Fellowship, And The Culture Of Confrontation

August 27, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

I often receive emails asking me how, specifically, SGM deviates from “normal” Christianity.  This is always a tough question to answer, as oftentimes the surface truth is that SGMers do NOT deviate from “normal” (and are frequently very well-spoken and super-nice, got-it-all-together people as well).  But when one takes a closer look at how SGM views certain traditional biblical terms and concepts, one may pick up on subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways in which SGM is very different.

Over the past week or so, we’ve been interacting with the SGM-published book, Why Small Groups?.  I put up a couple of posts about my initial reactions to the first two chapters, but after some further study, I thought it would be useful to share some additional (and maybe a tad bit more organized) analysis of SGM’s beliefs about small groups and how SGM’s leaders have (re)defined the word “fellowship.”

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I think it’s safe to say that Sovereign Grace Ministries places a pretty big emphasis on its members’ participation in small groups.  

At first glance, SGM’s approach to small groups seems like a good thing.  In an ordinary church, it can be very difficult to reach the point where you feel like you’re part of church life….it can seem next to impossible to experience what the theme song from the old 1980s TV show Cheers describes:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

Sadly, as most folks know, Cheers was a show about a bar, not a church.  Yet for God’s own saints, the comaraderie the theme song describes can seem elusive in this age of impersonal, anonymous megachurches.  The methods that SGM churches use to bring about “Biblical fellowship” look like reasonable measures to ensure that every member will have an opportunity to “know and be known.”

Certainly, in our own SGM experience (which, for those of you unfamiliar with our story, lasted a little less than a year, did NOT culminate in membership, and did NOT involve anything particularly negative) we really enjoyed our small-group experience.  (Our particular SGM church had few restrictions on small-group participation, so we were permitted to join one without becoming members.)  And we loved having a church-centered “instant social life.”

But recently, I’ve come to learn – through reading the SGM book Why Small Groups?, as well as through interacting extensively with both former and current SGM members and through taking a closer look at SGM teachings that are available online – that SGM’s approach to small-group participation is about WAY MORE than simply having a church-centered “instant social life.”

In fact, SGM’s underlying beliefs about small group participation have next to NOTHING to do with one’s “social life.”  Yes, SGM members engage in what we’d consider to be social activities with one another – they engage in what we Christians from “ordinary” churches would consider “fellowship” – but SGM has redefined “fellowship” to mean something a whole lot more intense (and specific) than getting together and sharing our hearts over coffee.  Here is what John Loftness writes about “fellowship” in Chapter 2 of Why Small Groups?:

If I spend time with a brother in Christ playing volleyball, talking about shared political views, or following the ups and downs of an NFL franchise, we may have a wonderful time and deepen a friendship. But in none of those things will we have had fellowship. 

Let me press the point further.  Fellowship is not (at least not necessarily) going to a Bible study with someone, or sharing doctrinal commitments, or attending a Christian men’s rally where emotions run deep and passions are high.  Fellowship is not found in a “group therapy” session where participants reveal their darkest thoughts—even if everyone in the group is a Christian and brings a Bible. In fact, two Christians can be married to one another and still not experience fellowship.

So, Why Small Groups? declares that “fellowship” is NOT about groups of Christians hanging out together and interacting together without some sort of set agenda.  It’s not even necessarily about studying the Bible together.  “Fellowship,” according to Why Small Groups?, is something else, something that most (non-SGM) churches apparently do not offer.

So just how does SGM approach fellowship?  Here are some things I’ve learned about SGM and “fellowship”:

  • SGM teaches that true “fellowship” can really only occur within the context of a small group.
     
  • At most (if not all) SGM churches, including SGM’s flagship Covenant Life Church, regular participation in a small group is required of members.  In other words, you cannot remain a member in good standing for very long without taking a regular and active part in a small group.  The rationale for this requirement is that SGM’s leaders view small-group participation as a biblical requirement for sanctification.  (See the direct quotes in the posts about Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, as well as comments #13 and #20 from the Chapter 2 post.  You can also gain a better sense of how SGM pastors view small-group participation by reading paragraphs 13-16 in this post, which is a transcript of a teaching given at this year’s “Pastors’ Conference,” on the subject of “The Counseling Process.”)
     
  • At the same time, some SGM churches, including CLC, limit small-group participation to members only.   In other words, at least some SGMers never get to experience firsthand the activity that will be a huge part of their lives – and a condition for keeping their membership – until AFTER they actually become members.
                                                                                                                      
  • At some SGM churches, including CLC, members don’t have much of a say in which group they will attend.  Members are essentially assigned to groups by pastoral staff.  It is not an easy matter, either, to be “released” to attend a different small group, if, for whatever reason, one finds oneself not really liking the group to which one was assigned.
     
