Building a close network of friends inside a local church is one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do. If there is a temptation to dismiss this idea, will you consider how you could position yourself for this kind of community?
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Let’s Begin With a Word Cloud – As you scan my “word cloud,” what is the common denominator that connects all of these words. There are probably several excellent answers. What would you say is the one thing that ties all of them together?
I can think of at least two things that knit these words together. (1) This list represents our mutual commonality. We all have done some of the things on this list, if not all of them. It’s what it means to be “in Adam.” (2) The list also represents some of the things that should be occurring among your closest friends, especially in your small group.
If you have spent time with any small group that I have led, you would see some of these things in me, including the negative characteristics.
The real point of this discussion is not whether you or I sin, but what are you doing to mature in Christ? I am mainly talking about having a context where you are free to be the authentic and genuine person that you are.
- Vulnerable – Do you have a safe place to be real?
- Honest – Do you want to be honest in a community?
- Transparent – Do you see the value of being in a transparent community?
- Friendships – Do you perceive the danger of not being in a disciple-making community?
Three Men In Group
Let me introduce you to three men, who are part of a small group. The story is not true, but it could be representative of many of us.
Biff has been a small group member for more than two years. From an “outside-looking-in perspective,” he seems to have it together. Of course, that is his goal, as far as how Biff wants others to perceive him. His reputation is important to him, which is why he manages it so well.
What his small group does not know is that he is an angry man. His wife knows it. His kids know it. It has leaked out among a few friends, but his group does not know the real Biff.
His craving for people-approval motivates him to keep this part of his life closed off from those who could love him the best. Sadly, his desire to control things stunts his sanctification. Biff is a Christian.
Beau has been an addict since he was seventeen. He is thirty-one now. Beau has been in his small group just over a year. He and Biff are friends. They spend many weekends together because their wives, Mable and Marge, have become close.
Beau sensed how Biff is not what he claims to be, but Beau’s thoughts have been, “Shoot, who am I to judge him? I have this secret addiction.”
Beau’s current plan is to be clean for six months, to a year, before he tells Marge. His thought is if he can kick the habit, he can talk about his addiction as though it was something in his past, rather than a current struggle.
In his twisted thinking, he wants to maintain his reputation, project humility before the group, and eventually gain some accountability just in case he is tempted again.
His plan, like Biff’s, allows him to be in control of the situation. Rather than submitting to the foolishness and weakness of the gospel, both Biff and Beau do not want to subordinate their strengths to God’s (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Then enters Brice into the group. Brice is a young Christian, who has not learned the ropes yet. What I mean is that he has yet to experience the contamination from Biff’s and Beau’s immature thinking. You could say he has not learned to embrace the “value of hypocrisy” or the “art of deception.”
He is still naive enough to believe the Bible, take it at face value, and talk as though it is real. He is also a newbie to small group life. Biff and Beau have measured transparency. They reveal certain things about themselves because they want to show their humility.
They give the perception they are in the small group, while not indeed part of the community. Brice is amazed at their honesty and openness. From his perspective, it is radically different from the nonsense in his office. Brice is impressed, and he is grateful for his new group.
You can imagine what a surprise it was to Brice the night Biff’s wife, Mable, blurted out, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving Biff. He’s intolerable.” She continued to share, through tears, his many unexposed secrets.
She talked about the threats, his condemning ways, and even the physical abuse to her and the children. It was not a pretty picture. Sadly, it did not have to come out the way it did.
Behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out. – Numbers 32:23
All of us struggle with suppressed transparency. Just like Adam before us, our native tendency is to grab the fig leaves and cover up the shame in our lives (Genesis 3:7).
In one sense, it is a form of insanity. Read the negative things in the word cloud again. It is your list. It is my list. It represents only part of our inheritance from Adam and why Jesus came to reverse that curse.
- Why do we want to pretend those things do not belong to us?
- Why do we want to suppress our transparency?
The sad news is how the list is not complete. There is more. Total depravity does not mean you are doing every possible evil thing currently; it says you are capable of doing any despicable thing. Jeremiah was right (Jeremiah 17:9). Paul was right (Romans 3:10-12). Jesus was right (John 3:7).
One of the blessings of being a Christian is we have the option of finding friends who will listen and help us with our problems. The world cannot do this. They have no Jesus, no Spirit, no body of Christ, and no hope. At best, they can give you seven habits for an adequate life or the “best life now” motivation speech, both of which are devoid of gospel-infused transformation.
