Bible Study Groups, Gospel Groups, Growth Groups, Life Groups, Cell Groups—call them what you will, they have proved to be a powerful part of what it means to belong to a church for many people, for many years. Here are three personal accounts of what it has meant to belong to small groups based around Bible discussion and prayer.
JOSIE MURRAY, WA
Crossing the country on my own to embark on new and challenging work in a place where I knew next to no-one and had never been, I was sure I wanted to be a part of a growth group. I had no idea then how established I would become in this group, or just how important this growth group would be to me. That was 6 years ago. I joined up to a mixed night-time group that met weekly, and I relished the familiarity of faces and format that welcomed me. I noticed that these were the people that were becoming my ‘family’ here: people not chosen by me, but given to me, to know more closely, for me to love and care for, and who loved and cared for me.
The emphasis in the group, it seemed to me, was a love for God’s Word, honouring Jesus as Lord, and a commitment to each other. This would be a place to grow.
My new job, as I expected, was tough. I was in the deepend, and my normal support network was a long way away. I was spread thin just to feel like I was afloat in my work, and to try to establish a home and some roots in this new place, but I was committed to showing up to my growth group. I rarely missed a week. There were many weeks where I would not stay to the end, as weariness and the drive pushed me to go; but this new family understood and cared, and I knew they prayed for me as I drove home.
One of the things that I loved about my growth group from the outset was the openness and honesty afforded by the fact that this was a group without hierarchy, where we were all exploring what we found in a passage of the Bible together. There is always freedom to ask questions—questions that aren’t even fully formed, questions that might sound unconventional (or even heretical!) or questions that just don’t look pretty. There was room for all of it—we could all be real with what we were wrestling with. A result of the openness of our group is great encouragement: members of the group are committed to one another, and we are vulnerable with each other, thus we receive true encouragement from each other. One of the greatest reminders I get from meeting with this group (both as it is expressed and embodied) is the fact that our task as Christians is not to add anything new, or to do anything fancy, but simply to continue on, to persevere: to stay in Christ. This is encouragement.
At the beginning of 2020, I planned to move to a new church, closer to home, beginning there at Easter. Those plans, of course, were thwarted to a great degree by the period of time where no-one was going to church (physically) anywhere. I could not have guessed how important my old growth group would be through this globally unsettling and uncertain time. We met online for zoom growth group, and checked in with each other on Sundays. It wasn’t the same, but I knew I needed it: the week I tried to ‘watch church’ without the accountability of my group, I ended up ‘leaving the building’ about two songs in.
When churches went back to meeting, and I was at my new church with a new growth group I found I did not want to let go of my ‘old’ group. This was not nostalgia. This was admitting to myself that this year has been hard—for me, for everyone—and that keeping around my ‘family’ was good for me through this time. I’m sure my new church is also a place of encouragement and openness, but being already established with a group counts for so much. I don’t have to explain or go into ‘the backstory’ when I share, and I don’t have to make an effort to get to know in order to understand and be understood—we have already done that work over the past five years. And now, when I need it, I am making the most of it. Sharing ups and downs of life honestly without protective layers is hard, so having a group that already ‘gets me’ gives me courage to share where I am at, and to receive what I need from the group.
While the group has changed and morphed, farewelling people along the way to other groups and other places, and welcoming newcomers, we continue to meet in the same house at the same time. We have the same focus and purpose we always have; and the group, for me, has the same effect. It continues to be a bulwark or anchor, my family of encouragement here, in the changes of life and circumstance.
DONNA VAN BUEREN, WA
I have been part of three different growth groups over the past eight years. Each group has served a different purpose in my journey to becoming a Christian and maturing in my relationship with God in different ways that were not obvious at the time, but on reflection seem to have been very purposeful. For me personally, being part of a growth group has achieved exactly what the name suggests—it has seeded, grown and nurtured my faith in and relationship with God. I think that there are several specific experiences that growth groups provide which contribute to the intangible process of deepening faith. These include:
- becoming familiar with reading the Bible, its overall story and sequence and the link between the Old and New Testaments;
- learning to interpret the Bible and internalise it for living a Christian life;
- Learning to pray (alone and with others)—by listening, observing and trying;
- gaining confidence talking to God, relying on him and asking for help and guidance for myself and for others;
- becoming closer to other Christians, receiving and giving fellowship to support each other in faith, and together finding guidance in the Bible and from prayer.
My own journey to becoming a Christian started only after I had children. Whilst I was raised to believe in God and as a small child attended Sunday School, as we grew older my family did not regularly attend church, pray or read the Bible at home. I had no connection to Christ through my teens or twenties, and it was not until my children were toddlers and I had made several friends who were Christians, that I became more interested in what it might mean to have faith in God. I started attending church, initially infrequently and then more regularly, however I resisted joining a growth group for several years. My resistance was couched in reasons such as having limited time, or not knowing anyone well enough, but if I reflect honestly it was also me wanting to distance myself from committing more fully to God. Joining a growth group felt like a very big step towards a commitment I did not feel ready for.
The pathway into a growth group at that time felt overwhelming and insurmountable.
The first growth group that I attended was at the invitation of a friend who offered to pick me up on her way, and in several ways created a comfortable introductory experience in early weeks. That friend took the time to create a pathway into the group that made it feel safe and unthreatening. One of my greatest fears at that time would have been the risk of exposing my lack of biblical knowledge and unfamiliarity with prayer to a bunch of people who were very experienced and committed Christians. As I look back, I recognise that the value of my first growth group experience was in getting to know other church women a little better, which in turn made my church-attending experience feel less isolating and consequently more frequent. Over my year in this growth group I developed an ‘ear’ for the Bible, through observation and trial, slowly gaining confidence in reading the Bible out loud, and for the first time, praying out loud as part of a group. I would describe this phase as one of finding one’s feet as a Christian.
