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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