Life Groups Are Not and Can Not Be the End for Spiritual Growth

growingAs pastor of discipleship at Westwood, I have been struggling with something for some time now.  I believe our Life Groups are vital to the health and growth of our church Body.  I have heard many testimonies about how they have strengthened individual believers.  My family has benefited from taking part in our own Life Group.  I know that most people at Westwood know just how important Life Groups are in my view.  However, I want to make something clear.  Life Groups are not and can not become the end for Spiritual Growth and discipleship.  Let me explain what I mean.

Although we focus on three very important values within our Life Groups–those being discipleship, ministry and mission–we simply cannot pursue all areas of discipleship within that one small group program.  Life Groups are wonderful for connecting families together, reflecting and applying what has been taught from the pulpit, intentionally ministering to each other’s needs, encouraging each other in the area of personal evangelism/mission, and occasionally going on mission together.  But there is so much more to discipleship!  I know of the frustration of some that would like to go deeper, more intimate, in Life Groups, but are hindered by the fact that our groups are ‘open’ and ‘multiplying.’  Well, let me clarify my answer to that frustration.

Life Groups are not designed for that level of intimacy.

That frustration is a great sign, though, because it shows that deep down we long for more and deeper interaction with believers.  We need it.  Now, some may experience different levels of intimacy than others.  That’s certainly OK and to be expected.  That’s just how it is.  But no Life Group offers a context for every area of growth vital to believers.  For instance, I read this great article on confession yesterday by Desiring God. I immediately began to ask myself if confession could or should be a regular part of our Life Groups. (PLEASE CLICK THE LINK AND READ THE ARTICLE).  It did not take long for me to come to the conclusion that apart from general types of confession resulting from working out sermon application, no one is really going to be able to fully practice confession sitting in a family small group atmosphere.  And that is OK.

Life Groups, as much as we would like for them to be, cannot be viewed as a one-stop-shop for all things discipleship and spiritual growth.  Nor can we come to believe that just by taking the step to join a Life Group, we have done all that is necessary to grow as disciples.  Due to the limits of time and commitment this world breeds, however, we wish that could be the case!

Just like there has to come a point in a believer’s growth where he moves from rows (the worship service) to a circle (Sunday School and/or Life Group), I believe that another step of growth necessarily occurs between a programed small group to a deeper accountability between 2 or a few more brothers or sisters (and yes, these types of relationships need be gender-specific). A Christian man needs one or a few Christian men in his life for the purpose of transparency and deeper fellowship.  Christian women need the same.  But in order for these interactions to take place, some things must be understood.

1. This is organic.  I am convinced that this type of interaction simply cannot be programmed by the church.  This has to be organic.  It has to be berthed out of a believer’s sincere understanding that this type of deeper walk with other believers is both necessary and worth the commitment.

2. This is costly.  I’m not pretending it’s not.  For most people, they are doing well to be able to be at church AND a Life Group each week.  Different seasons of life make this type of interaction seem almost impossible!  But again, we cannot begin to buy the lie that we have arrived if we are covering those two bases.  We need more.  For some it’s going to mean waking up a good bit earlier once a week than they like.  It may mean foregoing lunch once a week.  It may mean giving up a much cherished slot of time during the week.  It might even mean having to sit down as a husband and wife and taking a hard inventory of how the week is managed, having to rearrange things to make it work.  Perhaps we might need to seriously consider how we can be creative in creating these types of deeper interactions.  It is costly.  But it is worth it.  Jesus and our pursuit of him is worth it.  Our brothers and sisters are worth it.

3. This must be intentional and guarded.  It means moving beyond “Bible studies” and comfortable conversation.  Now, understand, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with “Bible studies.”  Studying the Bible with a group of believers can be very fruitful, and we live in a world where some great studies are being churned out constantly!  We can so easily attend a Bible study, though, without ever actually spending real, meaningful time in intentional application of the Scriptures with one another.  We can allow movement through such studies to replace real, nitty-gritty, deep, personal, uncomfortable, transparent, intentional fellowship.  I’m not saying that the Bible shouldn’t be studied in this type of context, indeed this type of interaction must be Word-centered, but if that leaves no room for deeper interaction with a few believers, then that purpose is left unfulfilled.  Don’t think that if you are attending an additional Bible study that this aspect of ‘deeper’ interaction is automatically taking place.  Be careful to not mistake additional for deeper.  It is entirely possible to fill our calendars with studies and gatherings and completely neglect going deeper with anyone.  The last thing we need to do is fill our schedules with more stuff to attend just so that we are attending ‘enough’ stuff.  An ever deepening pursuit of Christ together, however, exists as the one thing we all desperately need and must seek.