  • The prevailing belief among SGMers is that any time one feels uncomfortable about something, that discomfort is most likely the result of one’s sinfulness.  Our “natural” desires and instincts are always to be distrusted.  Our feelings are automatically suspect.  Therefore, if you don’t feel good about your small group, that feeling is simply the evidence of your sin nature at work, attempting to derail your spiritual progress and prevent you from engaging in the activities that will make you more holy.  This is the mindset at work when pastors won’t permit members to move to another small group.  This is also the mindset that drives people to override any natural reluctance they might feel about revealing themselves intimately to people they may not know very well.
     
  • It is standard practice for small group leaders to regularly submit reports to the pastoral staff about what is going on with each group member, including summaries of whatever members bring up in meetings.
     
  • Small-group participation is so emphasized within SGM because, according to the SGM book Why Small Groups?, this is really the only way to engage in “Biblical fellowship,” which is defined as containing all the following:  1) worshipping God together; 2) praying for one another; 3) utilizing our spiritual gifts; 4) carrying one another’s burdens; 5) sharing about our spiritual experiences; 6) confessing our sins to one another; 7) correcting one another; and 8 ) serving one another in practical ways.

At first glance, SGM’s definition of “Biblical fellowship” doesn’t seem particularly different from what one would experience within any small group at any other Bible-based Evangelical/Reformed church.  From my own experiences throughout many years of participation in church life in several different congregations, any time I’ve committed myself to a small group, I have eventually encountered a strong measure of all the characteristics of “fellowship” that are listed in the preceding paragraph.

Well – all of the characteristics except, perhaps, for #6 (“confessing our sins to one another”) and for #7 (“correcting one another”).

When reading Why Small Groups? and perusing other SGM teachings (as well as interacting extensively with people who have been SGM members), it becomes clear that a HUGE emphasis within small groups is the cultivating of an atmosphere where weaknesses, struggles, and sins are freely shared among group members and group members feel a great freedom to “bring observations” to one another and correct one another.  This process – more than anything else on the list above – is what most characterizes SGM’s unique take on “fellowship,” is what most sets SGM’s approach to small groups apart from that of other churches.

SGM believes that the sanctification process demands that we develop a culture of confession, and a culture of confrontation.  SGM also believes (correctly) that sanctification MUST follow salvation…and they appear to have some quite specific ideas about what sanctification looks like.  So therefore, if someone persistently resists participation in a small group where such confession and confrontation regularly occur, that person is likely not saved. 

So…what’s wrong with that sort of thinking?  Doesn’t the Bible tell us to confess our sins one to another?  Doesn’t the Bible advocate exhorting and challenging one another to do better?  Doesn’t the Bible instruct us to correct one another?

Further, isn’t it true that our natural mind will object to the activities that God has designed for our sanctification?

I think it’s important to ask these questions, since they are foundational to the way that SGM handles its small groups…and since small groups are foundational to life within SGM.

Yesterday, I received an interesting message from someone – a longtime SGM member – who reads the site but does not comment.  With this person’s permission, I’m going to share the following feedback that he/she sent me:

Kris, I do not believe small groups greatly propel the sanctification process as much as CJ thinks they do.  And I think it would be helpful to point out some of the other ways God brings about sanctification outside the parameters of a small group.

Jesus taught us to confess our sins directly to God the Father. He told us to pray, “Our Father in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us..” 

Thus as believers, we become more like Jesus each time we forgive others or ask forgiveness when we are sinned against or, at those times, when we sin against God or man.  There is rarely a need to include any other human being and certainly not a group of people.  Once forgiveness is granted, there is nothing left to discuss. 

I have learned that most of my sin happens in my thought-life and most of my spiritual growth occurs in those quiet conversations with my Father in heaven, solely between Him and me.  This is a good thing because with my propensity to sin it would be most inconvenient if I had to include someone else in on the conversation! 

I have come to believe that confessing sins publicly, in the majority of cases, is actually unhelpful as well as unnecessary.  Immature Christians aren’t always prepared to hear of other peoples’ sin. They can easily be tempted to gossip and I have even seen some tempted to fall into the same sins as those that are confessed, due to the bad example of a fellow saint.  Sometimes when they hear confessions of sin they mock or laugh with embarrassment and say really stupid, unhelpful things.  At these times, they can either discourage you or possibly soften the sin.  Frankly, I have rarely heard good advice given in the small group context.  This kind of behavior from fellow small group members can destroy all likelihood that you will ever trust them again with your ‘fine china’ as Tripp calls it.   Personally, I can think of no one in our small group, worthy of that much trust.

