Small groups embrace people from all walks of life, in every region of the country, and in communities of every size. Churches have employed the small group model to create opportunities for a greater range and depth of pastoral care and spiritual support in community. And membership in these groups shows no sign of waning. Numerically speaking, more people of faith meet today in small groups than ever. As encouraging as the figures may be however, the quality of this fellowship often leaves something to be desired.
Participants can become too polite, hesitant to delve into each other's lives. These meetings become more of a support group than one where the Spirit-led life is encouraged and challenged. Some grow quite comfortable with the lack of challenge. This may, in part, be due to the second of four worrisome characteristics: biblical illiteracy. Perhaps the casual perusal of Scripture typical of small group meetings has kept participants from understanding the larger story of God's revelation, who he is, and what he wants to do in the world. Individualistic interpretations, then, lead to a third concerning trait of today's small groups: God becomes too small. God becomes one who serves us rather than the one who is worthy of our worship and service. Perceived as less of an external authority and more of an internal presence, he exists to ease life's difficult situations. This picture of God results in a kind of faith and teaching that focuses more on feelings and getting along in life than on humble obedience to or reverence toward a transcendent God. The result? Too little life transformation. This fourth trend will persist so long as the other three characteristics remain. So how can we build a better small group?
The English Puritans are rarely remembered as being communal, but they were. Their meeting in groups small enough to "afford our doings before men" would be their equivalent to our contemporary small group, but with clear differences. So the rediscovery of the Puritan practice of Holy Conference is relevant and timely. Conference was the type of intentional conversation---sparked by particular questions---that Puritans practiced with one another when meeting together in small numbers.
Biblical literacy and soul care converged. Knowing Scripture was the litmus test for authentic and devoted lives. They deployed this knowledge as pastors conferenced with other pastors. One Puritan pastor described a time of conference with another pastor as a time of remembering God's mercy on their calling and sharing the state of their walks with God and various testimonies of faith. It had become a regular support that brought relief, further knowledge, and growth in godliness. As pastors conferenced with members of their congregations, Richard Baxter noted these leaders became more acquainted with their parishioners, and better knew how "to watch over them . . . . to preach to them . . . to lament for them, and to rejoice for them, and to pray for them."
Believers who gathered and conferenced with other believers grew in faith, knowledge, and love for one another. And as husbands and wives conferenced with each other, it was also their responsibility as parents to conference with their children and others in their household who lived or served there.
Know God and His Word
Key to the exercise of conference is the desire to know God through his Word more fully and to live out his truth. Questions posed in conference could not be answered with quick and pithy responses, because the focus was on God's Word and the soul. They required thought, deep reflection, and transparency---elements key to any flourishing small group. Well-formatted questions applied to a sermon message or Bible passage furthered understanding and application.
Here are a few questions the Puritans found useful in conference, redesigned for our contemporary understanding:
Consider asking these types of questions and, more importantly, answering them with attentiveness to your own heart and the hearts of others. In good company and conference the goodness of God and the struggles of life meet in loving acceptance, godly direction, and transforming community.
This centuries-old practice, exercised by those who held God's Word in high authority, remedies spiritual drift that loses track of the "true north" of biblical knowledge and spiritual growth. Those who exercised it longed to keep themselves and others within the compass of God's Word. As the Puritans experienced this "kind of paradise," be ready to discover greater depth and meaningful engagement in your conversations and community.
- What does God want you to know about him? About yourself?
- For what is the soul thankful?
- What are the words or actions that demonstrate your soul's love for Christ?
- What is your soul afraid of God knowing?
- What stands now between God and your soul?
Joanne Jung (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University. She is the author of Godly Conversation: Rediscovering the Puritan Practice of Conference and Knowing Grace: Cultivating a Lifestyle of Godliness.