Monday, January 30, 2012

SotteVoce at a comment on Internet Monk discusses MH community groups.

Check out comment from SotteVoce January 27, 2012 at 3:36pm

Here is the excerpt that has stuck with me:
I think the problem that we see here is that the church, in taking over the formation of small groups, is trying to force community and intimacy among its people, which is impossible. Intimacy and trust simply cannot be coerced. I would not say that deep “confessions” were actively sought out by the groups that I have attended, but there is a kind of unspoken pressure in that environment to unburden yourself of anything and everything, because sharing secrets can foster intimacy in the right environment (not to mention it gets you attention). Unfortunately, in the wrong environment, it can lead to power trips, emotional blackmailing, and escalated incidents ... .

... it’s pretty easy to convince young people looking for something “authentic” and “real” that they need to be honest to the point of oversharing in order to have real spiritual fellowship. (I believe it is a natural outgrowth of the blatant emotional manipulation that is frequently employed in youth groups to get young people to open up and act spiritual.) “We’re your friends and your mentors, you should let us help you.” Except that in these situations, your “friendship” was systematically manufactured for you by a bureaucracy and all but forced upon you instead of developing through shared experience and fellowship.

There have been some awkward confessions I have heard in Mars Hill community groups, which I will not repeat.  Sad and troubling confessions, confessions where people went out on a huge limb and shared things that were very real, very full of hurt, and very risky to share.  Unfortunately these were done in settings where absolutely no one had the competence to speak into those situations.

One of the things a friend and I discussed about Mars Hill community group--no, various friends and i have discussed this--is that you can't manufacture intimacy and affection. In my time at Mars Hill there was basically only one community group where I simultaneously felt welcome and liked. I was in some groups where I didn't feel welcome and was not liked.  I have been in some groups where I was liked be a few folks but didn't quite feel welcome. 

I was in some settings where I felt welcome and liked and yet there was this weird, inexplicably awkward pall over everything. It was as though just when people were becoming truly at ease and getting to know each other the group leader would steer everything toward yakking about the Driscoll sermon.  Or a group leader might share this and that about community and friendship and the air in a room would just die when someone admitted they not only voted for Obama but liked his policies.  Then someone would mutter something about socialism.  I didn't vote for Obama, mind you, but I don't have to spell this out, do I?

I've been in settings where someone shared a testimony that touched me a great deal. I realize, looking back, that the person shared a testimony a few weeks after in a group discussion a few folks at the group talked about how family can help you get through rough times and be there for you.  I said something that nearly killed the mood of the room and said, "That's true, but family can do more to destroy and discourage you than anyone else, too." Everyone except one person looked awkward.  That other person looked me in the eye as if to say, "You and I are the only two people in this room who know what that means." Later that person shared a testimony. 

If my saying that thing that made the room feel awkward made that ONE person feel safe sharing a hard testimony then I believe that was the right and honorable thing to do. Fortunately in the setting this did not fall into dead air because there was real friendship and community. But it was part of another group in which we had all grown to love each other.  I can't really describe that kind of connection except to say that though most of us see each other at most one or two times a year there is a strong affection and bond as though the months or even years had not really changed anything. 

Now obviously that is the kind of friendship and mutual affection a church WANTS a community gruop to develop but in many cases a community group falls short of successfully manufacturing the semblance of that.  In a setting like Mars Hill I think the most common cause for the failure to attain this affection is simple--too many people want the group to be where things get heavy, deep and real.  There's no eagerness to kill an entire evening on things that are light, shallow and fun.  I felt connected to people talking about the Bible or about sermon talking points, yes. But I also felt stronger connections watching Scrubs episodes or discussing Gene Kelly movies with the women in a CG while some of the guys either pretended they didn't know what was going on or really didn't know what was going on.  I liked these people enough that I put up with Family Guy.  Now if you know me and know how much I hate Family Guy that can tell you how much I like these people!

You can't manufacture that no matter how many coaches you set up or groups you put together. It happens or it doesn't. Part of how it happens is that people who work together have often learned how to play together.  Think of it this way, in our society people date, do tons of fun things together and as that moves along they begin to work together, build lives together, get married.  Think about how children play and learn to exercise their minds and relational tools to grow into becoming functioning, working adults. There is a life cycle to a friendship and to a fellowship.  In many cases it has seemed that a community group has been erected so as to jump straight into adulthood when there has been no childhood period of play.  The child, if you will, can be put into a cotton mill to work the machines for production.

I look back with some sadness realizing that some of the most heartbreaking stories shared in community groups were ones where people badly needed to be able to share what had been done to them and I and the rest of the group were completely inadequate to say anything.  I didn't feel I could speak up because if I shared something it would be the wrong thing or the wrong kind of encouragement.  I also felt that if I shared something about why my heart went out to someone it would compromise the trust of someone else whose trust I did not want to compromise. In other cases I just realized I could not understand where that person was coming from so I said nothing and just prayed. 

There's a difference between sharing something very hard to share because you've had enough fun with friends you can share the serious stuff and sharing something very hard because you've heard the talk about how "things are real here" or "things won't leave this group" and feeling a need to share because you've been primed to believe that confessing the heavy, deep and real stuff is okay because everyone says they want to do that.  They don't usually do it, though, at least in my experience. When they do the blank expressions and awkward looks leave a person feeling as though it was better to have not said anything.

The sad thing is that should you happen upon a small group where real affection and trust has developed and you end up in other groups you begin to realize how far short other groups fall.  They're not falling short because other people aren't obtaining friendship and intimacy necessarily it could be because you are like a child who has to learn how to play before you can go to work.  Of course, sometimes it's that the group trying so hard to be heavy, deep and real doesn't realize that because they aren't taking time to be light, shallow and fun they end up just being awkward, perfunctory and fake. Awkward and heavy are not the same and fake isn't just about not being honest it's about the moment where honesty is met with an emotional vacuum that reveals that these people weren't really ready to grasp what you shared from your heart. 

Not that I'm necessarily against community groups. I could try to say something pious and trite about being the change you want to be or being that kind of person but the race is not always to the swift, nor victory to the strong, nor wealth to the wise but time and chance happen to them all. To the extent that Christians try to manufacture intimacy and fellowship in a way where it won't matter who is in the group it will be the degree to which it shows.

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