For these reasons I believe it actually harmful and wrong for Loftness or Mahaney to require small group participation on this intimate of a level, as a primary means to sanctify the church. God simply does not require us in every and all cases, to confess our sins to one another.  If that were true then someone living in an isolated part of the world would be hopeless.  So, except in those cases where you need to ask specific forgiveness from another person, I see no biblical mandate to do so. 

The point is, we can most certainly grow and fellowship deeply with God, when we are alone.  In fact, I would much rather be in the gentle hands of the Holy Spirit when conviction and repentance arrives than in the hands of some of the members of our small group. As sweet as they all are, I do not look to or rely on them for wisdom in the deepest things of life that only God can know. 

While I do not claim to know all the reasons why the leaders of SGM promote group confession, I do firmly believe they are deceived about its importance as well as its impact.  There are many reasons auricular confession has historically failed and many reasons not to promote it or participate in it.

Thoughts, anyone?

Why Small Groups?

August 16, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

A new commenter (“Pilgrim”) posted the following the other day:

I am slightly troubled that a number families that have recently left SGM have begun attending our current church.   Though I think it’s great that they have gotten out, I feel that they have not had much time to “deprogram,” and they tend to group together (naturally enough).   Anything that smacks of PDI/SGM makes me very uncomfortable.   Also, one very nice former PDI/SGM couple is in our small group.  The husband suggested that we all read the book Why Small Groups?.  I have never read it, but C.J Mahaney is the author.  I would not invest any money in supporting SGM, and so will definitely not be buying the book.  Is anyone familiar with it?  So far, our group has not decided whether we will study it or not.  The rest of the group is probably not familiar with PDI/SGM or C.J. Mahaney.  (Anyone remember the season when he asked everyone to call him Charles?)  Anyway, my tendency is to run from anything PDI/SGM (even the people), but I want to be open to what God wants.  I am almost certain that I will not be reading this book, but also don’t want to offend this nice couple.   Any suggestions?  I honestly feel that even if the book is Biblically sound, I don’t want to read anything by C.J. Mahaney (for soooooo many reasons).  Any suggestions?

Another commenter, “Amanda,” posted a link where this book can be downloaded for free.  Since I’d not read Why Small Groups? either, I decided to check it out.

After making my way through the first chapter, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the implications of this book, particularly as they would play out in the culture of Sovereign Grace churches.  Below, I’m going to share some of my off-the-cuff thoughts about parts of Chapter 1.  I invite those of you who have read the book and/or have experienced small groups within SGM to respond as well.

What do YOU think of C.J. Mahaney’s ideas about the role small groups play in one’s Christian growth?

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Chapter 1 opens with an anecdote about fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, with the point being that we need to know “God’s purpose” for small groups.  In what seems like a sort of explanation for why he wrote his own book on the subject, C.J. Mahaney then goes on to say,

For lack of a biblical purpose and mandate, many small groups have floundered. Other groups have been seriously handicapped by the lack of good resources available. It is no exaggeration to say that most popular books and guides dealing with the topic of small groups are shockingly deficient in sound doctrine. I don’t say this lightly.  I have reviewed them for years, and have found a greater emphasis on modern psychology and sociology than on thorough, biblical theology.

Most of these materials are well-produced. They feature numerous thought-provoking questions and illustrations. Undoubtedly the publishers want to help Christians grow.  But without solid biblical content, these materials can actually hinder God’s intentions for us as individuals and groups.

What immediately struck me as interesting is that after such an introduction – one in which he basically disses all the other books on the subject for not giving sound biblical doctrine for the creation of structured and regulated small groups – Mahaney himself never actually gives any scriptural backing for the idea that churches need to assign folks to such groups and require members to meet regularly in them.

He doesn’t offer up any passages from the Bible to back up the creation of small groups because there is nothing IN the Bible about this subject.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we read instructions about the nuts and bolts of building friendships and relationships with our fellow believers.  Yes, we are exhorted to not “forsake gathering together.”  Yes, within scripture it seems to be a given that if one is a Christian, one will have a desire to be in relationship with other Christians and will want to become part of a church congregation.

But nowhere is it spelled out that such fellowship – such relationship -is something that MUST be handled in a regimented, scheduled, controlled fashion.  There IS no “biblical doctrine” to support “small groups” the way that Sovereign Grace Ministries does them.

C.J. skips this very important point, though, and basically goes on to assert that “small groups” are necessary for one’s sanctification.

