HGLT 2: Creating an Environment for Growth

We have seen that effective discipleship can best be achieved when believers meet together in small groups as well as in the larger context. However, it is important to realise that not just any type of small group will do.  People can meet for prayer and Bible study for years yet never grow to trust each other enough to share what’s really going on in their lives. They can gather week after week without ever beginning to support each other outside of the group. They can discuss and debate theology with serious animation yet never get serious in holding up their lives and characters to the light of God’s word and allowing themselves to be challenged by it.  For Home Groups to be transformational we have to create the type of environment in which transformation occurs.

1. Making People Feel Secure

Overcoming Fear

Joining a Home Group is a scary thing to do. For almost all who do so it will be the first time they have ever committed themselves to such a vulnerable climate and they will probably be quite unsure of what to expect.  (Consider the feelings you yourself had the first time you went to a Home Group meeting.) In coming to your group, particularly the first time, your members will be experiencing a multitude of worries and fears within them. What if they don’t like the other members of the group? What if the other members of the group don’t like them? What if the others are all far more (or less)  intelligent than they are? Will they really be able to trust these people? Will this group really be able to meet the needs they have? What if they are going to be forced to reveal things about themselves that they don’t want to reveal? What if they are getting themselves into something that they won’t be able to get out of? Little wonder they will feel a bit nervous!

For this reason the first thing you have to do as a Home Group leader is to help those in your group overcome these initial feelings of fear and doubt.  You can do this by very intentionally building a sense that they are welcome, appreciated and safe in your group and under your leadership.

Sociologists Ron Alder & Neil Towne ( Looking Out/Looking In, page 325) tell us that the key factor in creating a healthy climate for communication is that the people present “believe themselves to be valued by one another.”  For this the church is uniquely gifted. In John 13.34 Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us. In Romans 15.7 we read Paul saying, “Accept one another.” So nowhere on planet earth should people feel more loved and accepted than in the midst of Christian Community. However, this feeling of being valued has sadly not always been peoples’ experience – either before or since joining the church.  Right from the beginning, then,  you will have to intentionally develop and shape the climate of your group into what Jesus has commanded it to be.

First Steps

At your very first meeting, you can begin this process by doing the following

  1. Let each person who comes along see immediately that you know what you are doing and that you value their presence in the group. Have all your preparations (seating & food) made well in advance, answer the door yourself and welcome each person by name (requires some work beforehand).
  2. Introduce each person to the others as they arrive and invite them to enjoy some of the refreshments provided. Try to get people chatting together or at least ensure no-one is left sitting or standing by themselves. Then, when everyone is there and has had an opportunity to chat to those around them, welcome them all again and ask each person to share their name, how long they have been involved in the church (if at all) and why they have decided to come along to a Home Group.

By doing this you allow your members to learn each other’s names quickly and easily, show them that you will not ask for too much sharing too soon, indicate to them that you want the group to meet their needs as well as yours, and set the pattern of each person being involved which is very important. Research has shown that if a person speaks at the first meeting of a small group it is far more likely that they will speak at the next. Likewise, if a person does not speak at the first meeting then it is far more likely that they will not do so at the next meeting either. Thus a pattern of involvement or non-involvement can so easily be established.  Some of those in your group will, by nature, be very quiet and will need to be encouraged to share with the others. Some will be very talkative and will need to be encouraged to give everyone an equal opportunity to participate in the discussions that take place.

At the end of this time you should ask the members to think some more about what they hope to get out of the Home Group and explain that at over the next few meetings you will be working together to draw up the group’s home group covenant. You can explain that a little more if you need to. (We cover this process in session 3.)

2. Preparing the Meeting Place

It may seem surprising, but even the seating you use for your meetings, and the way in which you arrange it, has quite an impact on the communication climate of your group. Asking people to sit for three hours on chairs that are only comfortable for one is not going to facilitate great enthusiasm for your meetings. Mind and bottom must both be catered for! If there are not enough suitable chairs available where you want to meet, borrow a few for the night from your church or from some friends.  It is important that no-one needs to sit on the floor unless all of the group have chosen to do so. (This would probably only happen with a youth Home Group.)

Something else to consider is whether or not your group would feel more comfortable spread out around a larger room or whether they would, in fact, feel more intimate and able to speak opening in a more condensed setup. In Irish culture, we are much more used to sitting close to one another when out in a restaurant or pub and sometimes reproducing this closeness by sitting around a kitchen table, rather than a living room, can be very helpful.

A little exercise in room dynamics..

