Life together in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeWe’ve previously seen how the Bible describes pastoral care in growth groups as being under God, leading God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God. Pastoral ministry looks back to the Good Shepherd dying for his sheep and looks forward to the return of the Great Shepherd who will gather his sheep for eternity. These are the trig points that give us bearings for caring for one another. Pastoral care should be shaped by teaching and modelling God’s word of grace, and by prayerfully depending on the power of God’s Spirit to change people’s hearts and minds. These are the priorities of the one true Shepherd, God himself, and they should shape the priorities of our churches and growth groups.

Family relationships

As we seek to live out God’s word of grace in our lives this will profoundly impact how we live with one another as God’s people. We’ve been called into God’s family as his adopted children. We’re now united with brothers and sisters in Christ having the same Spirit who unites us to each other.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:3-6)

When we gather in our growth groups we get to share in a small family gathering. We catch up with each other, hear what our Father has to say, we’re reminded of the awesome work of our Father’s number one Son, and we attend to family business together. We also hear what’s been going on in each other’s lives, seek to encourage and spur each other on, celebrate family joys and share in family worries and sorrows, and we bring our requests and offer thanks to our heavenly Father.

Families exist even when they’re not together. This means our growth groups have opportunity to express our relationships in Christ throughout the week in other ways. Obviously, we see each other at church. This is a natural place to catch up and connect. It’s worth thinking about what you can follow-up from your group meetings at church, and vice versa. It helps to build relationships by connecting with one another over meals, coffees, and doing social things together. If you have space in your calendar, there is great value in catching up with different members of the group on a rotational basis. It’s amazing how much better people know one another simply by spending time chatting over dinner every now and then.

One way of turbo-charging relational connections in your groups is to spend time away as a group. A weekend away at a holiday house will often be worth a year of weekly meetings in getting people comfortable with one another, and deeper into each other’s live. Meals together on a weekly or monthly basis, occasional social nights, prayer and testimony evenings are all ways of strengthening the bonds between the brothers and sisters in your group.

Some families are big on remembering special events. Perhaps you could create a calendar for your group and celebrate each person’s birthday, wedding anniversary, or other significant special occasion. Discover each person’s favourite cake or special ice-cream or whatever as a way of showing you care.

The Apostle Paul provides a model of family-type pastoral care in the way he went about his ministry to others. He taught, dialogued and reasoned from the Scriptures with the people he served. But he also invested his life into them. He used words and life to communicate with integrity the life-changing message of Christ. Take a look at the family language in these words he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:

7 Just as a nursing mother cares for her childrenso we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.  (1 Thessalonians 2:7-13, 17-20)

Whether you are a leader or a group member, we have the opportunity to invest in each other’s lives. As Paul worked night and day for his ‘growth group’, it won’t hurt us to put ourselves out for each other, to go the extra mile. Let’s seek to put each other’s needs before our own. What can you do that would make a practical difference in the lives of one or two of your brothers and sisters?

Well functioning families spend time doing things together. Dysfunctional families sometimes pass like ships in the night and grow apart in the process. I understand how busy we all are, and it might be that your relational ‘dance card’ already seems very full, but it will make a big difference to others, especially those who are new to your church or group, if you spend time together. Do you share similar interests? Maybe you work in a similar area, department or business. If you are going bike riding, catching a movie, having a night at the pub, inviting friends around for a barbecue, going for a Saturday site-seeing trip, playing touch footy, scrap-booking, joining a gym, hanging out in a cafe after church, heading to a sporting event or concert, or whatever else you’re into, then why not think about inviting others from your group?

Encouragement

If we care deeply for our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will want them to share eternity with us. We’ll want them to run the race, to keep trusting in Christ, and to reach the finishing line rejoicing in their Saviour. If you’ve ever run cross-country, long distances, or even marathons, then you will appreciate the importance of support from others. Sometimes it’s the spectators who’ve made the effort to get alongside the track and cheer you along. Sometimes it’s your fellow runners who encourage you. It’s so helpful to have a running buddy who keeps pace with you, urges you up the hills, or sticks with you when you hit the wall. It’s tough trying do it all on your own.