After quoting Wayne Grudem’s definition of sanctification (“Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives”), C.J. then says,

That’s the goal of the Christian life, isn’t it?  Increasing freedom from sin and increasing resemblance to Jesus.  Small groups provide an ideal context for this to occur.  

Not every small group is intent on this purpose, however.  Some put a higher priority on socializing than on sanctification.  Others excel in open sharing and sympathetic listening, yet they never confront sin or challenge members to change. 

This is unacceptable.  A group with an unbiblical purpose can do more harm than good.  Groups that meet without the biblical purpose of pursuing character development have the tendency to reinforce, rather than confront, the sin and selfishness already present in us.  None of us needs such reinforcement.  Instead, we need to be provoked and challenged by others so we can change for the glory of God.

I don’t know about you, but I see a very interesting leap of logic here.  With no real explanation or foundation from scripture, we’re suddenly at the point where groups of Christians hanging out together without a deliberate, structured plan are now “unbiblical”?  “UNBIBLICAL”???  Really?  Since when?

Where does the Bible tell us that it’s wrong (hence “unbiblical”) for a church group to simply enjoy each other’s company?  Where does the Bible describe what constitutes “biblical” (in other words, “correct”) procedures to get together and build relationships?  Does the Bible say that a group of women cannot lay the groundwork for deep and spiritually edifying friendships while playing Bunko, for example?  Is a church-sponsored outing to a football game suddenly NOT a “biblical” venue for enabling some guys to set the stage for conversations down the road that will become more deep, personal, and spiritual?

C.J. continues Chapter 1 by discussing the differences between justification and sanctification.  I do appreciate that he makes some effort to establish that our human activities do not affect our “right standing” before God.  Yet right after he spends several paragraphs discussing justification by faith alone, he then proceeds to say this:

Though it’s important to distinguish between justification and sanctification, these two doctrines are inseparable. God does not justify someone without sanctifying him as well. Sanctification is not optional.  If one has truly been justified, that will be evident by a progressive work of sanctification in his life.  Small groups contribute to this magnificent and gradual work of grace in our lives.

I agree with Mahaney that interacting with other Christians in the context of a small group can certainly help one along in the sanctification process.  Don’t misunderstand – I’m NOT taking exception to the idea that Christians need deep relationships with other Christians.

But I do think that especially within the context of SGM’s culture, there’s a great deal of hidden baggage in C.J.’s statement.  On the one hand, C.J. “distinguishes” between the doctrines of justification and sanctification.  He spends several sentences seeming to establish that participation in small groups would not affect our position before God, would not affect our salvation, would not – ultimately – send us to hell.

But then, in the very next breath, C.J. undoes this “distinction” by declaring that, “the two doctrines are inseparable.”  He says that if someone has been justified, he will demonstrate a progressive sanctification.  Again, I’m NOT disputing this.  But the very next sentence implies that small groups are necessary for sanctification.

So there you go.  I wonder how many people have taken away from this teaching the obvious implication that if you’re truly saved, you’ll demonstrate sanctification…and you need to be in a small group to be sanctified…so therefore, if you’re truly saved, you’ll be in a small group?

A few paragraphs later, C.J. says,

It’s been sobering to observe others who have chosen not to participate in a local church or in small groups.  They have demonstrated a distinct lack of growth.  What’s worse, they haven’t even been aware of their spiritual condition and stagnation.

What good SGMer would ever want to risk coming under this sort of scrutiny?  Doesn’t “spiritual stagnation” sound an awful lot like a lack of sanctification…which would then demonstrate a lack of justification?  C.J. continues with,

If you have a passion for personal change—and every Christian should—then you will be glad when others challenge you to grow.

Again, I’m seeing an underlying assumption here, which is that participation in a church-sponsored, organized, structured “small group” is the only context wherein having “others challenge you to grow” can take place.  Where’s the biblical backing for this kind of thinking?  I don’t know about everyone else, but in my own personal experience, I am generally “challenged to grow” by the people who know me the best.  Yes, some of these folks are from my “local” church.  But most of them are not.  Most of my “Nathans” (people who feel free to correct me) are other Christians whom I’ve known for years, people with whom I’ve established deep and abiding relationships, people like my parents, my husband, my sister, old friends from college days, and so forth.

I can imagine that for someone who has just recently become a Christian, it’d be helpful to have a way to develop these sorts of relationships.  And yes, a small group would be one way to sort of “jump-start” this kind of relationship-building.  But it’s not the ONLY way.

After some additional paragraphs about the need for having a “Nathan,” C.J. asks this:   

Is there someone who can (and does) question your motives and ask for an explanation of your actions when appropriate?  This is what we want to work toward in our small groups.

