Monday, August 31, 2009

Quitting Small Group

My husband and I recently committed what some consider an act of apostasy – we quit our small group. We aren’t holding a grudge against anyone, we aren’t leaving the church, and we aren’t cutting ourselves off from Christian fellowship (as a friend from another church was accused of when quitting her small group). In fact, we are making more efforts at fellowship, inviting others to join us for informal get-togethers so we can develop some genuinely close friendships.

Briefly put, we quit our small group because we didn’t believe it was the best use of our time. We believe in the goals of small groups – developing close relationships so that we can pray for each other and encourage each other to grow more Christlike – but we don’t believe in their methods. Over fifteen years, I have been part of almost a dozen small groups sponsored by three different churches; my husband has joined me in most of them. Never once have I developed a close friendship through one of these groups.

In fact, the very nature of small groups seems to have the opposite effect on most people I know: We learn to keep our true thoughts, emotions, and struggles to ourselves. In one instance, my husband and I were stunned to learn that a couple from our small group was getting divorced. We had prayed with them weekly for a year or more and never once had an inkling that their marriage was in trouble. If that small group had produced true fellowship, we would have been praying for them in a way that might have healed the marriage and prevented the divorce.

I know that some small groups function as they should – at least I hear rumors that some do – but those groups seem to be as rare as a bodily resurrection. In my experience, going to small group means hauling our family to someone’s home, making small talk for a few minutes, and then starting on “the book.” I love to read, but I invariably hate “the book.” No matter what its topic, the small group book is filled with questions that read something like this: “Read John 11:35. What does Jesus do in this verse?” Then everyone waits for someone to state the obvious. Any attempt to generate a deeper discussion on the topic ends quickly when the group leader, who is well trained in the principles of keeping a group on track, says, “Let’s get back to the book.” (Incidentally, the group guidelines in one book we studied insisted that the leader should never say that someone’s answer is wrong but should instead ask someone else for a different answer. So truth is presented as an equal – just different – answer from falsehood, and the Bible is left open for anyone to interpret however he or she would like.)

Following the time in “the book” (small b), the typical small group continues to prayer time. Group members request prayer for sick family members, job hunts, and other real but non-controversial needs. When someone feels comfortable enough to request prayer to overcome an unpopular sin (pride and selfishness are “ok” sins to confess; adultery, assault, and drug use are not), the others tend to respond with blank stares or trite advice. Those who pray are sure to mention all the requests, but the prayers usually lack a sense of expectation that God will really answer them.

We then pick up our kids from another room, pay the babysitters, and go home.

When and where during that time did we really connect with each other? I’m not sure, but I no longer hope for fellowship to take place during small-group Bible studies. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, but most attempts I have made to question whether small groups are effective have been met with resistance to change (and a suggestion that maybe “a different book” would change the way I feel). Small groups have become as much a part of church as the sermon and the offering, and not wanting to participate in a small group is seen as equivalent to not wanting to be a part of the body of Christ. In fact, several of the people I know who seem to agree with my assessment of small groups have eventually changed churches. They still believe in Christ, but they didn’t feel like part of His family even after joining a small group.

I still haven’t found any Scripture that mandates small-group Bible discussions like those most contemporary churches encourage everyone to join. The Bible tells us we should not give up meeting together, but not that we cannot choose informal fellowship over formal small-group meetings. (I’m not talking about forgoing corporate worship like that of Sunday morning services, simply those extra meetings intended to help church members get to know each other better.) We are told to confess our sins to each other, to restore each other, to love each other, to encourage each other, and to serve together as the body of Christ. I have rarely – if ever – seen these things happen in a small group. And if that kind of fellowship isn’t taking place regularly, why do we keep trying the same methods and hoping for different results? It seems to me it’s time for a new approach.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Can You Keep the Faith When You Lose Your Mind?

My aunt, the person who introduced me to Jesus, has Alzheimer’s disease. The woman who was the most “in-charge” person of our family now looks lost among her family, can no longer go to the bathroom alone, and speaks mainly babble with a few irrelevant Pennsylvania Dutch words mixed in.

Knowing that my aunt used to be a woman of faith, I wonder how she relates to God now. She no longer plays the piano in church or hosts visiting missionaries in her home or puts us to work after Thanksgiving dinner, wrapping boxes of tissues she will deliver as Christmas gifts to the people in local nursing homes. She cannot read her Bible or pray in a language other humans can understand. Is she able to believe the basic Christian doctrines, even when she is probably no longer aware of them? Does she remember how to pray at all? Or does she know Jesus even more intimately now than she ever did before?

My own faith tends to be more intellectual than emotional. I am more likely to challenge a bit of unsound theology than to cry during a praise song (though I always seem to cry at baptisms!) For this reason, I find it difficult to grasp how someone who cannot understand that Jesus died can still have faith in Him. Yet, I’m sure it must be possible because God wants everyone to come to Him (2 Peter 3:9) and would at least give everyone the opportunity to know Him.

I find it interesting that the Bible describes Jesus healing physical ailments and spiritual problems, but never a disease that caused diminished mental capacity. (Please correct me if I’m wrong here!) Neither have I heard of anyone who was healed of Alzheimer ’s disease or severe mental retardation since the Ascension, though I have heard of people miraculously cured of cancer, alcohol addictions, and even gunshot wounds. Could it be that God doesn’t see diminished brainpower as a disability?

Though I consider intelligence one of my strengths, it seems likely to me that those who have been born with less intelligence as most of us (and those who have lost their minds to disease) must have different spiritual gifts. Could someone who is unable to interact intelligently with other humans be able to speak with God more directly than we are? I pray that if I ever do lose my ability to think clearly, I will still be able to keep my faith.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is Jesus Really the Answer?

“Jesus is the answer to any question you have” isn’t as popular a cliché as it used to be, but it’s still part of the unwritten Christian phrase book. (I just heard someone say it this week.) The statement never made sense to me (still doesn’t), and I don’t understand how it became so popular. Yes, Jesus is the answer to many questions, but not every one:

"How can I be reconciled to God?" Jesus. (Works as an answer)

"Who demonstrated the best way for me to live?" Jesus. (Still works)

"Should I move in with my boyfriend?" Jesus. (Not quite – Jesus has the answer for that, but He isn’t actually the answer, even if your boyfriend’s name is “Jesus.”)

"What is the capital of Brazil?" Jesus. (Doesn’t work, unless you are trying to refer to the statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, in which case you still have the capital city wrong)

"Will you show me yet again how to fix the flat tire I got on your car?" Jesus. (Not only wrong as an answer, but actually a violation of the third commandment, as commonly interpreted)

When will we Christians stop saying such nonsensical things as “Jesus is the answer” to non-Christians? It’s no wonder our attempts at evangelism are ineffective.