This past year has reminded me of why I’m not drawn to most small groups in a church.
I read a post recently where a respected ministry admitted it had the wrong model for transformation. Their old model was lecture-based discussions. The results were poor, so they revamped their model, inviting the curious to a webinar: Not Another Small Group.
Curiosity caught this cat. I confess I usually sigh when I hear about another community group in a church. I’m not a cynic. Four decades ago, I experienced a better model, one that this ministry is adopting—a hands-on, problem-solving, experiential approach.
Their new approach involves small groups convening for three days on the grounds of a high ropes training course. It’s outdoor training where teams are presented with problems (like getting over a large wall) that require using their minds and their bodies.
Bodies. That’s key. That’s what I experienced 40 years ago, participating in an outdoor course based on the United States Air Force model of leadership training. It wasn’t about teaching leadership “principles.” It instead placed competing groups in the woods, presenting each group with a tough problem—and limited time to solve it.
Limited time is also key. It yields unedited behaviors. In the lecture-based model, you have the luxury of self-assessing skills, what the left hemisphere of the brain excels at doing. But when urgent matters arise, we more bias the right hemisphere of the brain, which excels in unedited behavior. We behave in ways more reflective of who we truly are.
Which was painful for me to discover at first. In self-assessment tests, I scored high in various leadership scales. In those outdoor training courses 40 years ago, I bombed several scales. Years later, I bombed again (thick skull), after I had just earned a Doctorate.
I was developing a leadership center on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. We served sumptuous fare but qualified labor was scarce, so I waited tables at first. At one dinner, a young man from Harvard raised his glass and demanded that I serve him more wine. As a newly minted doctor, I wanted to tell him where to go. That’s right—me, former pastor who had earned rave reviews years before for his sermon series on servanthood.
So much for transformation. But this past year has reinforced the better model I’d forgotten. As the pandemic erupted, my wife Kathy and a team of teachers at her school pulled together a pop-up pantry. Time was of the essence, as around 80 percent of Hispanic families in this public school had lost work. I joined what is essentially an outdoor training course. This small group began solving a problem requiring our minds and our bodies.
And it’s transforming our lives. This past Saturday was the pantry’s one-year anniversary. Over 60,000 individuals served by hundreds of volunteers. But over time, out of the volunteers, a core group of leaders emerged. It has become our community group. We’re a band of sisters and brothers, even though most of the group is composed of religious nones.
Which is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer imagined community. “I often ask myself why a ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say ‘in brotherliness.’” This “Christian instinct” describes the community that Kathy and I enjoy.
We enjoyed it this past summer as the group shared a sumptuous dinner outdoors after a pop-up pantry (we social distanced). The conversation included heartfelt expressions of love, lessons learned, laughter. Kathy and I weren’t there to evangelize or plant a church.
On the drive home, Kathy said, “That’s our community group.” It reminded me of Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, where the community is The Fellowship of The Ring, an uneven collection of folks who share a mission of solving a big problem—dispose of the ring in Mount Doom.
Tolkien was part of the Inklings. Their aim was to “re-enchant” the disenchanted western world. The Inklings recognized how, in the enchanted universe, even religionless people are spiritual beings with a destiny in God’s universe. Discovering what it might be is often aided by believers working collaboratively with religionless people on community problems. This past year has reminded me that this is the kind of community group I’m most attracted to.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tegel Prison, 1944 (Testament to Freedom, p. 502.)