believers, persons who want to build in-depth relationships with others.

3. Service groups for believers and non-believers who are serving alongside one another in ministry.

4. Seeker groups, usually led by believers for non-believers. These groups spend must time dealing with the issues non-believers are considering before converting to disciples of Christ.

5. Support groups for both believers and non-believers. These groups support attendees through personal difficulties.

6. Healing groups for believers and non-believers who come alongside one another to recognize and be released from the lies that Satan has imprinted on their hearts.

Potential small group members will always respond more positively to a clearly articulated vision. Using “group types” as a means of being clear and precise is a great way to gain the initial buy-in and enthusiasm that leads to effective participation.

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