1 / A NEW GENERATION OF SMALL GROUPS
n Jimmy Long
Captain's Log, Stardate 486650.1
I keep pondering over what Captain Kirk told me earlier today. "Picard, don't let them promote you, don't let them transfer you, don't let anything take you off the bridge of that ship. Because while you're there (and in command of the Enterprise), you can make a difference." I want to make a difference! I, oh, so want to make a difference. (Star Trek: Generations)
Author's Log, Earthdate Fall 1995
It is my hope that you, like Picard, want to make a difference. A small group leader has a role of strategic importance similar to that of serving the U.S.S. Enterprise. You, however, have the opportunity to influence people for eternity. As serving at the helm of the Enterprise is both a challenging responsibility and a privilege, so is leading a small group. Having six to twelve people under your leadership can feel daunting at times. However, seeing those same small group members grow closer to each other and to God, while at the same time reaching out to bring new people into the group, will bring you great satisfaction.
For Kirk and Picard a key to successful leadership was maintaining an overall perspective of their mission. They needed to understand why they were on their mission. They also had to have a grasp of what were the components of their mission and set their course. Furthermore, through mapping out and navigating a course, they began to understand how to proceed in their mission. To accomplish their mission they had to grasp who they were as leaders and be willing to serve at the helm.
As small group leaders, we also need to keep an overall perspective. Too often we concentrate only on the hows of the next meeting. By covering the whys, whats, hows and whos of small groups, this book will help you keep the larger picture in mind. In the first two chapters we will work on the whys of small groups by exploring our mission. We will set our course in chapters three through six by looking at the whats of small groups. "Navigating group life" will be our theme in chapters seven through ten as we look at the hows of small groups. In chapters eleven through thirteen we will focus on the whos of small groups as we concentrate on our role of "serving at the helm."
Setting the Stage
Small groups have always been a part of InterVarsity's existence in the United States. In the 1940s the qualifications to become an InterVarsity campus group at such places as the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois were a daily prayer meeting and weekly Bible studies. The importance of small groups continued after World War II at places like Texas A & M, which had 600 students involved in over forty InterVarsity Bible studies. In the late 1960s small groups made a resurgence following the publication of InterVarsity's November 1968 edition of HIS magazine, devoted entirely to small groups. In the early 1980s many InterVarsity groups experienced rapid growth and students desired to be more anonymous; large groups began to be more the central focus for many campus groups.
As the 21st century begins, we are experiencing a cultural shift which could be as dramatic as the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Although it is sometimes difficult to identify because it is happening slowly over an extended period of time, we need to try to understand the changes and adjust our ministry to meet the needs. Small groups will have a major part in outreach and discipleship on campus as we move into this new cultural era.
Facing change can be intimidating, but the apostle Paul provides an encouraging example. As Paul entered Athens, a new cultural context for the gospel, he pondered how to bring the eternally true gospel to a radically different culture. Paul applied three different strategies as he proclaimed the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of preaching or teaching as he had done before in previous cities, Paul reasoned with the Athenians in the synagogue and marketplace (Acts 17:17). Second, Paul, instead of initially talking about Yahweh, connected with the Athenians through the example of their altar "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" (Acts 17:23). Finally, instead of referring to the Old Testament prophets, he quoted a Greek poet to help the Athenians to identify with his message (Acts 17:28). As Paul recognized and responded to the changing cultural values between the Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, we need to understand the shift in cultural values within our society.
Who Are We?
At a recent Harvard graduation ceremony, one of the student speakers summarized how many people today are feeling in the midst of this cultural value shift.
I believe that there is one idea, one sentiment, which we have all acquired at some point in our Harvard careers, and that ladies and gentlemen is in a word, confusion. They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgement sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.
Confusion is intensified today because there are two primary shifts occurring at the same time. One of these shifts is from Baby Boomers to Generation X and eventually to the Post Xer (Millennial) Generation. At the same time an even larger cultural paradigm shift is occurring from the Enlightenment era (1500-1968) of the Baby Boomers and those before them to postmodernism (1968 on). Generation X is the first "pure" postmodern generation. The contrast in the eras can be characterized as follows:
There are a number of specific effects on college students stemming from this transition into postmodernism. We now live in a world with few traditions and little basis for decision-making. Instead of traditions like family values or moral ethical consensus, we only have preferences. The result is a sense that anything goes. Many students today are wandering through the night groping for guidance.