4. This type of interaction is hard and usually slow.  When we gaze deeply in the mirror of Scripture, we have no room for pride and no room for hiding, especially within the context of accountability.  It takes time to build this type of transparency and trust.  Rarely will this type of interaction naturally begin to occur from the first meeting.  Members of such a group must have patience and endurance, remaining intentional to reach a destination where this type of deeper fellowship consistently takes place.  Understand this, though.  These types of groups must pursue multiplication, as well!  We are always to be disciples making disciples that make disciples.  This is only achieved through multiplication.  But unlike Life Groups, this type of group must be closed for an adequate amount of time before this type of multiplication takes place.  For instance, a group of 3-4 men will covenant to meet together for 12-18 months, committing to then create and lead their own groups of 3-4 men at the close of that time for a similar amount of time.  This poses a difficult process, and one that will need to be repeated as multiplication takes place.

5. This must be initiated by someone.  I had a conversation with a young man this week wherein he expressed to me a desire for older men to pour into his life.  As I have heard so many times, and even felt myself, he shared with me his frustration that no older men had taken the initiative to begin such a relationship with him.  He asked me, “Whose responsibility is it to do that?  Theirs or mine?”  I responded, “It only matters that someone does.”  Because these groups really must be organic, this means that someone has had the initiative along the way to approach someone at some point and time to get the ball rolling.  Who should initiate it?  It doesn’t matter who, just that someone does.  If God has placed a desire in your heart for this type of deeper fellowship, then why not be the initiator, yourself?

I am so very thankful for a couple of guys that God has placed in my path for this type of interaction.  Through reading the article linked above, I became convicted myself that perhaps we could do a better job of guarding our time together in order to be more intentional, even if that means having to get more uncomfortable.  I believe this to be a constant battle.  But I’m a sinner who’s messed up and prone to wander.  I need those brothers.  I need confession.  I need to experience both exhortation and grace.  I need them to know me deeply enough to call me out in my sin, when needed.  I need to bear with them.  I need to rejoice with them.  I need to know that they not only are praying for me throughout the week, but that they know the intimate, detailed ways to pray for me.

As I took a class on prayer and spiritual awakening in seminary, I was amazed to learn how God had used this type of small, intentional, intimate interaction between groups of few believers as catalysts to the greatest spiritual movements in history.  If we are to be a people praying for revival, we must be a people walking in accordance with that prayer.  We must move beyond attending programmed gatherings and meetings.  We must be people who are passionately involved with the Scriptures individually on a daily basis.  We must be people who are also intimately involved with one another and more deeply invested in each other’s lives.  We must be a people who are willing to pay higher costs because our Lord is worth it and because the return we seek is eternal.  We must remain on guard against a world that is constantly pushing us further into autonomy.  We must understand that the cost of discipleship does not decrease with the advancement of technology.  We must never become content to equate discipleship and pursuit of Christ with the checking off of a couple of boxes each week.  Please don’t ever see Life Groups as the end to Spiritual growth and discipleship, but instead, as only the beginning to going deeper in your pursuit of Christ within the Body of Westwood, or your own local church.

*If this post stirs within you a desire to be a part of such a group, or if you recognize a need for your group to be more intentional, I would strongly recommend a relatively new book by Robby Gallaty called, “Growing Up.”  In it, he further defines the need for this type of intimacy, as well as lays out a very practical and attainable road map for facilitating such a group.  Robby’s specific ‘D-Group’ model calls for simplicity, utilizing personal growth through focusing on spiritual disciplines as a catalyst to group interaction.  You can click on the picture of the book to the left to go to its Amazon listing.

I Married my bride, Erin, in 2003. We have 3 children: Emma, Elijah, and Lydia. I have served full-time on staff at Westwood Baptist Church, in Roxboro, NC, since summer of 2006 as Pastor of Students & Discipleship. I am currently enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, pursuing my Doctorate of Education.

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