Many involved in small groups end up confessing that they don’t really know the people in their group, even after years of meeting together. In this article, Eric George explains how In his present ministry context, putting “personal story” before “Bible study” helped remedy this situation.
What I’m about to say may sound sacrilegious. In my present ministry context, we believe that “personal story” must come before “biblical study.” Let me explain . . .
When most people join a discipleship environment for the first time, they have a yearning for increased growth in Christ. Their beginning assumption is for this to happen they must consume as much biblical study as possible. I compare this mentality to someone who has the desire to get in physical shape, but sets unrealistic goals early on. There are some preparatory exercises every small group needs to participate in first if they want to achieve their goal of great study time, which is connected to the larger pursuit of Christ-like maturity.
First, groups must guard themselves early on against the desire to exclusively consume tons of biblical or topical knowledge. Bill Search, author of Simple Small Groups reveals that groups who “have an insatiable thirst for intense Bible study” early on typically “keep side conversations to a bare minimum as they do the important work of deep study.” This rhythm has toxic outcomes as Search notes: “We started hundreds of people in an excellent ten-week curriculum focused on Christian perspectives on finances…It didn’t matter how we formed the groups, how we coached the leaders, or how we prepared the participants. Immediately after the ten-week period, over 90% of the groups fell apart.”
No one would deny that studying God’s word is a non-negotiable for spiritual formation. Paul summarizes the powerful role Scripture has in our lives. All Scripture is useful for teaching us, making us realize what is wrong in our lives, training us in righteousness, and equipping us for good works (2 Tim 3:16-17) There is however a limitation to Scripture, especially when it comes to life in community. Unless we trust one another, and confess what is wrong in our lives (i.e. story telling), group members are unable to share with each other how the Gospel has and will continue to change us.
I have heard it said before that discipleship could best be understood as the movement from unbelief to belief in every area of our lives. Often there are areas of our lives grounded in unbelief that Jesus needs to change. When we expose our brokenness with others, people are more capable of speaking the truth of the Gospel to us. I’m grateful for my small group because I have freely given them permission to speak to me in truth and love. (Eph 4:15) These moments of Gospel sharing with each other allow Galatians 6:1 to come alive. – “As believers are overcome by some sin, we gently and humbly help that person back to the right path.”
Here’s the bottom line. If you do not hear one another’s stories early on, don’t expect to have what I call “Gospel synergy” to happen. Gospel Synergy is the term I use to explain what Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 6. He urges the Corinthian church: “As God’s partners, we beg you not to accept this marvelous gift of God’s kindness and then ignore it.” The Greek word for partner is the word “synergeō” which is where we get our English word synergy. As we partner with one another a greater effect happens. We actually begin to not forget the Gospel, God’s marvelous gift (v.1). Despite hardship (v.3), we faithfully teach truth to each other and observe the Holy Spirit working in us (vv.6-7). This is how the beautiful movement of Gospel synergy works.
So how do we tell our stories? At the Orchard, our small groups use a simple exercise, adapted from an Andy Stanley study called Community. Early on in-group life we ask members to share three people, places, and events that have impacted their lives. The beauty of this exercise is that it is a huge acceptance booster. People look around and realize that no one has left the room. This sense of belonging cultivates a desire for group members to trust each other more with their lives in the Gospel.
Here’s the scary truth. You can be meeting for years, and true Gospel synergy may not be happening. It is fascinating to watch groups that have been together for 3-5 years participate in our community study. Their response is always the same: “I thought I knew the people in my group, I clearly did not.” Now having heard one another’s stories, study time is so much more enjoyable because they can speak into one another’s lives more faithfully. Their testimony echoes Bonhoeffer’s assessment in Life Together: “The goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” Having truly met one another, we constantly remind one another of the Gospel that continues to save us. (1 Cor 15:2)
Hearing each other’s stories should never be underestimated. Go and tell your story well! When you do you will observe that life change happens best in community when we challenge one another to tell our stories, and allow them to collide with God’s story.