But what comes first?  Does such questioning and correcting ESTABLISH friendships, or does it instead happen within the CONTEXT of an existing friendship?

After moderating this site for over a year and a half, I have learned that a distinct characteristic of Sovereign Grace’s culture is that confrontation and correction are considered the behaviors of a good friend.  Time and again, SGMers support their criticisms and “observations” with Proverbs 27:6, which says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”  Yet if you really examine it, that verse does not say that going around “wounding” someone means that you are automatically his “faithful friend.”  (Otherwise, logic would have it that ALL “enemies” would offer up “profuse kisses”…or that all “profuse kisses” would come from one’s enemies.) 

To me it seems to make a lot more sense that Solomon was merely making an observation about the kind of correction that a good friend offers – “faithful wounds,” in other words, the kind of “wounds” that serve a lasting purpose.  Yet within SGM, confronting someone about his failings (“bringing him an ‘observation’ “) seems to be the way people are taught to demonstrate that they are “faithful friends.”

C.J. then goes on to talk at some length about the necessity of applying God’s Word to our lives, and how it’s useless to just hear the Word if we’re not going to live it out.  I really couldn’t agree with him more on this point, and yet, again, we see a very interesting leap of logic.  C.J. seems to say that participation in a small group is an essential part of applying the Bible to our lives.  He says,

As your small group looks into the mirror of God’s Word, you should be making adjustments. Each year you should be able to look back and identify distinct areas in which you have changed during the previous twelve months.  This is the difference small-group participation is to make in our lives.  This and no less. 

I’d love to hear a clear explanation here for why, exactly, we must depend upon small-group participation to apply God’s Word to our lives.  I don’t understand the logic in thinking that one can’t put what one hears on a Sunday morning into action unless one is also attending another group meeting on a different day of the week.

The next section of Chapter 1 is, in my opinion, the strongest.  C.J. proceeds to explain that small groups are a good way for people to both care for others in the “local” church and also receive care themselves.  I think he’s absolutely right about this, and I can say from personal experience that this was something our own particular SGM small group did well.

The final part of Chapter 1 deals with our need for “fellowship.”  But guess what?  According to C.J., “fellowship” is NOT just hanging out and getting to know other believers as people.  Nope.  According to C.J., “fellowship” is something much more weighty, serious, and structured.  He says,

Fellowship is not just another word for social activities. I really enjoy watching the Washington Redskins or Baltimore Orioles with my friends. This can be a healthy part of small-group life…but it isn’t fellowship. And you don’t have fellowship talking about the latest opinion from Rush Limbaugh or Jesse Jackson, either. Social activities can’t be equated or confused with fellowship. They are distinctly different. Nothing compares to the fellowship we enjoy when we worship together, study and apply Scripture together, encourage and correct each other, and communicate to one another our current experience of God.  Nothing. Social activities can create a context for fellowship, but they are a place to begin—not a place to remain.

On the one hand, I do not disagree with C.J. here.  True moments of Christian “fellowship” DO transcend a shared sporting event of a night of scrapbooking. 

But are the lines of differentiation REALLY so clear?  And should we always be judging and rating our interactions with others so rigidly?  What of all the little moments of true depth that can occur when one least expects them?  I feel sorry for C.J. if he’s never been able to experience a deeply spiritual conversation while watching the Redskins play. 

I find this dualistic thinking particularly puzzling because one traditionally “Reformed” concept is that all of life is spiritual.  There are not supposed to be these neat and easy distinctions between the “sacred” and the “secular.”  It’s always been my understanding that if you’re living in right relationship to God through Jesus Christ, everything you do – every activity in which you engage – will become an expression of your Christian faith.  If you and a few Christian friends are hanging out together, doing needlepoint or organizing your photos (hey, I’m a girl, so those are the activities that come to mind), you will almost inevitably have PLENTY of opportunities to engage in the sort of “fellowship” that C.J. is encouraging. 

You don’t need to be sitting in a circle in some care group leader’s living room sharing prayer requests (after the obligatory time of refreshments and the tedious dissection of last Sunday’s teaching) in order to exhort and encourage (and even correct) another believer.  While there’s nothing at all wrong with having such a meeting – we personally always enjoyed the times we had with our own care group – it’s just not the only (or even the best) way to build real Christian friendships that will go on to transcend one’s participation in that particular group.

Matter of fact – and to me, this is key – your exhortation, encouragement, (and especially) your correction will be far better received if they occur within the context of an already- established deep and abiding friendship.

That brings us to the end of Chapter 1.  What do YOU think?  Does C.J. Mahaney’s book, Why Small Groups?, sound like it’d be a good read for folks in a non-SGM church?