This is a response to the second question of a two-part question that came up after John Burke (Lead Pastor at Gateway Church) interviewed me last month. I responded to the first of the two-part question on last week’s blog. Last week’s question was about why I think the kind of small group I had mentioned was important. My response is that Jesus spent approximately two-thirds of his three-year ministry with a small group of twelve men—the same twelve men. And all Jesus left was that small group and the Spirit in their midst. Further, Paul’s ministry was largely devoted to starting and continuing to correspond with and mentor a few small groups scattered in cities around the Roman Empire.
So now I’m getting to the second question: “What is the purpose of the small groups you talked about, and do these groups prepare Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment to issue God’s invitation to the world?”
What is the overall purpose of an “adventure” group?
Although the members of an “adventure” group learn about and experience ways to pray as Jesus taught the Twelve, and they examine relevant scripture passages, the overall purpose is for the group members to experiment with and actually experience receiving and giving the love of Jesus in their real time everyday lives and relationships. The experiment begins with every member agreeing that for thirteen weeks they will assume that the God Jesus called Father is real. And for the thirteen-week period the participants will live as if they had actually surrendered their entire lives to God. This includes an agreement among the group members not to argue about God’s existence or different interpretations of the Gospel. Instead they will be guided to experiment with how to love the people in their personal and vocational lives beginning with the other group members. They learn how to share in the group meetings by listening without interrupting or challenging what anyone else says they have experienced, and by reporting what happens—the failures as well as positive experiences—when they consciously take God with them clear through their days and nights. Each group member agrees to pray for the others every day during the experiment about the things shared in the group.
This group experience is not like any Bible study or sharing group most people have ever been in. The purpose is not to evangelize your neighbors or become expert Bible students; it is to learn (by doing) how to carry out the new command that Jesus gave the disciples when he was about to leave them: “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (Jn. 13:34-35, The Message)
Since we are also called to love the world, the primary purpose of Jesus’ group and these groups is to learn how to love God and do his will in all areas of our own lives, secular as well as “religious.” And as we try to do some simple things to learn how to receive and give love—with the Father and each other, we will be acquiring the core characteristics, attitudes and behaviors that we will need later when we go out to meet the needs of those who have been marginalized in our culture—the hungry, the sick, those without clothing and shelter, etc. I’ve always thought it was strange that Jesus didn’t send the Twelve out on missions until not too long before the crucifixion. He evidently wanted them to be sure to go out with love as well as a perspective in everything they did.
Bruce Larson and I worked for years with dozens of groups to build a course that is emotionally safe. We did this by developing rules (and making these rules clear) that keep the members from putting people down who risk sharing their reality, (i.e. not “fixing” them, offering suggestions or corrections) that would shame them for not participating or for “making mistakes”. The leader and all the group members will help each other to learn how to love and assure every person’s safety in the group. (This experience can be invaluable later in missions to people who have been abused in their worlds.)
Almost anyone can lead an Adventure group. In the meetings, Bruce and I face and respond first (on CD’s) to every question to which group members are asked to respond. And the group leader responds third. So an appropriate level of vulnerability is established before other group members are asked to share, which allows the group to become safer and closer more quickly than is usually possible otherwise. Also, any participant can choose to “pass” on responding to any of the questions or exercises without being shamed or criticized. These guidelines create a safe and more free and open atmosphere than many participants have ever experienced anywhere. An atmosphere in which the real issues, the fears, the joys and the reality can be shared—of trying to commit their lives and relationships to God in the real life contexts of their own families, church situations and vocational and social lives.
So in this safer atmosphere, the participants try various experiments in their real life situations (outside the group, between sessions) of praying, handling the many disappointments of admitting when they are wrong and asking forgiveness. As they do so, they are building a library of experiences—living stories—from the experiences they will personally go through and share with the group during meetings. And while they are carrying out these experiments between group meetings, the group members will also be examining some of Jesus’ stories (parables) and considering with which character they identify—thus adding more living stories to their educational base.