For the last six years I have moved between two very stable growth groups, for purely logistical reasons depending on our family commitments. The second growth group that I joined is where I have spent my longest time, and is where I experienced the deepest growth and maturing of my faith in Jesus. This group was led by one of our church ministers and included a wonderful mix of more recent and life-long Christian women and men, across a really broad age range. During this time I progressed to being a more committed and confident Christian, and have benefited in many ways from the guided discussion and interpretation of scripture, in a group where I felt safe to ask ‘dumb’ questions to help clarify understanding or meaning. It is also where I experienced the dual gifts of praying for others, and having Christians pray for me. This period of being part of a growth group ‘family’ was a time when I felt the Holy Spirit at work in me, and when I felt most accountable to God, and most Christcentred in how I lived daily life. I have been blessed with remarkable growth group leaders, whose talent is in leading Bible-centred discussions and ministry, providing a strong compass on scripture interpretation into our daily lives, and offering helpful counsel through personal challenges. The ability for a growth group leader to meet a newcomer where they are at on their faith journey, and then to help them to mature their relationship with Christ from their initial starting point is such blessing.
In contrast, I now feel this blessing most keenly, having experienced a disruption to growth groups due to COVID-19 restrictions and church restructure. While church services couldn’t run, our growth group met weekly online. Whilst the online version is not a replacement for face to face fellowship it provided continuity, support and structure while we couldn’t attend church. Being able to continue to study scripture, discuss its relevance to our lives, share prayer points and pray for each other during the COVID-19 uncertainty has been a bolster in faith through these uncertain times.
AGREE TO DISAGREE
SEYMOUR CLIFFORD, WA
Politics, sex, money, death: topics not to be broached except in the safest company. Where then, in this cultural moment, is the safest company to be found? Is it in a ‘safe space’? It does not seem so to me. A safe space suggests to me a stern proscription on discussing topics of meaning and sensitivity; or rather it suggests a firm prescription that such topics be discussed solely in safe, non-committal platitudes. Now perhaps I have a special gift for saying the wrong thing and getting nice people off side, but it does seem to me that it is a difficult thing for two people of good faith to discuss certain topics from differing perspectives and it to be a positive learning experience for one of the parties—or better yet, both. Across politics, morality and even sport or art there seems to be a growing will to reject people with oppositional views as bad, or of bad faith.
Enter Bible study. It is has been, for me, one of the comforting and hope-giving things in life that at Bible study people of differing ages, sexes, income brackets, sporting and political affiliations regularly meet to read, discuss, agree and disagree upon Scripture. Furthermore, at the end of each meeting, not only are we still on speaking terms, but there even remains the grace for us to then pray for each other! I hasten to add that fraught topics aren’t rendered anodyne at Bible study because we all share the same viewpoint; goodness, no. There have been divergent views aired on infant baptism, election/ predestination, the role of the sacraments, the role of liturgy and plenty of other points relating to Scripture. (My previous Bible study also found time to argue at great length about an extra-scriptural dilemma: which would you rather meet in combat, one horse-sized chicken, or one hundred chicken-sized horses?)
But what of it? I’ve so far asserted that Bible study has been for me a forum where disagreement need not be a force for enmity or harm; but can I go further and say that Bible study sublimates disagreement into a force for good? Reader, I can. During the West Australian COVID shut-downs, as Easter approached I was very troubled that my parish made no attempt to provide Holy Communion—even in a limited manner that would have complied with public health directives and lockdown rules. Perhaps poor theology or over-strained shut-down emotions were at the root of my feeling, or perhaps I had a valid reason to be troubled; it’s not really my aim here to ask those questions. But in the context of (socially-distanced) Bible study we did discuss such questions. And it helped me a great deal. One generous and thoughtful person even went so far as to write up some reflections regarding the situation and its meanings for my benefit. Again, I don’t wish to go into the question of whether my feelings were mistaken or not so I will stay away from details and just say that what I took away from our discussions was a renewed confidence in God’s sovereignty, goodness and faithfulness.
Is my experience of Bible study recounted above, typical and if so why? That is, why is it that small, heterogeneous gatherings of Christians can turn disagreement into a tool for growing in relationship and understanding while the rest of the world simply has to avoid certain discussions. I can think of a two-fold explanation of this counter-cultural phenomenon.
1. Love for one another.
Per St John 13:35, Christians are to be known for a noticeable love for one another, and, per 1 Cor 13:7, love means assuming the best, never the worst of others; therefore we really ought to be well positioned to avoid the trap of turning disagreements over ideas into ad hominem attacks.
2. Being open to the possibility that my position might be wrong.
One of the essential tenets of Christianity is the fallen state of humanity. Per St Matt 7:5, a right understanding of our fallen nature will make us first examine our own faults before turning to the possibility of another’s faults. So the dogma of original sin ought to help keep Christians from going into disagreements with overabundant confidence that it is they who are in the right. Put differently, for Christians it should never be a huge surprise or devastating blow to find out, that actually, you were mistaken after all.
Well, those are my explanations, and I’m willing to discuss them, and can think of no place better to do so than a Bible study group. But please do feel free to disagree!