God wants us to be there for each other. As we run the race, we shouldn’t have to do it alone. We’re urged to keep up with one another often. We need each other: the support, the encouragement, the help along the way. The Christian life is tough and there are so many obstacles and difficult times that we need to spur each other on. The writer to the Hebrews is focused on Christians making it all the way to the end, remaining reliant on the grace of God in the gospel, and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. In the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he urges his readers:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  (Hebrews 10:23-25)

We are urged to consider how – to think in advance – about how we can keep each other living and growing as followers of Jesus. This begins at home before we gather in our groups and at church. Who will be there tonight? What’s going on in their lives? What was it we prayed for them last week? I must remember to ask them about it. (Hint: it helps to keep your own prayer diary, jot notes, pray during the week, and follow up with people.) I wonder how they are getting along with their boss who’s been giving them a hard time? Have they had an opportunity to share what they believe with their class mates? Speak with them about what you’ve been praying, ask for other things to pray, show a spiritual interest in one another. Time to stop cruising. If the best we do every time we meet is discuss the footy, grumble about work, and engage in small talk, then we are missing out on wonderful opportunities to love one another.

You might notice that some people in your group are struggling. Perhaps some have doubts, others are being tested by their unbelieving families, some are battling the weariness of chronic illness and rarely get to the group. How can you encourage and spur on these brothers and sisters? You could commit this to prayer, make regular personal contact, put your mind to ways that you could be helpful. Each member of the group can do this sort of thing. You don’t have to be the leader to be an encouragement to others. Anyone can and should do it. The love and support of group members shows the family of God functioning well.

Care in a crisis

A crisis in someone’s life is an opportunity for the group to show love to their brother or sister. There is no end to the types of crises that happen to people. Here are a few crises we’ve experienced in our groups…

  • someone losing their job
  • unrealistic workload expectations placing massive strain on health, family, or involvement in church
  • bullying at work
  • a serious illness to a group member or someone in their family
  • child acting out or refusing to go to school
  • injuries in a car accident
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • sleep deprivation following the birth of a child
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • serious doubts over the Christian faith
  • relationship troubles such as a broken engagement or marriage
  • extended family putting pressure to turn from faith in Jesus

There are many more issues and I expect you could continue this list. These sorts of crises test families. They need to rally together, assess their resources, change the way they function, take on new responsibilities, and sometimes seek external support or expertise. It’s very similar for a growth group. A crisis is an opportunity time for the group. They can step up a gear, plan how to collectively offer care, pray together, and offer genuine practical help.

We’ve seen some groups do this very well. One time when my wife was bed-ridden with a difficult pregnancy our group arranged shopping, baby-sitting, cooperated in leading studies and took other initiatives that helped our family. Another group had a member hospitalised following a heart attack and the group helped with visits, practical help, and set up a buddy exercise program and roster. Couples with babies often appreciate the support of meals in the first few weeks. Sometimes people have paired-up to read the Bible, pray, and talk through issues with another person. My experience is that our groups often rise well to a crisis.

However, sometimes the needs of a person are beyond the capacity of the group to cope on their own. They may require more people to be involved due to the magnitude of the problem. They might need greater expertise than they have in their group. A marriage break-up, legal issues, psychiatric illness, or domestic abuse are the types of matters that require the involvement of other qualified people.

We recommend sharing these needs with an appropriate person in the church. Maybe you could raise matters with your growth group mentor or coach, a pastor on the church staff, or a specialist pastoral care team, depending on whom you have in your church. These matters will often need to be referred to people beyond the congregation. At this point the role of the group should be to provide support, love, prayer, and care for the person/s rather than seeing itself as responsible to provide the specialised help needed. They might have further tough times ahead, so your care will be very significant.

Care when it’s chronic

Not all significant needs remain crises. Sometimes the matters are ongoing for weeks, months, or years. There are real and often painful issues that simply don’t go away. Again, growth groups have the opportunity to provide ongoing loving care for these people or families that can make the world of difference. These are some examples of chronic care needs that we have experienced in our groups…

  • ongoing depression or mental illness
  • psychiatric disorders
  • chronic back pain or other physical illness
  • physical or mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or downs syndrome
  • families members who have chronic needs, especially children or ageing parents
  • chronic fatigue, long-term insomnia
  • eating disorders
  • bereavement, especially the loss of a spouse or child
  • prolonged unemployment
  • ongoing legal battles

Once again there are many more expressions of chronic difficulties facing the members of our groups and families. The love and care of growth groups is so valuable. Often these people become irregular, occasional, or non-attending members of our groups. Don’t forget them or give up on them. Stay in touch. You can call, visit, write, help out in practical ways. It can help for the group to coordinate its efforts. Find out what you can pray for them each week, ask in advance and follow it up afterwards. Remember them when the group does things that are different, especially if they weren’t at the group to find out. Make sure they hear about the special social night or weekend away. Let them know the news of the group: who had the baby, who is heading on a short-term mission trip, who’s friend has become a Christian, who won the netball grand final, and so on.

