Last week, I introduced a new approach to small groups that would intentionally focus on developing the spiritual friendships of its members. I call them Friend Groups.
But what’s the makeup of Friend Groups? As I mentioned last week, the approach to a small group determines its desired result. Therefore, there are 3 core practices to Friend Groups that can result in deeper spiritual friendships. And be forewarned: They’re quite different from traditional small group approaches.
1. Personal Vulnerability.
Spiritual friendships occur when there is an intermingling of our spirits in such a way that Christ’s spirit is thickly present in our midst. In traditional small group models, we don’t give our souls enough time to “get to know one another” because we’re more focused on picking apart Scripture, reading through a book, discussing small group questions, and so on. Friend Groups, on the other hand, require each friend to do a ton of introspection, personal prayer, and vulnerability to open up about what she or he was spiritually going through in their friendship with God over the last week’s occurrences.
This sounds a lot like an accountability group at first, but it’s so much more than that. Certainly, particular sins can be discussed and held accountable, but Friend Groups are more concerned with your entire life experience and how God has been present in everything—not just moments of sin. Spiritual friendship isn’t about overcoming bad habits. It’s about sharing your journey in Christ with others.
A core part of vulnerability, though, requires an exceptional amount of courage to discuss the deeper parts of ourselves that are often pushed to the side from our chaotic lives or embarrassment to reveal moments of failure. But again, the only way for souls to intermingle is for one to reveal the depths of her soul to others. It’s necessary for each person in the Friend Group to practice personal vulnerability.
2. Focused Listening.
Friend Groups consist of only three to five people (maximum). Two people produces more of an accountability, mentorship, or discipleship relationship, and six people or more makes it harder for everyone to share in a timely fashion. The goal of Friend Groups is for every person to share how Christ was at work in the last week. Therefore, while each individual is sharing, the other friends are focused on listening.
This is probably the hardest part of Friend Groups. The fruit of other small group models comes from discussion, where everyone reacts to a question or an idea and shares their take on the topic at hand. (In some cases, it can even becomes a subtle competition between group members about who can say the most profound thing. Let’s be honest).
Friend Groups, on the other hand, require each member to simply let each person share whatever is on their heart, however long it takes, and at all costs, not interrupt them with questions, thoughts, opinions, or advice. Let them talk. Don’t think about how you want to respond. Just listen. Be present. Remain attentive. Hear them out.
It’s in the very act of listening that allows the depth of your own soul to intermingle with someone else’s soul.
Listening to someone else becomes an act of personal contemplation for yourself by empathizing with his or her spirituality. And it is powerful. There are very few things that make you feel more loved and cherished than when two or three friends are leaned in towards you, eyes locked on yours, deeply listening to everything you have to say.
3. Deep Asking.
The last practice of Friend Groups is what I call “deep asking.” After an individual has shared their testimony from the week, and everyone has deeply listened, then the floor opens up for friends to respond with questions. Not advice. Not opinions. Questions. And deep questions, at that. If focused listening is the hardest component of friend groups, deep asking is certainly the most foreign. Let me give an example.
A friend shares about how hard of a week she had at work. Budget cuts are happening all across the board as sales have been much lower than anticipated, and now people’s jobs are on the line. The job she once loved has gradually become a toxic culture of people working to outpace each other to prove they’re worthy enough to keep their jobs. It’s extremely competitive. Coworkers have now become opponents.
After listening to the friend share, the wrong questions to ask are, “Why are people so uptight about keeping their jobs?” “Do you feel like management didn’t do everything they could to adjust the budget?” Or, “what are you going to do if you lose your job?” These questions focus on the external circumstances of what was shared. They’re much more about what the friend experienced. Which are fine. But those questions don’t develop spiritual friendship. You need to ask deep questions.
Deep asking allows the friend to move past the external characteristics of her or his situation and get to the soul of the matter—literally. Deep asking would be questions like, “What has the Lord been speaking to you through this?” “How has this circumstance produced fear within your spirit?” Or, “How has your prayer life changed since all this started happening?”
Do you see the difference? The one time the other people in the group respond is to ask deep questions that take the person sharing even deeper to see how Jesus has been present through it all. Everyone else can weigh in with their opinions or advice only after the friend asks for it.
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There you have it! Three core practices for a new small group approach. Although the focus isn’t on discussing content, the end goal is for a deeper form of friendship that can truly become, as St. Aelred says, one of the greatest joys on this earth.