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Christians Grow in Groups

Jesus called them one by one-Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

My Sunday school teacher used these lines in a memory device to help us learn the names of the twelve apostles. Then she said, "You are special. Jesus loves you. Each person is precious to Him. He calls us one by one." No truth is more important. God loves us personally, and we come to Him through Christ as individual souls.

For church leaders, however, the calling of the Twelve has an even greater significance. The story illustrates how the Church began as an interacting group. As Jesus called people to salvation and discipleship His prayer was "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in youþ. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneþ. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:21-23).1 Discipleship is not only a matter of individual growth, but Christians grow together to form the Body and reach out to others "who will believe in me through their message" (verse 20).

No better description of group dynamics exists than the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry. Yet scholars, who write commentaries and textbooks with their systems of classification, tend to limit other viewpoints. An example of this is the way Jesus' ministry is often described as "preaching, teaching, and healing" (Matthew 4:23). Commentators give almost no attention to the distinct quality and style of His interaction with the disciples. This interaction encompasses more than what usually is understood by the terms preaching and teaching. It is a ministry of developing individuals and, at the same time, forming group identity.

The Gospel of Matthew could be described as a report of the interpersonal relationships and interactions of a group. The apostles were directly involved in whatever Jesus was doing, usually as active observers and participants rather than passive hearers. This process was as essential to the establishment of the Church as were ministry methods and theological explanations.

"WHERE TWO OR THREE COME TOGETHER IN MY NAME"

Textbooks give Boston physician Joseph Pratt credit for starting the helping group movement with a group therapy project in 1907. About two decades ago the term support system was coined by the mental health profession. Small group methods, though, have existed for educational and healing purposes throughout recorded history.

Jesus dealt with people in groups: "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20) is one among several references that associate small group work with the Early Church.

Religious healers have always relied on group support. When the medical profession was young, it tried to depreciate group methods to distinguish itself as a true science in contrast to folk practices. Then, as the helping professions became more established, practitioners acknowledged that most ills and problems are related to human relationships. Soon it became generally accepted that helping people means helping them to make changes in values and attitudes. And the possibility of bringing about such changes is greatly strengthened through group participation.

A GROUP IS FOR BELONGING

The literature on church growth and development now stresses the importance of small groups. The group factor dominates Barna's characteristics of user-friendly churches2 and Chandler's descriptions of innovative ways to handle the future's challenges.3

Cells, affinity, sharing, participation, specific target groups, empowering, belonging, teams, support, cooperation are the driving words and concepts, urging the use of group processes to maintain church vitality in changing postmodern times.

This recent popular interest in small group discipling causes many church leaders to perceive a paradigm shift related to 21st-century needs. Actually, people's basic needs and natures have not changed. What experts are saying is that small groups may be more important than ever because more people are torn apart-from one another and from stable meanings in life. People are uncertain what to believe as customs, institutions, and values change. Our best hope for making converts and guiding Christians into positions of maturity and service is to understand people's need to belong.

NOT TO BELONG IS TO BE LOST

Have you had the experience of walking into a room where everyone else seemed to be at home and you knew no one? Did you feel isolated and lost? Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology, explained the importance of groups: "Not to belong is to be lost."

Christians use the same terms to explain salvation. Not to belong in the body of Christ is to be a lost soul. We come to a greater understanding of group work when we realize it is not a new idea imposed by culture. People are created as social beings to fellowship with God. They have a basic need to belong, socially and spiritually, rooted in their ultimate need not to be lost.

A GROUP IS PEOPLE SHARING

A group is a collection of persons who share conditions that make them interdependent to some significant degree and who interact with one another in such a manner that each individual influences and is influenced by the others so that both individual and collective needs are met and goals are attained.

This definition distinguishes the group from random collections of persons. We understand more precisely the group concept when we compare it with some other terms used to designate collections of persons.

Groupings. This term refers to all persons in a category such as college students, singles, or retirees. Placing individuals in a class with others in the same category does not necessarily form a group.

Audience. An audience is a temporary collection of people whose purpose in being together is to observe, enjoy, or learn from what is done by others but not to participate to any significant degree. What is typically called audience participation is carefully structured and controlled by the leader. Discussion in some Sunday school classes really is audience participation rather than group interaction.

Congregation. A congregation is an audience whose purpose in being together includes corporate activity, such as worship, that is significant to the individual, with or without any true interaction with other persons. A congregation may become a true group as the individuals influence each other. When leaders require response and encourage interaction, such as handshaking, they are trying to bring the congregation into a group condition and attitude.

In summary, a collection of persons is a group when it possesses these qualities: definable membership; group consciousness; a sense of shared purpose; interdependence or feeling of need for one another; interaction, including communication and influence; and the ability to act in a unified way.

