Relational Transparency, Small Groups, & Freedom

Small Groups can create a place of healing for people to find freedom.

Jesus’ ministry started with healing in mind. Remember how He read from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NIV)

Jesus’ ministry was a healing ministry of bringing good news to the poor, freedom to the imprisoned and oppressed, and recovery of site to the blind. His ministry continues today through Small Groups.

The Starting Place of People

Do you know if the people in your Small Group are struggling with relational distrust, loneliness, brokenness, insecurity or shame? What about addiction, abuse, adultery, sexual attraction, anger, or others? If you don’t know the answer to these questions, then you probably don’t have relational transparency in your group and the opportunity for healing and freedom doesn’t exist.

The Brew Crew

When I was in high school, my favorite community to hang out with was the Brew Crew. The Brew Crew got together on the weekends getting hammered drunk and doing drugs. For us a 4.0 in school was not our grade point average…it was our blood alcohol level!

We were all totally out of control. Three of my best friends were in rehab for chemical and alcohol abuse. Eventually I recognized that the pain I was causing myself, and others around me, was far outweighing the pleasure I was receiving from partying.

Scared of My First Small Group

Interestingly, at the same time I was in the Brew Crew I got involved in a Small Group. Some friends of mine invited me to attend a large weekly gathering of Christ followers that met during the week. It was a big group of about 100 or so kids. The ministry leaders of this big group would perform skits, sing songs, talk about the Bible, etc. In this crowd of kids, I heard about a Small Group and decided to try one with several of my buddies.

I was reluctant about the group at first because I didn’t grow up in a Christian family. I didn’t have a biblical frame of reference for life. I didn’t know anything about spiritual practices, how to find a Bible verse, or what to say in a prayer. I was insecure about the expectations of needing to know about these things.

Scott, a young professional, was my Small Group leader. He created a safe place for everyone to be real about their lives. I felt like I could be authentic about who I was. I was open about the parties I went to and the craziness of my lifestyle. I never felt judged or confronted by anyone there. Scott helped me feel like my presence in the group was really important. It was through the relationships in this Small Group, and with Scott, that after three years led me to put my faith in Jesus and start actively following him.

Creating Small Group Space for God to Work

Did you hear the power of a Small Group community and what God can do when space is created for transparent relationships? Jesus was the master at creating the right space for messy people. Jesus went to the party at Matthew’s House in Matthew Ch. 9:9-12, where the sinners were partying – the Brew Crew. Jesus is comfortable with the chaos of people’s lives.

Leading a Small Group Ministry in the local church for five years, I have discovered that creating transparent community where people are authentic and vulnerable with their life story is the kind of group culture where healing and freedom takes place.

Training Leaders in Creating Transparent Community

Here are some intentional concepts we train our Small Group leaders in for creating groups that have relational transparency.

1. Authenticity Starts With You

Don’t be fake. Fake people are like wax fruit. Wax leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth. So do wax people. Don’t try to manage your image as a person who has it all together as the leader because you think that is what the leader is supposed to do. Be authentic as a fellow struggler.

2. Be Vulnerable First

Set the pace for the group by exposing your weaknesses first. The reason people pretend or hide from others is usually because of shame or pride. These are both extremely dark and powerful emotions. They keep people stuck from experiencing the freedom Christ came to give us. You can lead them to overcoming this by being vulnerable as the leader. Share your stories of struggle. I know you think you will lose respect by sharing your struggles but trust me, you will gain greater respect and admiration through vulnerability. Let the promise of James 5:16 be true in your group, “Confess your sins to one another so that you may be healed.” (NIV) Let this verse be an accessible practice in your group. Here are a couple of examples of what you might share vulnerably: your addictions – alcohol, sexual, or food related; your childhood in a broken home which might have left you feeling unlovable or rejected. The key to this principle is exposing some of the mess of your own life to the rest of the group first.