Maybe there are people in the church with ongoing chronic needs whom you could adopt as partners to your group. Ask your pastor or pastoral care team who might appreciate you connecting with them. Again, you can go the extra mile with these people. Maybe they’re shut in through illness and would love visitors, or to be taken out now and again. Perhaps, someone would love you to visit, read the Scriptures, pray and talk with them now and again. We adopt missionaries into our groups, so why not do something similar with those in need who can’t actually make it to groups. You know, there might even be people who’ve been burned by groups in the past, who through your love and kindness find their way back into a growth group where they experience the love of Jesus in practice.

As with those experiencing crises, some of these chronic needs will involve the wider church community or the specialised help of people outside the church. This is important.  As groups and individuals we need to recognise our limitations. Our role is to provide the ongoing relational love and support throughout their journey.

One particular issue to consider, is how these people are affected by holidays and the changes that happen with our groups from year to year. If a group stops meeting or disbands, don’t forget the people you’ve been caring for who haven’t been making it along. Talk together as a group about whether you continue to offer group support during breaks, whether individuals maintain support when a group disbands, or whether you need to discuss this with a pastor or coordinator.

Growth groups, not therapy groups

Our growth groups are primarily about growing followers of Jesus. This has an eternal focus anchored in the present. It is very easily to allow the immediate, obvious, pressing needs of people to overshadow their eternal needs. Jesus understood this pressure and temptation as he was confronted daily by suffering, struggling, needy individuals. He often chose to relieve people’s suffering and to care for them in practical ways. His compassion was unsurpassed.

However, Jesus came on a bigger mission than emptying hospitals. He came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and how people could experience healing of their sins for eternity. We see Jesus alignment with these priorities throughout the gospels.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’  (Mark 1:32-38)

Jesus chose to leave the pressing needs of people in one town, firstly to spend time praying, and secondly to go elsewhere to proclaim the eternal message of hope for all who turn to God. He came to seek and to save people who were truly lost. He came to call people into his kingdom. He placed the eternal needs of people over, but not to the exclusion, of their earthly needs. We see this distinction in the incident when some mates bring a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed.

Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, 11 ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

I assume that the forgiveness of this man’s sins were far from the thinking of the four mates. They had seen or heard about Jesus healing serious illnesses and disabilities, so they did all they could to see their friend get a piece of the action. How surprised they must have been when Jesus simply forgave his sins. Yes, Jesus forgave sins and then healed the man, but don’t forget one action lasted for eternity and the other only a few years. Forgiveness is the only gateway to healing that lasts for all time.

It can be easy to be dominated by people’s crisis and chronic concerns. We can even build a culture where needs becomes the way to get each other’s or the leader’s time and attention. This is not healthy. Let’s not lose the ministry of the word and prayer. And let’s invest in building leaders and the capacity of our group to serve and care for one another, as this will result in people’s temporal and eternal needs getting the love and support they need. Let’s keep God’s perspective in our growth groups.

2 thoughts on “Life together in growth groups”

  1. The importance of deep connections between group members implies that the small group should be to be a long-term thing. However, most places I’ve been tend to switch groups around after a year. How long do you think small groups should exist? Is the threat of cliques and factions real or overstated?

    1. Our church currently has a mix of groups that have been in existence for less than a year to a number of years. Mixing them up has been important to do from time to time for a number of reasons, such as:

      Cliques need to be broken
      Some groups aren’t really working
      New people find existing groups hard to break into
      It’s useful to help people get to know more and more people at church.

      We don’t have a set rule on this. It’s more about continual support and evaluation of the groups and responding to the needs of the individuals, groups and church.

      We’ve also developed a ‘connect course’ for newcomers, which means people aren’t diving straight into our growth groups. It gives time for people to decide if they want to commit to the church. We tend to try and start new groups to accommodate the exit from a connect course. This means many of our newer groups are filled with people new to church.

      The ability of groups to connect with each other effectively and deeply is related to time together. A group in its second year will have greater capacity for personal care than a fresh one. Leaders can help turbo-charge this by shaping the agenda of the group, creating good relational opportunities (such as meals together, weekends away, serving together at church, and so on).

      Hope these thoughts help.

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