In response, students are developing their own community groups which help them make sense of life. The political Right, gay/lesbian and even certain Christian groups have come together to form their own truths, many times at the exclusion of others. So today, instead of coming together, postmodernism is causing many students to move apart and stay in their own groups (sometimes called tribal groups) to develop some security and significance.
Another reason for the development of these groups is the onslaught of the dysfunctional family due at least in part to the sexual rebellion of the Boomers and the breakdown of the two-parent family. These family changes stemmed from the Boomers' desire for independence and self-fulfillment. Fifty percent of today's teenagers are not living with both their original mother and original father. In a recent survey, while 80% of divorced parents professed to being happier after the divorce, only 20% of the children said they were happier after the divorce.
We cope with the disappointment and pain of childhood in a number of ways. For many, friends take the place of family. Friends matter enormously. A mutual-protection circle of friends provides a guard against the cruel adolescent world. We feel safe among friends. This need for close friends continues in college.
The Small Group Strategy
As we look at the deep needs for security and significance being met through friendships and community, we need to make sure we adjust our ministry to meet these real needs of students. Small group ministry is a key to meeting these needs. In a recent Christianity Today article, Robert Wuthnow, a leading sociologist, explains: "We no longer live in the same neighborhoods all our lives or retain close ties with our kin. The small group movement has arisen out of the breakdown of these traditional support structures and from our continuing desire for community. We want others with whom we can share our journey."
If we are going to faithfully minister to our student generation in the coming years, InterVarsity campus groups can no longer be a fellowship that contains small groups, but a fellowship of small groups. Small groups need to be at the heart of accomplishing InterVarsity's vision, which is to
BUILD COLLEGIATE FELLOWSHIPS
DEVELOP DISCIPLES who embody biblical values and
ENGAGE THE CAMPUS in all its ethnic diversity with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Consider two questions: (1) What are students in your chapter referring to when they say they are going to InterVarsity this week? (2) Are more students in your chapter involved in small groups or the large group meeting?
If you answered "large group" to both of these questions, you might need to rethink your building strategy if you want small groups to be the foundation for your chapter. Students today are desperately seeking a community in which to belong. It is critical for us to provide students the opportunity to be a part of a caring Christian community during those first few days on campus. InterVarsity small groups of six to twelve students are the ideal environment for this Christian community to take shape.
One small group building strategy can been seen in Liz's group in Randall Dorm. Liz and all the other small group leaders in her chapter attended the New Student Picnic which was held a few days before classes even began in the fall. At the picnic all the new students were divided into their dorm units or geographical sections (if they lived off campus) to meet with their potential small group leader. (In some schools this dividing into small groups occurs at the first large group meeting.)
Liz sat down with the six new students from Randall to help them get to know each other and tell them a little bit about the small group in Randall. While visiting each of the new students the next day, Liz invited each of them to go out to eat with the small group that night. Before classes began these new students were involved in a small group.
During the rest of the semester, these new students and the returning students met weekly for their small group in Randall. More than that, they became friends and included each other in all types of outings—meals, movies, ball games, studying and even doing their laundry together.
Liz's small group began with nine students. Because everyone loved the group, they began inviting other friends in Randall to join. By the end of the first semester the group had grown to eighteen, so at the beginning of the second semester they divided into two groups.
When these students thought of InterVarsity, they thought of their small group even though they went to large group meetings together. Although they might miss a large group meeting now and then, they never missed small group because their small group became their friendship group. They connected first with a small community and not with a large gathering. Students today have a deep need for a small community in which they can be known.
Students also need a community to help them develop into maturing disciples of Jesus Christ. Students entering college often have very little biblical foundation. Many become Christians while they are in college. They are attracted to Christianity partly because of the community that they experience in small groups. However, we want to make sure that students are converted not just to the Christian community, but to the King of the community—Jesus Christ. To accomplish this goal small group leaders need to help their small group members be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Does developing group members into disciples feel like an overwhelming task? Let me ease your anxiety by telling you how Jonathan helped his members grow.