Figure 1: A Typical Room Layout

Have a go at answering the following questions based on the room layout in Figure 1 above:

1. Where in this room should the group leader sit to allow people to feel that they are all included?
2. Where should any co-leaders sit? Why?
3. Which chairs are likely to be filled first? Last?
4. Which persons are likely to be quiet during discussion because of the seats they are in?
Possible Answers:
1. Probably E so he or she can be seen by all.
2. Co-leaders should divide up among the other members, perhaps sitting beside a quiet person or a new member to ensure they feel appreciated and welcome.
3. I or H possibly first, O or L possibly last
4. G, K, M, N and O  would probably be the quiet chairs in this arrangement and therefore should be the first to be removed if all are not needed. If possible each person needs to be able to see everybody else. No-one should be stuck out in front or behind (or below). Everybody needs to be beside a person to whom they can talk.

3. Reducing the possibility of Distractions

Food

Eating with one another can be a wonderful way to build community within a Home Group. However, it needs to be well organised if it is not to become a distraction from the real purpose of getting together.  If the food is being enjoyed at the start of the meeting some sense of time needs to be maintained or half of your meeting will be over before you even begin. If food is served at the end, then all preparations should be completed before the meeting so that the host(s) does not have to leave the Bible Study or Prayer time early in order to put jam on the scones.  For each seat, make sure that there is a place to safely set glasses and dishes so that spillages do not destroy the momentum of a discussion.

Media Equipment

TVs, Radios, and CD players etc should be turned off. Telephone ringers and beepers should be switched off or the phones moved to another room where the rest of your family (if they are in) can answer any calls.

Children and Pets

The disruption caused by children is the number one frustration in many groups and as the leader you will need to ensure that a consensus is reached about this. Don’t decide for the group but be ready to offer a few alternatives. We’ll look again at this when we discuss making the group Covenant.

Likewise pets should not be allowed to cause interference. Some of your members may be allergic to certain animals. Some may be afraid of them (especially if you keep snakes or tigers!) and some may simply not like pets being in the same room as them. If possible, it is generally much better to leave the pets somewhere else.

4. Understanding the Importance of Group Sharing

The Role of Story-Telling

One of the most important elements in Home Group life is that of story-telling, the sharing of personal history – good and bad – with the other members of the group. This sharing rapidly develops the relational and community aspects of your meetings and has the potential to become a powerful catalyst for personal growth. That life change occurs best in small groups is well illustrated in the many 12- step recovery programmes (in essence Speciality Home Groups) now running throughout the world. Charles Whitfield (Healing the Child Within, 1987) writes concerning the amazing successes those in recovery groups have achieved and argues that it is simply by the telling of your story over and over again to safe people, in an environment where you are completely secure, that healing of your past hurts and wounds can best be facilitated. He firmly believes that the secret of the 12-step programme lies not in the advice given by other group members (indeed, uninvited advice-giving is taboo), nor in the content of the materials made available at the meetings. Rather, it lies in the being together with a group of other people who are struggling along with you and being able to outwardly express what inwardly brings you turmoil.  Writing on the same point Sara Wuthnow says,

“ The 12-Step programme.. allows individuals struggling with their interior lives to be vulnerable. Many churches do not create an atmosphere in which parishioners can honestly express their weaknesses. In fact, churches are very often places where keeping up appearances is the norm. It is true that when someone is in crisis, the good people of the church will rally round him or her in a paternalistic kind of way, but shared vulnerability is rare. A number of those in the church see genuine struggles with their interior life not as a sign of strength but as a sign of weakness. By contrast, at a 12-step meeting, individuals can feel surrounded by fellow pilgrims.”

(“I come away stronger”, Wuthnow, Robert, Ed., page 202)

Whilst not all of us may need the specialised help of a 12-Step programme, in truth we are all people who are in need of recovery. None of us has gone through life without being wounded, scarred, or damaged by events or others and the impact of these things from the past affects who we are in the present and what we will become in the future.  One of the greatest achievements you as a Home Group leader could realise is to create within your group an atmosphere in which your members can honestly express their weaknesses in a climate of shared vulnerability.  Personal and Spiritual growth will reach a maximum if your members also feel they are surrounded by fellow pilgrims. So storytelling is of utmost importance.   However, as it is vital that you encourage people to open up and honestly share what’s going on in their lives, it is equally vital that you do not force this procedure along. Trusting those around you is the foundation for shared vulnerability and trust is something that takes time to develop.

5. Levels of Intimacy

There are five basic levels of intimacy through which your group will hopefully move as it develops. Consider the diagram below:

Figure 2: Levels of Intimacy

Level One:  Clichéd Communication.

