Fulfilling a Sense of Community
By Rich Simpson
Hello Church Family,
This last summer I earned my Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University by completing research on the theory of transformational learning. My study involved interviews with small group participants at Northpoint Church. Knowing the robustness of Northpoint Church’s small group adult ministries that includes Sunday morning discipleship groups, growth groups, the men’s and women’s groups, the college-age group, and GriefShare, I sought to discover the transformational learning elements found in these experiences that foster personal transformation. The hope being that these elements could be incorporated into Biblical teaching and group meetings to assist leaders and teachers in their planning, execution, and assessment of learning, creating a more transformative learning environment in small groups.
One of the principles emphasized throughout my study was the power and authority of Scripture. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teachings, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). While man-made systems and structures could strengthen the biblical learning process it was for the sole purpose that the power of Scripture be fully realized in the lives of small group members, offering a more holistic approach to leading and facilitating small group transformational learning.
Most of the participants indicated relational elements of their small group that contributed to their transformative learning experience. Although there was an underlying significance of how God would work in their lives through His word and the Holy Spirit, much emphasis was on the love and care they received from other individuals in their small groups. Further, sharing life and growing deeper in relationships with group members had a significant impact on how participants dealt with their difficult situations. Eight elements or factors of the small group experience were identified as contributing to the change individuals experienced:
Acceptance and love. Many stated how others were patient, encouraging, and non-judgmental to them while going through their struggles.
Care and concern. Participants noted how important it was to them that they knew they had people in their small group who cared about them and were praying for them.
Open and honest. Individuals emphasized being able to wrestle with a difficult situation or struggle while others in the group helped them think through it by coming alongside them with sincerity and open ears.
Shared life experience. Sharing life to these participants meant more than just sharing stories. It meant sharing in the burdens of life, coming alongside those that needed it, and going through the good and the bad together as a group.
Deep relationships. Connection and familiarity with small group members played a significant role. As groups met and discussed some deep, intimate issues, stronger, more meaningful relationships were built.
God’s word. While for the majority of the participants’ small group was relational, it was also a time for biblical study and reflection. It was clear from some that a focus on God’s word and how it relates to their lives was an impactful element of the small group experience.
Leadership expectations. Strong leadership, fairness, and consistency amongst the leaders of small groups was a contributing factor, as well.
Comfort. Comfort and confidentiality added up to a feeling that a small group is a safe place and a refuge for the members.
Leaders played a significant role in not only setting the tone and expectations for the group but also being an example members followed when it came to reaching out and caring for others in the group. While the study of God’s word was a central purpose for many of these small groups to gather, there was an underlying focus on sharing life together that really seemed to make a difference. Connecting relationally meant group members being open and honest to share what was going on in their lives and that being reciprocated by others in the group. Being able to share and relate to personal experiences was essential to participants. Five of the identified eight elements that fostered transformation in individuals could be categorized as relational in nature. Quality time spent as a group and sub-groups was critical, as well, giving members ample opportunity to get comfortable with one another. Nearly all participants indicated how important it was for them to make connections with others in the group that would allow for regular support and encouragement from people that were sensitive to their struggles and were not quick to judge.
Participants pointed out that along with love and acceptance came understanding from others and opportunities to give love because they had received love. In this sort of cooperative, life-sharing environment participants’ healing came by listening to others’ struggles and helping them through theirs, as well. This lead to deeper relationships being built as people let down their guards and became vulnerable to others in the group. Over time, within the group, as a member experienced a dilemma, a need to re-orientate their lives, or in some way change, the group would be ready to assist that individual. Most often transformation described by participants happened over time, but their small group played a significant part in fostering it.
One of the primary purposes of the church is to disciple, and that learning is fostered through interaction with God, the Bible, and others to promote spiritual growth. Recognizing God’s design for community within the body of believers, my research concluded that the relational elements of small groups, such as love, care, prayer, and connection create a transformative learning environment where personal transformation is likely to take place through the transparency and development of close relationships with others in the group. Jesus himself models small group learning as he encouraged regular fellowship with groups of his followers that included time with the larger crowds, the twelve disciples, and his three closest followers. Further, the early church is given the explicit instructions in Romans 12:9-13 to do what this study’s findings reveal:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
It is no surprise that Christians doing what God has commanded them to do has a transformative impact on people’s lives. Deep relationships, the ability for Christian believers to authentically connect and love one another as Jesus loves them, is just as important as small group curriculum and process.
Through small groups, God works in a dynamic rather than narrow way and I encourage you if you are not already involved in a small group at Northpoint, to get plugged in. We have some great groups here. Small groups are one way the church fulfills its obligation to nurture the spiritual maturity of believers by equipping individuals for the work of ministry so that everyone may be presented mature in Christ. These findings emphasized that by fulfilling the sense of community that God has created us for, small groups shape and change people’s lives.
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