By Reid Smith
Community is messy business! Having differences in a small group, acknowledging disappointments and hurt feelings, and running up against frustrations and challenges are all part of moving to deeper maturity in community and Christlikeness. In fact, conflict can be the very thing that helps your group to break through to new levels of honesty and freedom in Christ.
When you trace Christ’s interactions with the Pharisees, His reaction at the Temple with the money changers, and some exchanges with the disciples, it becomes clear that Jesus did not avoid conflict. The New Testament does not gloss over the reality of conflict in community. However, God’s Word makes a difference between constructive conflict and pitfalls like senseless quarreling (Prov 20:3; Rom 14:19; Eph 4:25-32; 2 Tim 2:23-24).
There will be a mixture of personalities and gifts that will surface in your small group. Sometimes the dynamic that is created will function as a conduit of God’s healing love and peace. Other times, people will feel friction as fellow believers challenge them to turn from complacency and sin and move toward complete commitment to Jesus Christ. Both of these scenarios are great, and we should pray for them to occur. However, there will be times when conflict and confusion arise because of ignorance, insensitivity, or quarreling over petty issues, etc.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common pitfalls and how to avoid them so that your small group can be a safe place where grace reigns and authentic biblical community can grow.
Don’t Tolerate Bickering Over Trivial Issues
Don’t allow abstract theological arguments to ensue over technical points of doctrine or trivial matters (1 Tim 1:3-7, 6:3-5; 2 Tim 2:23; Titus 3:9). This doesn’t help to build a healthy small group dynamic and it’s a turnoff to those just getting started in their relationship with God. You can ask those who tend to enjoy this to debate outside of your regular group time. Intellectualism is a good thing and can enrich your small group. However, unless it is coupled with “why” and “how” application questions, it is not beneficial in a mixed group dynamic. Promote safety and err toward discussion over debate. Maintain the highest level of awareness toward those with the lowest level of biblical literacy.
Beware the “Introversion and Argumentation Correlation”
Petty conflict frequently signals that your small group has turned in on itself. For example, if your group is more concerned with the signs and times of the end of the world then with bringing in the harvest before Jesus returns, there’s a good chance your group has gotten off track. At times you will need to dredge the bottom of your small group’s stream so it can flow again by turning the focus of people away from themselves. The best way to do this is to engage in outreach together.
What if someone begins promoting false theology?
There is a difference between someone saying something that happens to be erroneous (most of the times this is the case) and someone who is actually promoting false theology. If a person is doing the latter, address it head-on (1 Tim 1:18-19; 2 Tim 3:16-17; Titus 1:9, 2:1; Jude 1:3-4). The Bible is the Word of God (Gal 1:11-12; 2 Tim 3:14-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21, 3:15-16). For this reason, the Scriptures need to be the standard of truth in all of your small group discussions. It’s important you show love and grace in how you do this. Here are some pointers for dealing with biblical misinterpretations or false theology that’s shared aloud in your small group:
- Ask the person to clarify what they’re really saying—you might even restate it for them: “Are you saying that….am I hearing you correctly?”
- Ask them to show you scriptural support for what they’re saying. Oftentimes, this will bring a halt to it. If they try to justify their position, invite your co-leader or other trusted group members into the conversation by asking them, “What do you think about this?”
- Gently but firmly express the truth and if possible support what you share with a biblical reference and bring closure to the matter—don’t let the individual’s misunderstanding derail the whole meeting. If they are in fact promoting something other than the truth—connect with them privately outside of your group time and be direct in asking them not to do it again. If they’re contentious, contact your coach for support.
Encourage “I” Statements vs. “You” Statements
When restating what a person is saying or when handling conflict, begin by saying, “What I hear you saying is…” or “What I think you are saying is…” Then ask them if you’re accurate. This encourages understanding instead of frustration which can result when someone uses “You” statements (e.g. “You said…” or “You always make me feel…”) “I” statements communicate that what you are hearing the person say is your perception of what has been spoken, not necessarily what has been said (or what the person intended to say). This will help the person who is speaking to know they’ve been understood or misunderstood while fostering a sense of acceptance. Restating the speaker’s comments with “I” statements shows that you are genuinely trying to understand what the person is saying without judgment or accusation. “I” statements also help to express more personal feelings about what the other shared.
What if the group continues to get off topic?
Multi-person discussions naturally meander. Don’t be too rigid. Try to keep the balance between keeping a focus and giving the focus some wiggle room. By way of analogy: a sailor doesn’t hold on tightly to the rope locking the sail in a single position. This actually gets the boat to the destination slower than if one held on loosely to the rope letting the sail fully catch the shifting winds. Every small group has its own pace and rhythm based on its unique chemistry—discern your group’s chemical make-up and steer the study and discussion accordingly. These pointers might help with a group which seems to continually get off topic:
- Preview your small group’s upcoming study material and assume you’ll only be able to cover HALF of the questions presented. Ask yourself: “Which half of these questions will work best for my group?” This “cleans up” the dynamic of your small group’s study and discussion time, bringing more focus onto the topic.
- Outline what you want to do from the outset of your time together. Avoid sharing as if it’s an agenda. Set a goal for your small group. For example, “In this meeting, let’s explore…” or “What I hope you’ll walk away with by the end of our meeting is…”
- Discern a pattern. Does your small group tend to get off topic at generally the same time of each meeting? Does something trigger your getting off topic (maybe it’s an individual, how questions are phrased, or maybe it’s the study itself!)?
- Ask the group if they’re happy with the study you’re doing. When a group continually gets off topic it might be a signal it’s time to abandon the particular study you’re doing. That’s okay to do! People might just be bored or disinterested with it. Dialogue together about this. Check in from time to time with your small group and ask them if the study you’re working through is working for them.
- Try to link “wandering talk” back to the topic at hand. Look for opportunities to jump in, graciously segue, and take hold of the steering wheel again. You don’t have to bring an abrupt halt to aimless chatter—look for the right moment when you can gracefully harness it and relate it to your small group’s study focus.
- Invite your coach to attend a meeting. They have a different vantage point than you and may see something you don’t that provides insight.
- Ask other trusted small group members to help the study stay on track.
Avoid pitfalls, not conflict itself. Conflict avoidance has a paradoxical way of decimating relationships and destabilizing the development of biblical community. Rather, keep the main things the main things in your small group’s spiritual conversations. Encourage personal maturity and the missional application of God’s truth. Listen to the unique undertones of your small group dynamic, seek first to understand, and be flexible with how your journey together plays out. The same One who began a good work in you and will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus will do the same for your small group (Php 1:6).
Reid Smith has been equipping leaders in churches of all sizes and stages of growth for effective disciple-making since 1996. He lives in Wellington, Florida where he serves as a Groups Pastor at Christ Fellowship. You can find more of his helpful resources at www.reidsmith.org.