Growth requires that our normal ways are challenged—the way we think, the things we value, the amount of money we spend at Target. Without feeling challenged, we simply continue in our same routines. While most of us would say we want to grow spiritually, how many of us take off running any time we’re challenged? We make our lives as comfortable, conflict free, and full of luxuries as we can.
As I’ve studied spiritual formation, I’ve learned that we need disequilibrating experiences, things that shake up our norm enough to make space for the Spirit. (That’s why spiritual disciplines like fasting are so great—they force us to change up our routines.) The problem is that even when we aren’t actively seeking out comfort, American culture throws plenty of comfort and convenience our way. Think about it: How many people in the world can drive 10 miles or less to a grocery store which has produce year-round from around the world, regardless of natural growing seasons? It’s easy to take all our conveniences for granted.
If small groups are an excellent place to nurture spiritual formation (and I believe they are), we’ll need to continually introduce our group members to challenging statements, people, and situations. In other words, if our small-group meetings are the most comfortable time of our weeks, we’re doing something wrong. If we’re not experiencing challenging situations together, reading Jesus’ controversial statements, or taking steps of faith regularly, we’re missing an opportunity to grow. Instead, we’re simply gathering for fun, for social reasons.
This is why I believe Jesus’ call for us to be on mission is really smart. When you’re on mission with clear purpose, you’ll continually run into situations that challenge you. You’re given the opportunity time and time again to rise to the challenge, growing in your faith. If you serve together at a homeless shelter, you’ll run into people, situations, and cultural ills that will challenge you. Do I really believe what God’s Word says? Do I really believe God can work through governments for his purposes? Do I really believe I should give grace and mercy to everyone—even those who have made bad decisions?
If you’re reading through James and you genuinely talk about the implications of his words, you’ll encounter some difficult imperatives. How is my faith shown in the way I respond to my neighbor’s needs? Am I actually growing in being slow to anger? Do I really listen to God’s Word and let it change me?
To keep your group members from getting too complacent, you should look for opportunities to challenge them. But to make sure these experiences encourage growth instead of fear, here are a few tips:
1. Prepare your group as much as possible ahead of time.
Are you going to the homeless shelter? Explain how things work there as much as you can. Clearly lay out what you’ll do while you’re there. Discuss any rules they’ll need to know.
If you’re going to be reading through a difficult passage of Scripture, give a brief synopsis of the text and explain its historical context. Clue group members in to key topics and ideas.
2. Debrief afterward.
Plan for plenty of time for group members to share their feelings about the experience. Let them sit and reflect for a while. Encourage them to think about how it has affected them on an emotional level. Allow group members to share parts of the experience that were difficult, that may have made them especially uncomfortable. Invite them to share their honest questions and comments. Affirm group members’ feelings and thoughts. Address unresolved issues if possible. At the same time, recognize that discomfort often makes room for the Spirit to work, for transformation to occur.
By preparing your group ahead of time and allowing them to debrief afterward, you’ll create a safe place to explore the challenges you face together. As your group members experience challenge and encourage one another to take steps of faith, you’ll all experience spiritual growth.