Julie A. Gorman, D.Min.

Fuller Theological Seminary

Pasadena, California

Summary: The leader who plans with transformation in mind will lead differently. The member who comes expecting to be changed by this group encounter will respond differently, to both information and interpersonal relationships.

Purpose

The purpose of a small group is not meetings but maturity. Not making connections as much as knowing God. True spiritual community leads to growth. Stuck groups are usually those that have closed their minds to change. They have chosen to remain within their comfort zones. Group vitality is energized by movement and growth, both in the individual and in the group as a whole. The presence of the Spirit, the gathering of believers in the name of Jesus, and the living, active Word of God combine to produce an amazing climate for growth. When every occasion of Christian community is viewed as an opportunity for Christian formation, groups take on new importance and the structuring of the time together becomes one of purposeful interaction. Group times then become more than just finishing a project, spending time together, or even getting to know each other.

Spiritual formation comes in many forms. In their journey toward Christlikeness, group members may grow in character, may discover new understandings, may develop skills that enhance their relationship with God and others, and may accomplish ministry to the body or to the world. A God-centered focus redefines whatever is done. People don't treat others with esteem and care just so they will feel at home in the group. Their at-homeness and experience of genuine love enhance openness to the formation of Christ within them and within relationships in the group. Members don't share openly just because they want people to know them and like them. Honest communication can be a means of personal formation. One person's disclosure may be used by the Spirit of God to help someone else gain perspective and encouragement. Refreshment times are more than icebreakers or small-talk time. They become occasions for informal formation and enjoyment of God's unique work in people made in his image. The intent of every facet of a gathering of spiritual community is to be formational.

The Latin phrase coram Deo sheds light on this perspective of formation. Coram Deo means "in the presence or before the face of God." Everything is done as it were with God being present to enhance and make use of acts and conversations to achieve his purpose. Words, activities, even rituals of a community become filled with his presence and are made more than mere human expressions-they are carried out to the glory of God. Even the most mundane act becomes an investment in the process of formation. With this kind of focus, words are chosen, actions are carried out, and group events become occasions for seeing God at work in who we are and what we do. Reports become offerings, expressing worship.

We must look at all of life from the central core of being "in Christ." How does being in him, knowing him, reshape our view of life things? We find God in the ordinary and discover that the former "ordinary" becomes significant and purposeful. When God is in our midst, formation is possible. It happened to Peter in a work group (his fishing team), to Cleopas and companion at table, having dinner together (in their Emmaus home), to Martha in the midst of grief (at Lazarus's wake), to a Samaritan lady during a routine household duty (getting water from the well). Every group occasion, whether support group, study group, or committee meeting, is an opportunity for our formation when seen as coram Deo.

Agents of change

The Spirit of God is the agent of formation. Only the Spirit can form us in his likeness, and that can occur in the midst of any spontaneous happening. Our role is to prepare for his coming. John the Baptist was given the mission of making crooked places straight, so those moving toward the Messiah would not stumble over unnecessary hurdles. All focus is on the Coming One and enabling people to get to him. Knowing God in our midst does not evolve from group dynamics. We do not convict or transform people. Groups are not one more self help mode. Spiritual formation is the work of the Spirit. "If you want to prepare for involvement in spiritual community, acknowledge that no amount of knowledge and skill and effort will make it happen" (Crabb, 1999, p. 128). We, as human enablers, work with the Spirit to do whatever is necessary to prepare the way for his arrival. This is our ministry creating conditions receptive to his working among us. These conditions do not cause the actual transformation in themselves but rather create an environment that helps put us in a place where God can move among us and shape us to reflect more fully his image.

Climate transformation

Expect It!

The leader who plans with transformation in mind will lead differently. The member who comes expecting to be changed by this group encounter will respond differently, to both information and interpersonal relationships. This openness to God's action in transforming attitudes, changing behavioral patterns, and moving us into deeper insight is in essence faith. Such belief in the power and person of a God who works in community to grow us up is essential to the Spirit's working God's will in our midst. Nazareth was left barren when it came to experiencing miracles that its native Son performed elsewhere. The inhabitants chose not to esteem him as more than a carpenter's son and thus their expectations were limited.

Regrettably, many groups become humdrum and lose vision as time sets in. People who have become old hands at group meetings fail to expect more than what has already been experienced. It takes intentionality to maintain the expectation that because God is at work here, every encounter, every happening is an opportunity for life change to occur. It is easier to settle for the status quo of our present situation. Groups where people are new to each other often see more formation and increased insight because of their openness to change.

Leaders who expect transformation lead with a different end in mind. Teachers who believe individuals and groups will be reshaped as a result of insights and processes will teach content in a more focused, life-related way. Members who come expecting to be changed experience significant growth. Perhaps this is why we so often grow through crisis events-we are forced to change and we open ourselves up to God to work newness in our lives. Expect transformation when the people of God gather around the Word of God with the Spirit of God present. Our expectations are never too high when these conditions are present.

Summary

Small groups appear integral to the ministry of the church. The creation of intimate, participative, laity-run units allowing people to talk about their faith becomes a site for spiritual formation. Under the direction of the Spirit such cells can purify and revitalize the church, energize its mission, and transform adherents into active, knowledgeable participants. In the words of Butterfield, spiritual communities may "well become an appointed way by which a mere handful of people may open up a new chapter in the history of civilisation" (Butterfield, 1979, p. 24).

Used by permission, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Community that is Christian: A Handbook on Small Groups, © 2002 Second Edition by Julie Gorman.


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January–March, 2009

Small Groups