When people meet for the first time they generally feel safe in sharing only superficialities and clichés to begin with, things that are easy and obvious. Hi, I’m …, how are you? Terrible weather today wasn’t it? Do you live near by?. This should be an interesting experience.

Level Two:  Facts and biographical Information.

Having thus broken the ice with one another, people then feel easier about revealing non-threatening facts and information about themselves.  I’m originally from… I’ve been a member of YOUR CHURCH for ….  [Notice that whilst revealing what they do for a living may not be threatening for some, for others it might be – particularly if they perceive themselves to have rather inferior jobs to the rest the group. Answering the question, Where do you work?, may then set up barriers between your members rather than remove them.]

Level Three: Ideas and Opinions.

I think that the Presbyterian church needs to become more contemporary. In my opinion politicians need to be more willing to compromise. Sharing what we think about various issues and what our opinions are represents slightly more of a risk. The other group members may not agree with our position and there is the risk that they may ridicule it. Even so, groups usually move quite easily to this level.

Level Four:  Values and Feelings.  

Sharing what our deeply held convictions and values are, our hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, joys, sorrows, dreams and disappointments is much more of a risk than sharing our opinions. If someone rejects what I think or hold as an opinion it is difficult but at least they are only rejecting what I think . But if I share what I believe, feel, and am, and that is rejected, then they are much closer to rejecting me. I’m really afraid that this might happen… Last year my wife and I almost split up. I just can’t seem to find reality in my Christian life  . Groups will generally not move to this level of communication until mutual trust has been established and unless someone in the group first models the risk taking that it implies. That someone needs to be you, the leader.

Level Five: Intimacy and Confession.

This is the ultimate level of self-disclosure and vulnerability. It is this level that you want to aim for in your Home Group whilst realising that it will usually take quite some time to develop the degree of mutual trust necessary for it to happen. Very few of us, particularly men,  have relationships this close.  Here we are willing not only to share what happened in the past, but also what is happening right now. Not only are we willing to acknowledge our past problems but we are willing to share our current problems, our present difficulties and sins.  My wife and I are going through a very difficult period in our marriage.  I feel very hurt by how that person treated me. I’ve got myself into a situation financially that I don’t know how to get out of.  I feel deep resentment towards that person and I need your help in dealing with it..

Again, no group will automatically arrive at this level of transparency. Only relatively few ever will.  People are afraid of revealing so much about themselves.  As John Powell puts it so well, “I am afraid to tell you who I am, for if I tell you who I really am you may not accept me and that is the only me I have.” (Powell, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?, page 12)  It takes courage to share such intimacy and confession with others. Prayerful, sensitive and wise leadership will be necessary if you are to see it happen in your group. It cannot be made to happen. You can only seek to create the environment in which your members are able to take that kind of risk with the others.

In passing, note that to allow this mutual trust to develop in your Home Groups it may well be better for them to be temporarily closed to new members after the first two weeks of each session. During those first two weeks new members should be welcome, indeed encouraged, to join. But from week three to the end of the term group membership could be closed.  Group dynamics change significantly when a new member comes along. He or she will bring a slightly different emphasis to the group’s character and the others with inevitably ask themselves, “Can I trust this new person to the extent that I can trust the others?”  By being temporarily closed the groups may be better assured of some continuity in the trust building process.

6. Understanding Ourselves Through Group Sharing- the Johari Window

Even when we decide to take the risk of being open with others, actually being able to do so completely or fully is a much more complicated process than we might imagine. The Johari Window (Figure 3 below)  is a model that describes what is and can be known of ourselves in our relationships with other people. Named after its two creators, Joseph Luft and Harrington V. Ingham, the model consists of four sections called Open, Blind, Hidden, and Unknown.  Examine it for a moment:

                    Figure 4. The Johari Window

These four sections represent what people know and don’t know about themselves, and what they reveal and don’t reveal to others in a relationship. The size of each section increases or decreases as the relationship changes. Initially the Open Section (what is known and shared) will be very small but as trust develops it will increase as the person reveals more and more about themselves from the Hidden Section. The larger the Open section the better the communication within the group.

As the Johari Window points out, though, what is known by the person about him or herself is not actually all there is to know.  It is here that Home Groups have great potential to allow members to discover more about themselves as well as about others. As relationships develop and trust deepens information about the person will become apparent to the group that he or she is actually unaware of. This is represented by the Blind Section. For example, it might become apparent to the group members that this person has a low self-esteem because they refuse to forgive themselves for something they have done, and for which they have already repented and made restitution for. By pointing out that God has already forgiven them and that they really ought to agree with Him, the group may be of significant help to the individual. Likewise, the person may be very controlling when in discussion with others but not realise it, and through gentle confrontation by the group learn not to continue this pattern.