Break the Rules Of Etiquette
The real issue is that though we are born again, we continue to struggle with Adamic tendencies. We still drag our “former manner of life which is corrupt through deceitful desires” around with us (Ephesians 4:22). Eternally saved, but not sanctified is our problem.
Our imperfections are why it is helpful to review, from time to time, what our problems are and what we can do about them. Some call it “shooting the big elephants” in the room: the things we perceive about ourselves but are tentative about discussing among our friends. Here are three of those big elephants that make up every small group. If your group conquers them, you all will have a dynamic small group experience.
Fear Is Normal
Rarely will someone be like Brice; most people will hide their shame like Biff and Beau. Whenever Lucia and I have looked for a church to attend, we never put “finding a transparent, intentional, sanctification-pursuing, small group life” on our list of things we must have.
We knew the church we would eventually choose would be just like us–tentative about being honest with each other. That is not an uncharitable critique, but a reality. All churches struggle with humble transparency because all of them are made up of people like me.
Rather than complaining about a church that does not pursue transparency, we decided to practice openness by finding those individuals who want what we want in a sanctification community.
We all are afraid of each other to varying degrees. It is weird, but it is true. Fear of man is a universal sin that affects each of us in specific ways (Proverbs 29:25). Do not be surprised if your small group is anxious about being honest. One of the best things you could do is model the honesty that you desire from them.
Isolation Is Wrong
Do not settle for anything less than a group of friends who want to do intentional sanctification together. Did you know you can be humbly dissatisfied with superficiality? You do not have to be mad about it, but you can be righteously dissatisfied.
Ask God to give you the grace to where you can overcome your fear of being exposed by your desire for this kind of community. Hunger for it; pray about it; ask the Lord to give it to you.
Biff and Beau were deteriorating by the day with their relationship with Christ and their respective families. They were living in unexposed sin while participating in a small group that was supposedly organized to fight sin.
It is like becoming more sick while in the hospital. Biff and Beau did not understand or want to understand the value of community life. Fortunately, Biff’s wife had enough gumption to spill the beans.
If you try to mature in your sanctification outside of a community, you will not be successful. Isolation from a small group of friends is self-defeating in that it will hinder you from following Jesus, who came to penetrate and transform the human community.
Part of the sanctification process is making disciples. Isolating from disciples is counter to the aims of the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20). It is also counter to imaging our Trinitarian (communal) Lord (Ephesians 5:1).
Sin Is Insanity
Some people who will read this chapter have hidden sin, issues, struggles, and problems in their lives. Their spouses may not know about it. Perhaps their small group is unaware. Though they realize the truth of what I’m saying here, they are afraid of exposure.
I appeal to you to pray. Right now. Ask the Lord to give you a grace that will enable you to talk to your small leader (or group) about what you do not want to mention. You do not have to be alone, and the secrecy in your life does not have to overcome you.
Today, if you will hear His voice, I appeal to you not to harden your heart (Hebrews 4:7). No sin or circumstance has overtaken you that is uncommon to all of us (1 Corinthians 10:13). No sin or circumstance is outside of God’s grace. The power of the gospel can repair you in a community.
- Fear Is Normal – Will you challenge your fears by being open with others?
- Isolation Is Wrong – Will you pursue your community while resisting isolation?
- Sin Is Insanity – Will you ask your group to help you with your struggles?
Not At My Church
Two of the more common responses that I hear about this subject are: (1) You do not know my church, and (2) there is no one in my life that I can trust. Either one of these may be true for you, and if so, this is where the gospel must inform your thinking.
There is no human you can ultimately trust. The only kind of person that you can have as a friend is an imperfect person. Sinners will always let you down in a similar way in which you have disappointed others. There is a risk in a relationship, which is one of the stunning things about the gospel; Jesus loves us, though we disappoint Him so often.
With that said, I know that the kind of relationships I’m talking about can be impossible to build in a local church. But you still do not have to be alone or afraid. Two powerful applications of the gospel are when fear no longer controls you, and you are free to be honest about yourself while engaging others to be transparent with you.
Some of our best friends do not belong to our local church. And they are the ones who bring us the best care. If you do not have this kind of relationship inside or outside your church, you’re welcome to become part of our community. We are not the best option, but we are available if you want it.
Call to Action
- What will you do?
- What keeps you from being honest with your small group of friends?
- How do you need to change? Will you change? If you do, your small group can be dynamic.
Also published on Medium.