Three years ago, my wife and I found ourselves at a crossroads in ministry. We knew the church culture and mindset we found ourselves in was not producing disciples of Jesus. Or at least not the type of disciples that Jesus envisioned. And while we knew that creating a new culture would involve significant struggles, we believed it would be worth all of the swimming upstream it entailed.
Like the American education system, American church culture can often be very information driven. Spiritual maturity is equated with Bible knowledge and, as a result, Christians have been conditioned to want to learn more about the Bible — more facts, more details, something new. And yet, through the years, this accumulation of information fails to transform.
With life transformation as our primary goal, we would need to do something different in the new small group we were forming. We would have to take the focus away from the facts of the text and point it towards spiritual formation in our hearts.
We identified four primary influences in shaping this new culture…
- The first culture shaper we implemented was a set of small group guidelines. The reviewing of these guidelines served two primary purposes each time we met. First, they conveyed some important clues about where we were going as a group. Jesus was identified as the source of the change and transformation needed in our lives. With Jesus as the agent of transformation, group members were now freed up to be what the second part of the guidelines pointed to: people who truly listen to one another. There was no longer any need to fix or rescue one another. We could simply support, encourage, and pray for one another on our journey together.
- A second shaper of culture was the type of questions used within the group. We quickly saw how, despite our best intentions, some questions seemed to put people into information gathering mode and it was hard to bring them back. We discovered that the best questions for transformation focus more on what the passage or story means and less on what it says. In other words, more about what the story is teaching us and less about the facts of the passage or the words it uses. We also focused on questions that would lead people to share their personal story or experiences — how they had experienced God or endured a time of personal struggle related to the passage. We were now no longer focused on facts, but rather on things like God’s character, our faith, and his faithfulness.
- The third culture shaper was placing a high value on a leader as someone who listens and presses in. As we learned to listen better, we saw the power of pressing in when people began to share something personal. Often times people would share just the top layer of something they wanted to talk about, but simple affirmations and gentle questions would give them permission and courage to go deeper and get to the heart of the matter. Affirmations might look like, “that sounds hard” or “that took a lot of faith.” Gentle prompts might be “tell us more about that” or “what I hear you saying is…” A leader who understands his or her primary role as a facilitator of conversation rather than a teacher became a key component of our culture shift.
- The fourth and final element of shaping the culture was an emphasis on personal application. Wrapping up small group was intended to help us to recognize what God was teaching each of us and what He would have us do as a result. In other words, we didn’t want the Word to stop at our heads or our hearts, but to make it to our hands and our feet.
These four elements have lead to a significant shift — not only in the culture of the group, but in the people themselves. People are being transformed. People are experiencing a new kind of Christian community and regularly share how significant it is in their lives. Our groups have become places of deep personal reflection and connection. People who initially entered a small group with skepticism and caution have become, not only more open themselves, but also great facilitators who give others permission to open up as well. While the list goes on, the final thing I would point to is people becoming disciples who have a heart to reach others.
Changing culture takes time.
Personal transformation is a life-long process. But these four elements of our small group culture have produced significant fruit in both of these areas and we look forward to what God will continue to do as we pursue of a life and culture of disciple making.
by Troy Hawks – Senior Pastor
Real Life Ministries Arizona