Furthermore, as the person learns to share more openly, and to explore new areas of their life in the context of the group relationship, what was unknown both to the person and to the group will more and more be discovered. Provided that the individual is given and learns to receive loving feedback from the other members of the group, the possibilities for personal discovery, growth and healing are enormous. It is not surprising, then, that the Home Groups of the early church, and those ever since, have so fascinated and attracted people who observe them.

7. Asking Good Sharing Questions

So how do you go about creating such an environment? How do you, as group leader, begin to lead your members slowly towards shared vulnerability and accountability at a pace appropriate for where they are? Put more technically, how do you enable confessionality appropriate for the current longevity of your group? Well, in a nutshell, how you do this is by asking good sharing questions and then actively listening to the answers your members give.

Learning to ask good sharing questions

Sharing questions are the most effective way to allow the members of your group to build closeness and openness with one another. Giving everyone a non-forced opportunity, they allow your group to share of themselves at a depth rarely reached in “normal” conversation. Used properly they are the best way to facilitate effective pastoral care of your members, as well as to move them from one level of intimacy to another.

A good sharing question has at least seven key qualities:

1. It is simple and specific and can be answered in four or five sentences. For example, “What was a high point of your week, and why?”
2. It asks for feelings as well as facts. For example, “What position are you in your family (youngest, oldest, etc.) and how did you feel about it when you were a teenager?”
3. It can be answered by everyone in the group. Don’t ask “Tell us about the university you attended,” if some of your group members haven’t been to university.
4. It is an open rather than closed question. In other words, it doesn’t ask for a one word answer.
5. It asks for the sharing of self, not merely of issues or ideas. So, instead of “What difficulties do you face in your workplace?”, ask “How do you feel about the problems you face at work?”
6. It avoids asking for superlatives. If at all possible don’t ask questions which include the best, the worst, the most, the easiest.. These require too much evaluation and  judgement.  “What was the best holiday you ever had?” requires an evaluation of all the holidays you have ever had. Does best mean most relaxing or most exciting?  Does it mean the best for me as a child or as a teenager or as an adult? Much better would be the question, “Tell us about one holiday you really enjoyed. What made it so special?”
7. It asks for an appropriate level of sharing for the longevity of the group.
For example, asking everyone to answer the question “Where are you being most tempted in your life right now?” might be appropriate later on in your group’s life but it wouldn’t be a good question to ask before your members have learned each other’s names!

A little exercise…

Read through the potential sharing questions for a new group listed below. Which of them are good, bad and just OK? Why?

  • In which three areas of your life do you fail the most?
  • What’s one thing you enjoy about Your Church, and one thing you’re not so sure about?
  • Tell us about the most influential experience you’ve ever had?
  • What is one particular word that describes God to you, and why do you choose that word?
  •  What do you think about rock and roll?
  • What did you appreciate about your Father growing up, and how has that affected you?
  • Tell us what you know about double predestination.
  • Share with one another one thing that has been concerning you over the past week.

During the first term of your Home Group’s life sharing questions should be a regular part of your time together. As we’re still trying to get to know each other a little better,  lets have a go at this… During these initial stages in particular, these questions should be aimed at past tense history-giving and personal story-telling whilst keeping in mind the seven principles mentioned above. Where did you live when you were ten and what did you like most about it?  Think of one person who had a major influence on you as a young person. Why and how did they affect you? What was a high point and low point of last week? They should allow each member to share something about who they are, where they have come from and what they hope for in the future at a level matched to the level of intimacy the group has reached.  Remember also that as members begin to follow your example of increasing openness it is vital that you further model a genuine interest in what the others have to say, and lead the way in active, concerned listening.

In the long term  you will, of course, also hope for a strong emphasis on discipleship and mission in your group but initially you should aim your meetings very much at building vision and community.  This initial settign of your group’s culture as place where people share and are listened to is vital for all that will come ahead.

As a general rule you should spend twice as much time in this kind of fellowship when your group begins as you will at the end of its first year.

8. Learning to Listen Well

Listening well is one of the most important and useful skills any leader can possess. All ministry is fundamentally about relationships and the ability to listen skillfully to those under our care is a chief factor in determining what the quality of those relationships will be. Listening well to another person is far from easy. It requires skill, concentration and effort. When we listen our heart rate quickens, our respiration increases and our body temperature rises. It is tiring, even draining to listen carefully to others even over a short period of time. Yet the benefits are enormous both to leaders and to those who are under their care. People feel cared for and leaders are able to understand much more clearly where their people are coming from.