When people close to Jesus (including the Twelve) asked about the stories he pointed out that they (whom he was teaching) were getting a good picture of how the Kingdom of God works in their lives. But other people whom they encountered along the way—people who hadn’t had this much teaching from Jesus and so didn’t understand—for those people stories created readiness—readiness to hear more. (See Mark 3:10-11, The Message, quoted at the end of this blog.)
What usually happens—invisibly at first—is that in the process of being heard and accepted as they are, people who may have been church members for years, come to realize that love has crept in and replaced loneliness and the sense of not fitting—feelings that apparently all people long to overcome.
As to the sharing, it often happens that when someone who has “passed” several weeks in a row finally speaks, he or she may be a different person than the one whom you met at the first meeting.
We believe that these experiences are all parts of the transformation process Jesus said was essential. It is like being “born anew from on high.” And friends, when you see a fellow adventurer being transformed before your eyes, week after week, it is impossible to tell you what this can do to your faith and ability to love God and other people. It seems that one must experience this personally to understand how important it is.
There is also a strong rule about keeping everything that is said in the meetings confidential. At first this seems strange but in the end, this creates an unbelievable sense of freedom and honesty. I remember when I started the first group of this kind in a church in Norman, OK in the 1950’s I had explained the group plan to the pastor and gotten his permission to start the group. We were meeting in our home. After several weeks the pastor called me and said, “What are you telling the people about money?”
I said, “Why are you asking?”
He said, “Well, three of the couples have started tithing since the group started meeting and they were a little vague when I talked to them.”
I laughed because tithing hadn’t even been mentioned. But the minister was so happy that he said, “I’m sending another couple over to join your group.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I said. “The rules are that no new members are allowed to join a new group after the second week. In this intimate atmosphere running in new people every week means starting to build the trust level all over again. We may do another group later if some people want to.”
The minister then asked, “Well what is this ‘secrecy’ all about? Where did you ever come up with a rule about people not sharing what’s going on in a group?”
I smiled and said, “Jesus. Several times Jesus told people who’d been helped by his ministry, “Don’t tell anyone.”
This may sound like an unusual way to operate a group, but people who have been together for thirteen weeks sharing their reality, the good news and the bad, sickness and celebrations, have reported time and again that long before the thirteen weeks are over, participants report that they find themselves becoming more caring for people around them outside the group, even difficult people and even in painful situations. But these feelings and attitudes of really beginning to trust and share are new and a little scary for people at first. And we are convinced they need a safe, non-critical place to report failures as well as successes. (We still attend such groups after all this time.)
This sort of group experience can create a spiritual culture of people who want to experiment with really trying to offer to God the living out of their eating, sleeping, working, walking around lives for Christ. (See Romans 12:1, The Message)
No group structure or process is for everyone, of course. But we have found that unless a large church finds a way for new people to learn to love each other and pray specifically for each other in a face to face atmosphere, over a period of time the back door of that church will become bigger than the front—no matter how gifted and committed the teaching pastors are. And our experience indicates that many group graduates go on mission trips after a thirteen-week group, or join a mission group in their own city, or teach a class in the church. They report that because of their experience in these groups, they find themselves listening to and praying for or with the people they are going out to help.
I have not tried to give you a comprehensive picture of the course content. If you would like to read about the course materials, click here.
And one last thing: because of years of being in adventure group meetings of various kinds, I realize that people are all different in their needs, hopes and dreams. And I have discovered that my job is not to change anyone—even any of you who may be reading this blog. So if what we have learned is not something that you feel comfortable trying, we won’t bug you. But this is just my answer to the person who wanted to know the purpose of this kind of group experience.
We are starting up again working in local churches after many years of working in different cultures here and overseas. If you choose to use this group experience as a part of your Christian formation effort, we’ll be glad to do what we can to help that happen.
“When they were off by themselves, those who were close to him, along with the Twelve, asked about the stories. He told them, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight. These are people—
Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing,
Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word,
Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.”
-Mark 4:10-12, The Message
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s.”
-1st Jn. 4:17, The Message
Lord, Thank you that you took the time to live the life of love with the few people you chose to deliver the Father’s invitation to the rest of us, so we’d know it’s really livable. Give me trust at this time to believe that I will get my work done if I risk interrupting my busy schedule long enough to live your life with a few others…again. In Jesus’ name, amen.