My Small Group Is Bumming Me Out!

Let’s “Be Real”

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples… if you are real with one another.”  Jesus said that, I think. 

So let’s “be real.”  One of the rarely-discussed plagues upon the evangelizing small group and one of the subtle threats to its long term health and sustainability is often one of the things that may have forged it to begin with: the opportunity to “be real” with others. 

Time and again people indicate the opportunity to “be real” with others as one of the principal reasons for joining a small group.  By this, they mean their small group to be a home for honest conversation, a place where they don’t have to pretend, and a community of support in which they will be accepted regardless of the extent of their brokenness, from the craziness and messiness of daily life to the dark and painful scandal of my sin.  If nothing else, the phrase expresses a deep longing for authentic community and the desire to share one’s life against a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency.

Approached the right way, evangelizing small groups thus become a setting for spiritual breakthrough, healing, and ultimately conversion towards Jesus!  Approached the wrong way, we may actually perpetuate woundedness, foster a spirit of disorder or negativity, or unintentionally turn people into projects, leaving small group-goers saying or at least thinking, “My small group is bumming me out!”

What Am I NOT Saying?

Being a teacher for many years, I try to be aware not only of what I’m saying, but also of what I’m not saying.  So what am I NOT saying?  I’m not saying that your evangelizing small group should be pretentious or shallow, unwilling to be vulnerable or accepting, or that the task of accompanying another sinner is too ambitious and dangerous to be taken on.  That is most definitely NOT what I’m saying.

Authentic friendship demands that we are welcoming and vulnerable with one another.  Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier, who died just two weeks ago, says as much, writing:

To welcome is to be open to reality as it is, with the least possible filtering. I have discovered that I have many filters within my own self where I select and modify the reality I want to welcome: the reality of the world, of people, of God and of the Word of God. I select what pleases me, boosts my ego and gives me a sense of worth. I rejected that which causes inner pain or disturbance or a feeling of helplessness; that which may bring up guilt feelings of anger or a broken sexuality. We all have filters created from our early childhood, protecting our vulnerable hearts and minds. To grow is to let go of these filters and to welcome the reality that is given, no longer through preconceived ideas, theories, prejudgements or prejudices or through our wounded emotions, but just as it is. Thus we are ‘in truth’ and no longer in the world of illusions.

To be “be real” is to be “in truth” and that’s always a good thing. 

5 Habits of a Contagious Small Group

Sharing one’s struggle is almost always challenging, if not heroic.  However, I would submit that, against the fear of envy and under the weight of false humility, it can sometimes – just sometimes – be more challenging to “be real” about one’s joys and occasions of spiritual progress.  In which case, talking about the latest stress can become just as easy as talking about the weather, reinforcing the thought among small group-goers that freedom is illusive and life is indeed “crazy.”

Yet, St. Paul reminds us that the Kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).  This is the “Catholic thing!”  St. Paul continues, “Let us then pursue what leads to peace and to building up one another” (Rom. 14:19).  So how do we build this Kingdom-culture for an evangelizing small group without compromising vulnerability or falling victim to shallow pretension? 

Consider the following 5 Habits of a Contagious Small Group:

1. Choose gratitude.

In the face of every challenge, choose gratitude.  In the words of St. Paul, writing from prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: rejoice! … The Lord is near.  Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Phil. 4:4-6).  This leads into the second habit.

2. Pray.

By way of prayer, keep the focus of the group ever-affixed on Jesus and the immensity of His love.  For an evangelizing small group, prayer is not an afterthought; it’s the first thought.  The confident disposition previously described by St. Paul is in full play here; after all, “The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:5).

3. Bless one another.

Simply put, to bless someone is to speak the truth of their identity.  “You are a good mother.”  “You are loved.”  “You are a gifted artist.”  “It is so good to have you guys over for dinner.”  This is more than simply being complementary or well-mannered; it’s an echo of the Father’s heart which affirms creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31).  In this way, we “speak life” into the small group and encourage others to do the same.

4. Readily give testimony.

There is power in testimony!  Testimony provides a regular reminder of God’s nearness and faithfulness, elevating the faith of the evangelizing small group for Him to “do it again.”  Where able, help others to identify “the grace of the moment” in their lives too, especially if they are not yet able to perceive or trust that God is really working “all things” for good (Rom. 8:28).

5. But don’t share everything.

This may seem counterintuitive to vulnerability, but a measure of discretion and discernment must always be applied to whatever is shared, even with respect to positive things which may be intimate to one’s relationship with the Lord.  For instance, in describing her First Communion, St. Therese of Lisieux intentionally refrains from sharing every detail with her reader, “for there are certain things which lose their fragrance in the open air.” (The Story of a Soul)

By adopting and modeling these five habits for your evangelizing small group, you will create a contagiously Catholic culture ordered to affirmation and up-building, not at odds with honesty.