From independence to interdependence: The power of small groups

Goma_groups2We expected to run alone. That’s how our former cross-country coach did it. But on his first day, our new coach explained then demonstrated a different way of running together. He called it “Indian running.” Coach laced on his running shoes and ordered: “Follow me.”

Quickly we formed a line, like baby chicks following their mother hen. Setting a brisk pace, after a minute, coach barked out his command: “Next runner.” The boy at the back of the line then sprinted, passing his teammates, taking his position at the front of the line as the new leader. After another minute, he, too, would shout: “Next runner” and a new leader emerged. In this way, everyone had a chance to set the pace for a time. No longer were we nine runners depending only upon ourselves. Instead, we were interdependent, encouraging each other, running together.

Coach taught us all an important lesson:

Interdependence beats independence every time.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches the power of interdependence. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV) explains:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Galatians to carry each other’s burdens as a way of fulfilling Christ’s law of love (Galatians 6:2). In the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem, this was how believers built each other up in the faith, sharing their possessions, meeting in each other’s homes, eating together, celebrating meal Holy Communion, praying and encouraging one another (see Acts 2:42-28). It was an attractive, loving fellowship, and outsiders longed to be part of of it.

What worked in the earliest centuries still worked hundreds of years later. The young English evangelist, John Wesley (1703-91), was instrumental in birthing many people into Christian faith. However, he noticed that their faith often quickly grew cold. Like a newborn baby needs a blanket to keep warm, so new believers need warm fellowship to grown in their faith. Wesley soon despaired of visiting in the homes of everyone who was coming to Christ. He had to find a new system. Over time, he organized the early Methodists into mixed male/female groups of 15-20 (“classes”) and – for those who desired – into single gender “bands” of 5-7. These small groups met once per week in the evening for 60-90 minutes, allowing people to share their successes and challenges with each other, to pray and encourage each other in their faith. Like the early Christians, the Methodists discovered that – while independence leads to spiritual indifference – interdependence fosters spiritual growth.

Small groups are discipleship groups, helping members follow Jesus more closely, together. Paradoxically, greater dependence upon each other leads to greater dependence upon God.

While serving as a missionary in Benin (West Africa), I always looked forward to the Wednesday morning men’s breakfast. Five or six of the male missionaries in town met each week at 7 a.m. at the same café. We drank coffee, ate eggs and toast, caught-up on events from the last week, and encouraged each other. Before leaving, we spent 10 or 15 minutes in prayer. Those were years of great challenge in ministry, and our weekly meetings were fresh water for my thirsty spirit. Though we never ran together, those Wednesday breakfasts reminded me of Indian runs from high school. Once again, I moved from independence to interdependence, growing stronger in the process.

In small groups, we learn that our struggles are not ours alone. With time, trust develops between members. Brothers and sisters feel free to share about unhealthy habits that have ensnared them and receive help from others in the group. In the confession of sin and praying for each other, healing comes (James 5:16).

To be independent leads to isolation and despair. Interdependence, on the other hand, builds community and together draws us closer to God. What small group opportunities are there in your church? If there are none, speak with your pastor or other leaders in your church. Reflect how you can become a catalyst to begin this powerful initiative in your community of faith.

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6 thoughts on “From independence to interdependence: The power of small groups

  1. Hey, Greg. you reminded me of what I said when we had a 4th of July wedding years ago: “On Independence Day, we’re giving up our independence to be interdependent.” And then I see that in your heading today.  😉 Look forward to reading it later” | |

  2. (Uncle) Greg,

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been following for a few months now and always enjoy reading them. Keep writing them, they matter. Even if people (like me) don’t always have time to leave a reply it does not mean that we aren’t chewing on your thoughts. The Holy Spirit is faithful and our words matter. So keep it up and keep asking questions.

    I wanted to respond specifically to this post. We are in Chicago now, as you know, and are a part of the Reach77 network. When we moved here three years ago we had no idea what we were doing or where the Holy Spirit would lead, but God has been faithful and now much of how we ‘practice’ reflects much of what you outlined in your post. The interdependence narrative you encourage is one we have fully embraced – in two areas: Discipleship and Community.

    We recognized early on that ‘making disciples’ is a bit of a lost art in the Church. Nearly everyone I speak to in the Church today mirrors much of my journey before Chicago. Lots of “good” Christian folks out there, working hard, trying to live lives of character and integrity, showing up to church on Sunday morning, going on a mission trip everyone once in a while, even maybe tithing. 😉 And yet the mission was somehow lost in all of that. Honestly. It’s difficult to come to grips with. The responsibility of discipleship was lost on me and on many of my Christian peers. We are pretty good a hanging out with each other in the church and in that way participating in at least some “form” of discipleship, yet the idea of engaging with the unconnected and participating in the formation of new disciples is largely absent.

