Small groups and grace

Nicky Lock

Some Sydney Anglican churches will measure the health of the church by the percentage of the congregation that are regularly attending bible study groups. The patterns of the groups can vary from church to church and have a range of primary purposes, though the ubiquitous title of “bible study group” indicates the intention of many. One would hope however, that the mere study of the Word is not the end game: rather that there is a goal of transformation and growth of those participating, that they are “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory”. 

Yet relationships within small groups can be fraught. Only this week I was supervising a group leader whose Christian group had had a major blow up during the week and required attention. In Making Small Groups Work, Cloud and Townsend challenge the idea that simply teaching the Bible and allowing God through His word to do the work is not enough, but what is required in groups is a willingness to be open and vulnerable with each other, and to experience a grace filled community.

Paul Fiddes examines pastoral concerns from a Trinitarian perspective and outlines four aspects that arise related to how persons operate in community (Participating in God. A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity). Firstly as humans we tend to adopt “masks” both in the presence of others, but also in how we view ourselves. Roles are taken on either in response to perceived community or relational pressures, or in reaction to our internal critical judgments on self.

To counter this tendency, Fiddes challenges us to discover the needs of our community, our group members, and be present to meeting those needs, throwing off the “masks” that we have chosen to wear in response to others’ expectations. We can only do this as we indentify with the ministry of Christ and act in participation with His “redemptive and reconciling” activity. We can demonstrate a willingness to be a real human person relating with genuineness with our fellow group member.

Secondly, there is the struggle with individuation and the ability to “hold self” in the face of the other. Staying with the Trinitarian concept of the nature of person as having its centre in relationship, it follows that we can only be fully actualised when fully in relationship, with God and with others. Only as we open ourselves to the otherness of those with whom we are in relation do we experience ourselves and life in its fullest.

So how do we operate out of a “proper self centering” which allows us to be formed in relationships whist being open to others? This centreing may be necessary when a group member is attacking in some way, or their choices are strongly opposed to the group’s value systems. Nevertheless, in these situations one does not have to conform to the human other if one is conformed to being in relation with Christ alongside being there for the other. The personal grounding which comes through participating in God, knowing one’s own position through the Word and “communication beyond ourselves which is pure love”, enables us to still maintain our own place and stay in relation with the other without being attacking in response. 

There are risks of being in relationship with others: it can be a place that is mutually beneficial or abusive, depending on the balance of dependence and independence. Instead of relating in “mutual dependence”, recognising our limitations and what we owe to the other, we relate in demanding ways, always expecting the other to always be the dependable one.

Our groups, however, can offer the place where we can practice mutual interdependence. At times, one person can be offering the “helping” relationship, assisting and journeying with another as they wrestle with difficult situations in their lives. At other times the situation will be reversed: the “helper” will be receiving support from those they have helped previously.

A danger sign for the health of the group is when some are either unwilling to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge their need for help, or alternatively, the group member who is always seeking help from the group for their problems and not really taking responsibility for their problem themselves.

A correct Trinitarian perspective on this aspect of group life occurs when each party offers what is theirs to bring to the situation: the group being their knowledge, experience and a desire to work alongside a fellow human being as they go along life’s journey. The group member who needs support brings a willingness to engage with their situation and to undertake those tasks that are needed in order to find resolution. In this way, the outcome of the situation is reliant on their mutual interdependence – there is limited possibility of solution without their mutual participation.

Lastly, Fiddes notes that when faced with the “otherness” of those around us, if we are living through the mask and are uncertain of our identity, we react by defending our own position, demanding that ours is the only normal way to be, and hence denying the validity of diversity. This is a temptation for many of us, to insist, often in a loving and supportive way, that our way of dealing with a situation is the correct one, and not to value and respect the “alterity” of our fellow group member. If they decide on a path of action which we consider is ill advised, we may need to spend time listening to their perspective, assisting  them to explore the consequences of their proposed  actions, and us to understand their position.

This brief exploration of ideas of the practice of Trinitarian community in our small groups is challenging for us when think of how we can be in our own small groups, and also highlights the challenges for our leaders of home groups as they seek to lead and teach their members, but hopefully we can also maintain the excitement for the possibilities of what happens in this crucial ministry.