Small talk. Bible study talk. Prayer requests. Sports, kids, and work talk. When and how do we get to meaningful fellowship of sharing with other Christians what God is doing in our lives? Are there conditions in small groups that help people to share their lives with others? Are there conditions that cause people to clam up and stick to the safe details of a public persona?
How many times have you been in a group where you had to watch what you said and guarded yourself about what people thought about you because of your appearance, your comments, your achievements, or other factors of likeability? How many times have you refrained from sharing about problems you are facing because you want to avoid criticism (blame), judgment, or unsolicited advice?
Small groups intended for sharing life together (“fellowship”) can be short-circuited so that meaningful sharing does not occur, people do not actually meet each other, and eventually they just give up trying. Additionally, groups oriented to multiple purposes, including personal sharing, often take the safe course of intellectual discussion, telling jokes, or superficial sharing so that true, authentic sharing fails to occur. People leave feeling empty and dissatisfied.
By contrast, one goal of spending time with fellow Christians is for people to feel free to share honestly what God is doing in their lives and reveal who they truly are, knowing they will be accepted (Rom 15:7). Real sharing is necessary for real knowing, and both lead to real bearing of one another’s burdens in prayer outside the group meeting (spontaneously, prompted by the Holy Spirit). There can be rich content just from learning what God is doing in each other’s lives. Bible study and organized teaching in small groups have great value, but these functions can be misused as a cover for avoiding vulnerability and real meeting with others.
For people to feel free the share the truth about the mystery of their involvement with God on a daily basis, they normally must have several conditions in place. Most people have been burned so many times that it can be difficult for them to be personally available and truly do church of sharing life together by praying for, forgiving, teaching, encouraging, loving, reassuring, and bearing burdens for one another. I offer four conditions others have taught me that have proven effective for meaningful fellowship. By following these, I have seen groups transformed in satisfying ways for authentic fellowship.
First, we need the safety of an environment of confidentiality. We have the right to tell our story ourselves, and to be free from the worry that someone we don’t intend may hear private details we have shared. Re-telling someone else’s story, even with good intentions, can be gossip, which is banned in Scripture because it damages relationships and threatens the gift of vulnerable sharing. Unless someone is divulging details about harm to themselves (such as contemplating suicide), harm to someone else, or something criminal, a group must be committed to confidentiality with each other.
Second, we need the safety of commitment to one another. Busy schedules can make it difficult to keep a meeting that is not strictly obligatory as for work or a doctor appointment. The erratic attendance of Christians in some small groups can make people feel distant when we are not sure who will be there, or whether or not they are interested in what we have to share. Knowing one another deeply is a costly reward that probably requires a minimum of a six-month commitment to journey together consistently. A bi-weekly schedule can make this more manageable. The commitment of this duration says we value each other and will invest time to share and learn together. This condition helps people feel that vulnerability will be repaid for a long duration of mutual sharing. By contrast, a brief meeting span of five or ten weeks may get more numbers of participants, but many people will be guarded and holding their breath for the short time. The thought of being very vulnerable and then have the group dissolve after ten weeks is discouraging so as to seem not worth it.
Third, the agenda of meeting must be focused on sharing if sharing is going to occur. Too easily, Christians can hide behind prayer requests, discussion of theological or cultural topics, or talking around some other drama that avoids personal meeting. The sort of fellowship envisioned here is rich enough to have its own place alongside meetings for other purposes of teaching and prayer. Each person must get a turn to share, even if just for a few minutes. No one gets to hide or cop-out. Vulnerability is a common project as “deep calls to deep.” When each person is expected to share, we come with having done some reflection in readiness that improves the quality of what we share. Many of the "one another" commands that Christians are told to practice do not occur regularly without a focus on personal sharing and listening. As a few examples, we are to love, pray for, confess our sins to, exhort, admonish, encourage, stir up, and otherwise care for one another, bearing each other's burdens, rejoicing and mourning with each other. Many of these rich functions do not typically occur in normal church meetings.
God has surprising things to say through us to others, and in ways we might not intend for others’ encouragement, exhortation, or instruction. In my experience, people need about ten to twenty minutes each to share what God is doing in their lives, including room for observations and clarifying questions. This means that a group of six people will need to meet for at least two hours when you allow for others asking questions and empathizing as a supportive family. A budget of up to twenty minutes per person means groups must be small (eight people or less). People also feel safer to share themselves in smaller groups of eight or less, compared to groups of ten to eighteen members. Groups that meet every week can be effective, but a weekly schedule tends to limit the amount of time people are able to meet (such as only one hour), which can result in not enough time to include everyone. Instead, I have seen good results in a bi-weekly schedule with a two-hour meeting block (or longer if you include a meal together). Having meetings two weeks apart can allow for more individual reflection so that meditation builds up in readiness to be open to God and one another.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series; you can view Part 2 here.