    In response we really bought into the “band” mentality. That getting together with 3-4 people on a weekly basis, immersing ourselves in scripture, and working it out together – including time for confession, for prayer and encouragement, etc. Instead of plugging an inquiring soul, maybe a skeptic, into a nine step discipleship program in the church, we put the onus on anyone and everyone to begin the process of discipleship. What does this look like in our context? It begins with intentionality. It is a key term in our DNA as a network – nothing happens, especially relationship, without intentionality. But even intentionality has its limits. If we don’t genuinely care about the people around us, intentionality will turn the relationship into a project – which is horribly disingenuous. We start by saying hello on a train, or greeting a neighbor while taking the trash out…then slowly relationships begin to form – before long we are eating together, watching hockey games together, babysitting each others’ kids, etc. It is in those moments that Holy Spirit shapes our discipleship. By the way, when does discipleship actually begin? It can’t be about knowledge? Discipleship for a “de-churched” millennial looks different than the baby steps of an inquiring Muslim, right? Eventually though the discipleship relationship forms into one of mutual accountability and grace – the interdependence starts by breaking into the “crowded loneliness” of our cities and grows, matures, and ultimately multiplies through practices like the one you mentioned – the ‘band’. Here is the beauty. Our model for a long time has been to disciple only in the church or through a church program. Now a new disciple examines his/her journey. “How did I become a follower of Jesus?” Someone said hello, started a conversation, invested in my life, and invited me into theirs and before long we started reading the Word of God together…and so on. It’s practical, simple and personal – and not sterile. When that new disciple begins “obeying all that Jesus commands” they soon realize that “making disciples” is part of that rhythm. And they have been given a model that encourages their immediate participation into that rhythm. Multiplication is life giving. I often reference Matthew 4 – the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. Upon his calling He invites them to “fish for men” – mission is inherent in the DNA. Follow Jesus = Fishing for men. We’ve lost that identity, or we’ve pawned it off on someone else we think might be better at it. Disciple making is not a spiritual gift by the way. It’s a command. Of course our gifts will shape and inform our practice of disciple making. But we can’t excuse ourselves from it, right?

    Community. As much as we prioritize the ‘band’ we also embrace the ‘class’ = community. It is vital, especially for a new disciple, to participate in community. It is a significant part of discipleship as well – though maybe secondary. Maybe secondary is not the right word. In addition to? Anyway. We practice the class within our network. In fact, our network is really just a bunch of classes, made up of a bunch of bands. Our Sunday night gatherings are our times for our “class” to meet, in different parts of the city, 15-20 people, kids included. It’s messy, organic, and also lots of fun. It’s complicated at times, but we press on and press in. We participate in the Lord’s Supper. We sing. We pray. We laugh and eat. Sometimes we don’t do any of that and simply rest. Our network is purposefully interdependent. And this is also how we practice corporate mission. Some of the broader social issues that exist in the city, eg human trafficking, homelessness, refugees etc we are better able to respond to as a collective group. Though we are spread out through the entire city we are one. Rather than organizing as separate, independent, local churches, we exist as one, through network. Every neighborhood is different, dynamics change when you cross a street, yet there is a rhythm and commitment to the “whole” that takes precedence. Each class meets weekly, yet as a network of classes we meet quarterly, sometimes more often – this summer for example we have a baby dedication, or instances when we would have the privilege of baptizing a new believer, etc. We also participate in trainings, teaching, and are deeply connected to the district and denomination in many ways.

    We are still learning, and hope to always remain in that posture. We embrace a missionary mentality, incorporate missional DNA and practice interdependence. Some argue that what we are doing still lacks what I guess we would call “traditional” church. I wrestle with this. Is not our practice of class and band (by the way we don’t use these terms) not sufficient? I believe it is wonderfully sufficient and truthfully quite freeing! What are your thoughts? Are we missing something? It sounds to me a lot like what you described the Galatians embraced as their DNA. But we are always careful to learn more and to allow others to shape and mold our story. Would appreciate your insight.

    Lauren

    • Hello Lauren,

      Well, I’m sipping a Coke and tapping away on the keyboard. Amy and I are off in a few hours to a deputation service here in Fort Worth, TX. It has been fun reporting on some of the things God has been doing through Nazarene education. I’m reminded of your dad’s old line, “I wish I had the time to tell you about…” And then of course, he took the time to tell us!

      Your mission work in Chicago seems to be going well. And yes, I have no doubt you are every bit as much a missionary as I.

      I like how you’re incorporating the bands and classes, even if you don’t use those antiquated names. Maybe you’ll have to change your middle name to Wesley? (ha)

      The issue of how to transition from small groups to “church” is a fascinating one. You may be aware of Martin Luther’s definition of church. It is anywhere that God’s word is truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The General Superintendents a few years ago actually came down with a formal ruling of what “church” means in our tradition. Sorry I can’t put my hands on it. Your D.S. would likely be able to furnish you with it.

      The bottom line is always: Are people becoming Christlike disciples? If they are, then you are fulfilling your mission.

      Your comments in general echo some of what Dr Jerry Porter has said across the years. Jesus never told us to build the church. He said he would do that. What he did tell us to do is to make disciples. Sound like that’s happening in Chicago – thanks be to God.

      It will be interesting to see what the Church of the Nazarene looks like in 20 years. The cultural winds in the U.S. are adverse. I would expect that the tax exemption for churches will go away. That’s going to make the maintenance of buildings much less attractive and much more burdensome. We’re starting to see that already in some of our historically larger congregations that are shrinking, yet they are left with huge buildings that once served more of a purpose. In a world where twenty-somethings are fueling the “tiny house” movement, I don’t see them buying into the church = property model. Add to that the reality that historians have not uncovered a dedicated church building before the year 250 a.d., and I think we’re heading back to an early church model, i.e. house churches that look a lot like what we see at the end of Acts 2. I for one would be pleased with such diversification.

      Much respect….

      Greg (for Amy, too)

  3. Thanks Greg for your thoughtful reply. Lots to wrestle with but I love the point you make: The bottom line is always: Are people becoming Christlike disciples? If they are, then you are fulfilling your mission. It’s quite simple 🙂 Yet often it feels from the outside that that is not enough. Much more to unpack on that.

    Separately, I recently attended the ONU PALCON and was on a panel that brought up questions focused on “renovating ministry” and included specific points on “missional church” “pastoral ministry” and “church properties” – all of which are shifting and changing rapidly. I was able to reference our practices in Chicago in response to each of those questions and found a growing response from folks that i think recognize this shift and recognize need for not only reevaluating but reshaping and creating new practices (though we are learning many of them are quite old).

    Would love to keep thinking out loud with you. If you are ever through the midwest l(and especially Chicago) let me know.

    Lauren

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