To catch up on the earlier articles that explore small groups through the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.
For an individual who has not been a part of a small group before, signing up for one can be a huge decision. If we place ourselves in their shoes, maybe we would find ourselves unsure as to if we will be able to easily make friends. Perhaps we would be wondering as to if the other members of the small group will accept us for who we are. But there also may be a more subtle concern that is not so easily identified, such as the concern of admitting that we need to change unhealthy behaviors or habits in our lives. Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks in their book The Other Half of Church can provide guidance within this particular area, explaining that “healthy correction” can be one of the best tools available to help us maintain our identity in Christ within a hesed community.
The Clash of Old and New Values
While it certainly would be ideal for an individual to improve upon their daily habits so that they can engage and care more for their family and friends, easing a person into such change can seem daunting at first. The good news is that the input received from an individual’s small group can help. According to Wilder and Hendricks, they define “character” to be what “lies at the intersection of identity and values…it is the combination of our known responses (what people have done in the past) and our values (what our people prefer to do).” They elaborate further, explaining that our character is “a collection of observed responses to various life situations that is quickly filtered through the options that my people value.” For small groups, this can mean that we learn from the values and behaviors of our fellow small group members. From here, we compare these observations against the values and behaviors that we have previously learned. If our established responses and beliefs are different from the members of the Christian community that we’ve chosen to be a part of, then there is a clash in values and we are confronted with a choice of what to do next.
Changing Our Values through Small Groups
When such a “clash” happens, how do we increase the chances for the more Christ-like response to be chosen? Wilder and Hendricks state that “in order to improve our behavior, we need to change our values and update our stored examples of how our people act. We cannot change our values directly. We must get them from our community, our group identity.” They explain further that instead of us trying to change a person’s character by moral truth and choices, it is more impactful for the person to be a part of a community that is composed of mature individuals who can share their life experiences and provide deeper insights into Christ-like living.
A church small group can best describe this type of community for three reasons. First, when groups are tapped into the overarching mission of their local church, the Lord is invited to be a part of the process. Whether it is to explore a curriculum, to host a kingdom-building activity, or to lead a prayer meeting, Christ is indeed in their midst and the Holy Spirit is actively engaging their hearts (Matt 18:20). Second, small groups provide the consistency needed in order for group members to check up on one another and provide accountability to one another. If a group meets only once a month or once a quarter, then sinful habits may not be challenged often enough for transformation to take effect. Third, small groups that consistently meet are living life together. As individuals spend more time with one another, various life events are witnessed within the group; individuals not only have a supportive community rallying behind them during a tough season, but they also have previous examples to glean wisdom from when other group members find themselves in similar scenarios.
The Necessity of Healthy Shame
For small group ministries that pursue a path of intentional growth, attendees will likely be challenged to repent from some of their habits or behaviors. When group members realize that their actions do not align with their Christian identity, this can generate a degree of shame within their hearts. While this may not sound like an ideal outcome, it can in fact be a good thing when it is processed in a positive way. Wilder and Hendricks argue that shame is not only important for socialization, but in fact “necessary for character to change.”
But how should a small group respond to shame when it arises? On the one hand, they could respond by exhibiting what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as “toxic shame” (a message that leaves us alone in our shame and communicates one’s “badness” without any offer of grace). On the other hand, the small group could respond by exhibiting what the two authors refer to as “healthy shame.” Allowing individuals to stay connected, healthy shame “affirms the relationship above the problem” and is a method of communication that lovingly reminds one another of who they are within the group identity of their hesed community.
It is here where this type of healthy correction will sustain a church community and where it will allow relationships to thrive within a small group ministry. Next week we will unpack further what occurs to our small group ministries when we do not pursue these practices. But for now, let us take a moment to pause and reflect upon our teaching of healthy correction in our communities: Are we uplifting one another within our hesed community in such a way that healthy shame can be utilized to help facilitate transformation within our small groups?