3. Expect Messy People

We live in a relationally broken world. Divorce, abuse, and abandonment shatter relational dreams and cripple our ability to relate in healthy ways with one another. Here are some of the realities from eight couples in my Small Group right now:

1. 10 Divorces (4 from one guy).

2. 4 Sexually abused, one by a football coach when he was 8 yrs. old. This same man molested three other boys who all committed suicide later in life.

3. 4 are in recovery for addictions.

4. 3 have had abortions.

5. 1 guy was previously involved in four different cults.

Don’t be surprised by pain in people’s lives. We live in a messy, pain filled world. Embrace creating a culture where people can share the stories of their lives, where they can be fully known, accepted and loved. If people in your group are always answering the question of how they are doing with, “Doing great!” or “Couldn’t be better!”, repeat principles one and two because they’re probably lying to you on some level.

4. Have a Process View of Growth.

Spiritual growth takes time. Transformation of the heart that results in healing and new behavior is the goal, and you can’t rush or microwave this process. As a Small Group Leader you can never cause spiritual growth in a person. Only God can do this. Look at 1 Corinthians 3:5-7: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (NIV) It took me being in a Small Group three years before I even said ‘yes’ to following Jesus. Is three years too long? Should someone have given up on me sooner? Take the pressure off of yourself that you are responsible for people’s growth. It’s not up to you. You are just creating a relational culture for God to work. As you are waiting and looking for growth in people, be sure to celebrate it when you see it. Point it out to them. Affirm where you see God at work.

5. It’s Not Always ‘What You Know’ but ‘How You Love’

One of the greatest fears of a new Small Group leader is the fear of not knowing an answer to a question or how to handle a situation that might come up in their group. Love is going to trump right answers. A leader of love that seeks to serve others in the group will be more important than any of the content you share with them, especially early on in the life of a group. If you don’t know an answer to a question about the Bible – just say “I don’t know the answer to that. It’s a good question.” If someone is asking for advice and you don’t know what to say, just tell him or her, “I don’t know…but I am committed to trying to help you.” I believe content is very important, but as a new group leader you will often feel inadequate. Love will lead a group to good places. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that I learned in my first Small Group, but I remember the love I was given. As a group gets to know one another deeply, it will be easier to speak truth into each other’s lives from a place of love.

Practical Questions for Becoming More Transparent

Lets get practical. The following questions are good at moving a group towards relational transparency. Give people a blank piece of paper and two colors of sticky notes. Have them write on one color of sticky note their highlights and on the other color their lowlights. Then have them put these in the sequential order of their lives. Give each person 20 minutes to tell the group these life stories by answering these three questions:

1. What are three highlights in your life?

2. What are three lowlights in your life?

3. How would you describe your relationship with God in these times?

Remember, the leader of the Small Group should answer these questions first and model the level of transparency they hope to achieve in the group. It took my group about two months to finish this exercise. Here is the feedback we all shared after going through this with one another:

o Got past the illusion of knowing each other.

o Finally became vulnerable, broken or emotionally down with one another.

o Experienced relational attachments to one another’s brokenness.

o Established emotional connections at a heart level with people’s pain.

o Raised the level of trust in the group.

o Learned our life story again – areas that were previously blocked out.

o Changed perception of others as we started to see them in a new light.

Healing and Freedom in Your Small Group

As my Small Group experienced love, acceptance and grace for one another through this exercise we also experienced it with God. Remember I started this article with Jesus reading from the scroll in Isaiah. He could have read one more sentence farther in the book of Isaiah but he didn’t. He could have read the sentence that says, “to proclaim the day of vengeance for our God” in Isaiah 61:2, but he didn’t. Jesus proclaimed he was starting a ministry of healing and freedom, not condemnation. Being transparent is about giving and receiving grace.

I hope you are able to see and understand the value of leading a Small Group with relational transparency. Being intentional with these principles will create a culture where God heals people and we can all experience greater freedom to be the people He intended us to be.

Kirby Holmes is the Groups and Growth Pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas. You can follow Kirby on Twitter or Facebook. He also blogs.

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