ACCEPTANCE, CARING, AND LEARNING OCCUR BEST IN SMALL GROUPS

The term group dynamics comes from the writings of Kurt Lewin, who helped establish a research center for the study of group behavior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1940s. He used this expression to describe what happens in groups. It does not refer to what groups ought to be like nor to techniques for getting people to participate. As a scholar, Lewin's interest was in making observations and writing about the pattern he saw. Group dynamics is not a set of rules on how to organize or manipulate people. It is the study of processes by which a collection of individuals become a group, how people working together with shared values and goals influence each other and accomplish purposes.

Lewin introduced the idea that an assembly of persons exists in a field of forces that affect the behavior and attitudes of the individuals. He described four main forces:

  1. The group provides a context for comparisons and thus facilitates learning. A group can function to help people gain insights they might never develop alone. For example, John is angry and frustrated because of some experience. Then, in the group discussion, he begins to perceive that Harold has had a similar experience, but he interpreted it differently and is not frustrated and angry.

    As the members compare experiences and their interpretations, a completely new interpretation may emerge, different from that originally held by any one member. This function makes group activity in the context of scriptural teaching and Christian testimony a tremendous power for discipling. Without preaching, scolding, or any manipulating, the leader who has biblical knowledge, is caring, and is in tune with the guidance of the Holy Spirit can facilitate the operation of this group force.
  2. The group can foster cohesiveness. Groups combat today's erosion of loyalty and the reluctance of people to make commitments. A small group, especially when it meets regularly as a Sunday school class, is the best soil for development of community. Special warm relationships grow so trust and complete acceptance are possible. In this setting people tend to feel they are liked, and they may be encouraged to risk revealing needs and requesting prayer. People in a cohesive group are likely to be loyal to the church and regular in attendance. This is a positive outcome for the church as well as for the person who is thereby exposed to further opportunities for learning and growth.
  3. The group imposes standards and influences behaviors. In spite of the prevalent idea that people want to do their own thing, for most individuals nothing is more rewarding than pleasant human relationships. No punishment is as fearsome as being rejected and abandoned; therefore, social control is a powerful force. Persons want to abide by group standards. They do not wish to violate group expectations. If they are members of a true group (not an assembly of persons being coerced by an authority figure), they feel protective of group customs and standards.

    A group has power to control not only the behavior of its members but also their emotions and eventually their attitudes. Social psychologists have made many studies of crowd and mob behavior, which are extreme examples of social control. People are carried away and behave in ways uncharacteristic of them when they are alone. This group potential to affect emotions can be seen in the positive outcomes of corporate worship, evangelistic meetings, and the urge to express care and love when the suggestion is made in a cohesive group. Unwholesome emotions of self-pity, anger, anxiety, and rebellion can be reduced or eliminated by this group force and replaced by feelings of hope, forgiveness, peace, and repentance.
  4. The group can define reality for its members. Some lines from classic poetry are a prayer for the ability to see ourselves as others see us. Behavioral scientists say that people see themselves according to the treatment they receive from others. The function of the group is not to raise self-esteem but to help people, as the poet prayed, to see themselves in realistic ways. People tend to be unrealistic, to see themselves either better or worse than they are. Self-concept should be neither low nor high but accurate. Failure to grow spiritually often results from people's inability to understand their own needs and feelings, to recognize their own weaknesses and strengths. Group participation helps people test reality. It gives them opportunities to accept themselves and relate to others in honest, healthy ways.

The Christian group gives its members the added advantage of testing their perceptions in the light of Scripture. Also, it provides a picture of God's grace, which is essentially acceptance on the basis of Christ's worth-not our own. The need people have in this combative, competitive world to justify self cannot exist in a true group of Christians. Instead, the group offers opportunities for self-discovery and self-development. A realistic self-concept brings positive feelings about oneself without the need to be above or better than another, and the result is that positive feelings toward others increase as well.

Sometimes Christians hesitate to admit the importance of group forces because the idea sounds humanistic. The leader of a worship service may say, "Now forget about everyone around you and keep your mind on the Lord." Leaders who understand group dynamics know this kind of near-apology for group influence is not necessary. The Bible encourages God's people to assemble for good reasons. While wise leaders depend primarily on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they know that group processes have unique value. Worship, learning, loving, serving gain new strength and meaning as modern disciples embody the answer to Jesus' prayer. Not for them alone but for those who will believe in Him through their message.

ENDNOTES

  1. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
  2. George Barna, User-Friendly Churches (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1991).
  3. Russell Chandler, Racing Toward 2001 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992).

Billie. Davis, Ed.D., is professor emeritus of behavioral sciences, Evangel College, Springfield, Missouri.

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