The following principles will help you in your quest to listen well:

Listen between the lines.

Most people speak at a speed of about 125 words per minute, and most listeners can listen or think at the rate of about 500 words per minute. Even with slight adjustments either way most of us have 300-400 words of excess thinking time during every minute a person talks to us. It is relatively easy because of this to let our minds wander. Instead, use the extra time to ask yourself the followings type of questions:

What precisely is this person trying to say? What is it that they are not saying?

What feelings does this person have about this issue?

What non-verbal signals are they sending out? Do they contradict or support their actual words?

How well am I showing genuine concern for what they are trying to say?

How well am I showing them love and acceptance?

Listen without giving advice or being judgmental.

When a person is sharing a problem that they are experiencing, our natural response is to want to fix things for them. We try desperately hard to think of the advice to give them that will solve the problem they are having. Unfortunately, giving our advice where it is not asked for can be one of the worst things we can do. A study of people who were mourning the death of a loved one reported that 80 per cent of the statements made to them were unhelpful. Interestingly, nearly half of the statements were advice giving such as, “You’ve got to get out more.” The study concluded that a far more helpful response was simple acknowledgement of the mourner’s feeling. Instead of advice-giving we are called to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12.15).

We also need to keep an open mind if we want to hear what a person is really saying. It can be very difficult sometimes not to stop a person in mid-sentence and tell them that what they are thinking or feeling is not what they should think or feel. In one Home Group situation, a young girl shared of her hatred for her Father who had treated her very abusively as a child. Instead of realising the pain and hurt she was trying to express, an older member in the group asked her why, since she was already a Christian, she hadn’t simply forgiven him! To listen well we need to resist the temptation to move into judgement or correction mode when we hear something we do not agree with.

Listen with Empathy

Empathy allows us to view a situation or problem from the understanding of the other person. It is seeking to understand not just what has been said, but what has been said from the other person’s perspective. Our ability to listen in this way is very much affected by the amount of information we have concerning the person speaking and this, of course will improve with our relationship. The more we get to know someone, the easier it is to listen to them with empathy.

When we do not know enough about the background of a situation to be able to properly grasp where a person is coming from we will need to probe a little deeper but must do so in a manner that is both gentle and sensitive.

In doing so we should seek to:

Assure the person that you are glad to be talking

Fear of rejection or ridicule often prevents people from fully expressing themselves. In the midst, and at the end, of your conversation, assure the person that they are just being normal in feeling the way they are about what’s going on. If they show any signs of being embarrassed or of feeling foolish assure them that ‘what you are feeling is perfectly understandable.’

Show a genuine interest in knowing more.

Encourage the person to expand upon what they have said. Ask them to clarify any areas that you’re not sure about How did that happen? What else were you feeling? What did you do then? Why do you think he did that? Be careful, though, that you don’t ask them to share more than they are ready to.

Recognise and Affirm the other person’s feelings.

Be supportive in any responses you make and concentrate on how the person is feeling not on the issue that makes them feel that way. For example, telling the other person “Don’t worry. Things are not really that bad” might be seen as an insult that effectively says, “You shouldn’t be feeling and thinking what you are.” Recognising the other’s feelings and empathising with them avoids any such problem.

Give the person verbal and non-verbal confirmations that you are listening.

Make a point of ignoring any distractions that might arise around you (unless its an earthquake or the house is on fire!). Say things like That must have been very difficult for you, How were you feeling after that? Paraphrase both the content and the feelings of the message so you can make sure you are understanding what the person is saying. So if I’m right, what you are saying is.. Did that make you feel as if..

Reframe ‘you’ statements into ‘I’ statements.

If the person is raising a problem they have with you, reframe ‘you’ statements into ‘I’ statements so that they see that you are taking them seriously. e.g ‘You criticized me in front of the others!’ reframed might be ‘I’m sorry I criticized you in front of the others.’

“Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that he not only gives us his Word but also lends us his ear. So it is his work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians .. so often think they must contribute something when they are in the company of others..
They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” 

(Bonnhoeffer, Dietrich,  Life Together)

Conclusion

Creating an environment in which personal and spiritual growth can occur is the primary objective of any Home Group. Making people feel secure, preparing the setting carefully, understanding the importance of group sharing and facilitating it are the key stages in making this possibility reality. Shared vulnerability and genuine openness between the members begins with the example that you give them. This requires much risk and effort on your part but as many have found already,  it can reap great rewards for the Kingdom of God and for those who are fortunate enough to have you as their group leader.

 

About the Author

About the Author: Keith is the Pastor of Maynooth Community Church, a new church plant in North Co. Kildare. .

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