The most important question

Consider the following:

A small group leader is frustrated.  His members are passive during discussion time.  They wait eagerly but they won’t participate.

In another group within the same church, the leader spends hours each week preparing.  But after a time of eating and fellowship, nobody is ready to settle down and listen.

In yet another group, someone feels lost and alone.  He is waiting for the leader to notice his pain.  All the while ignoring the overtures of the other members.

Quite seperate symptoms.  These, and so many other problems beside, all point to a common cause.

That cause is a failure to understand an answer to one of the most important questions that a small group ministry can answer.  The question is this:

Where is the holy spirit?

That kind-of question can be off-putting.  It seems pie in the sky.  It seems so theoretical and so theological.  It’s the sort of question that can be devisive.  It’s the sort of question that we can spend our whole lives arguing about and not feel like we’ve made any progress on.

I’m not going to offer an easy answer.  I don’t think there is a single correct answer at all.  But I do believe it’s critical that a small group within church has an answer to that question, has committed to some sort of guiding belief.  I believe that the process of asking this question and being consistent about the answer will guide nearly everything a group does.

There are two extremes that a person might take on this question, in terms of small groups.  On one side is the position that the Holy Spirit resides within the leader alone.  The other extreme is that the Holy Spirit resides right in the middle of the group, between the interactions, discussions, and debates.

If we believe that the Holy Spirit is working mostly though a leader then that leader is (among other things) a teacher.  Wisdom is coming from this persons understanding.  Training this kind of leader involves helping him to communicate and discern God’s intent.  Training this kind of group involves teaching them to be good students and listeners.

This is a fairly traditional model.  Adult Sunday school classes usually operate on this sort of idea.  Some churches call their small groups “cell church” or “mini church”.  The idea seems to be that the leader is quite similiar to the church pastor except that his or her flock is much smaller.

At the other end: all people bare a responsibility for finding the truth.  Interaction is much more important than teaching.  Disagreement is critical to success.  The leader of this group is less a teacher and more a facilitator, working at bringing the best out of everyone.

This kind-of model is sometimes identified with post-modern or emergent mind sets.  It is emphasizes the importance of the relationships.  There are fundamental differences not only between the scale that church pastors and small group facilitators operate on.  There are also fundamental differences between the nature of what they do.

In the examples given at the beginning of this post, there was a disconnect.  That disconnect existed between the ideas of the leaders and the ideas of the members about where the Holy Spirit resides.  A leader who believes that the Holy Spirit resides in the middle of all of them will place a high value on interaction and will expect interaction.  A group that disagrees with this leader is waiting, quietly and attentively, to be taught.

On the other hand, a leader who believes that he is charged with teaching, with dispensing knowledge, might easily work hard at preparing.  If the group is interested in finding truth among them, he is likely to be quite stressed out.

A member of a group might expect the leader to minister to his pain.  The leader of that group, though, might think about the priesthood of believers.  He might believe that the members are all ministering to each other and that it is not his sole responsibility to be taking care of individual needs.

There are countless plusses and minuses, hundreds of ramifications to the question, “Where does the Holy Spirit reside?”  It’s not easy.  In the act of saying “We believe that the role of a small group leader is…” we open ourselves to all sorts of criticism.

There are problems with whatever model a small group is operating from.  There are valid criticisms of the most leader-centered model and the most group-centered model.  There are problems with every single compromise between the extremes.

But not admitting our position doesn’t prevent us from taking a position.  Every one already has a belief about where the Holy Spirit is, whether they realize it or not.  Members have expectations on leaders regardless of whether this is discussed.  Leaders have expectations on members, regardless of whether or not these have been admitted.

In the end getting everyone on the same page is incredibly important.  Over the long haul, it minimizes conflict and increases satisfaction. 





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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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