Jonathan had only been a Christian a few years himself, and his time was limited because he had a part-time job. However, he loved God and his small group members. Jonathan made four commitments to the development of the members of his group. First, he recognized that the primary way Christians develop is through the study of the Bible, so he committed himself to faithfully preparing for the Bible study portion of the small group each week. Next, although Jonathan knew he could not disciple everyone in his group, he decided to disciple two students weekly, and as time permitted he visited other members, who were scattered all over the community.
Jonathan also committed himself to attending large group and any other training event or conference InterVarsity sponsored. Jonathan realized that because he went to a commuter school his small group did not have as many natural opportunities to build friendships as students involved in a residential chapter do. So to all these IVCF events he tried to bring as many of his small group members as he could. At Spring Conference that year Jonathan arrived with all fourteen members of his small group. Finally, Jonathan worked hard to make sure each member of his group was regularly attending church.
Jonathan was faithful in his commitment to the development of his small group members, using the resources available to him. By the end of the year, his small group members were not mature, but they were maturing. Eight out of the fourteen students in his small group were small group leaders the next year.
Engaging the Campus
I would characterize students today as relative cynics. Students of this generation feel abandoned by their dysfunctional families, by a faltering economic system and by a power-hungry political system. All of these conditions have caused many students not to trust anyone. Additionally, as a result of postmodernism, truth has become only preferences. What truth the postmodern student usually has comes about through seeing that truth practiced in a community. Students need to see truth applied, not just proclaimed.
In this climate small groups become the ideal place for evangelism. It is primarily through individual friendships that trust can be established and primarily through observing a small group community that truth will be experienced. Large group events supplement individual and community evangelism.
Jack's small group in Taylor Dorm was not a group that anyone would have expected to hold up as a model small group, but over time they embodied these principles of outreach. The group was composed of seven students—none of whom would be considered particularly bright or socially adept—who grew to love each other and felt a deep compassion for their fellow students in their dorm. Each committed to reaching out in friendship to at least one person in their dorm who was not a Christian.
At first glance some of their choices did not seem likely to be people who would become Christians. For instance, David picked Mike, who was one of the top scholars in his class. David was close to flunking out of school. Two other members in the group, Mary and Andy, picked Eddie, whom everyone, except probably Mary and Andy, knew as the dorm drug dealer. However, over a period of time, Mike came to trust David. Although David could answer very few of Mike's questions, David was the first person who Mike felt ever cared for him. For Eddie, Mary and Andy were the first people in a long time who had cared for him because of who he was and not because he could sell them drugs.
As these friendships were developing, the small group slowly became more and more of a community. One of the members of the small group, Annie, had been ostracized by her Jewish family after she became a Christian. She developed a new appreciation for some of the Jewish festivals from a Christian perspective. Annie helped the other members experience these traditions. After they had invited both Mike and Eddie to some social outings of the group, they began to invite both of them to some of their small group meetings, especially the Jewish festivals.
During the year both Mike and Eddie became Christians. Later Mike was asked what made the difference. He said it certainly was not the intellectual discussions. David did not win one of those debates, but he won Mike's trust. He consistently cared for Mike as a person. Mike began to see that David's caring was the incarnation of Christ's caring for him. Mike also said that he saw within the small group the truth of Christ being lived out in community as he observed people in the small group loving each other and beginning to love him. For Mike the small group was the gospel in action.
Each of the leaders we looked at—Liz, Jonathan and Jack—made a difference. Each of them had different gifts and unique groups. However, God worked in them and through them to develop a small group that changed lives. God wants to work in you and through you to make a difference with your small group.
Understanding the Chapter
1. Read Acts 17:16-34. Trace Paul's strategy in Athens.
2. Compare this strategy with Paul's strategy in more Jewish settings like Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52).
1. What characteristics would you use to describe your student generation?
2. How might these characteristics shape your strategy for ministering to your fellow students?
3. Last year what role did your small group have in accomplishing the vision of building a fellowship, developing disciples and engaging the campus with the gospel?
4. What role do you want this coming year's small group to have in building, developing and engaging the campus?
1. List ways you would like to make a difference in your small group.
2. Commit yourself to praying daily for members of your small group.
—Small Group Leaders' Handbook