Recently, my small group decided that we needed to renew our efforts to dig deeper into community with one another. Two of the primary ways we planned on doing this are by praying toward that end and by learning to ask one another questions rather than offer advice. We want to take a stab at being men and women who are quick to hear and slow to speak (Jas. 1:19), that we might create space to make much of Christ, the only agent of change. If you’ve been around the church, much of that probably sounds cliché and, in one sense, I suppose it is.1 That’s because collaborative attempts “to dig deeper into community” and the practices that accompany it are some of the more stereotypical small group efforts; however, they are also simple acts of obedience to Jesus. For us, the decision to dig deeper into community wasn’t cliché—It was simply born out of obedience to Jesus as well as a response to the state of our small group.
Apart from our recent efforts, most of our time together has been characterized by disproportionately shallow, even unhelpful, conversations and weekly attempts at corporate encouragement, rebuke, repentance, and prayer have been short on practical, Christ-centered wisdom. In fact, most of our conversations have been dominated by an irreverent post-share rush to offer one another advice, instead of the forbearing work of asking and answering what David Powlison describes as “X-ray Questions.”2
In short, our small group has been caught trafficking in pop psychology and truisms. For example, instead of responding to statements like “My boss has been such a jerk lately . . . I think I want to quit my job” with questions, we just change the subject. Typically, people reply with some tired version of “I know how you feel, Rob” or “Just keep at it” or “Geez, well here’s how I deal with my boss, Sydney.” Sadly, this pitiful practice has closed doors to gospel application and furthered feelings of frustration, estrangement, and disillusionment within the group.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the reality that our previous efforts have caused us to make much of ourselves, instead of the very One in whom we are found, healed, and made whole (Matt. 9:12; 1 Pt. 2:25). When communities find themselves in this situation, Bob Thune and Will Walker remind us, “The good news of the gospel is not that God makes much of us, but that God frees us to make much of Jesus.”3
That means we need to spend less time peddling worldly wisdom and more time making much of Jesus if we really want to change.
My best guess as to why our communities lack deep community is that we have exchanged the deep things of God and heart for the world’s favorite form of wisdom: advice. As many have observed, it takes just five minutes in the local bookstore to conclude that we are an advice-obsessed culture. We crave quick tips and seek out superficial sayings. And the internet has made this kind of advice even more accessible. In fact, today it seems like we’re just as likely to use Google to seek out pithy proverbs as we are to find ideas for our next DIY project. But it’s not just us.
Together, the world, the flesh, and the devil have been operating a murderous joint venture since the first Adam’s fall from grace, peddling a false view of humanity and its condition. Over the last couple of centuries, this clandestine cartel has given rise to a dangerous preoccupation with the psychologized self and moralistic advice that has permeated every nook and cranny of our culture. If you don’t believe me, just tune in to the nearest TV between the hours of noon and 4:00pm!
Like the proverbial fish that doesn’t know it lives in water, our communities have been operating as a microcosm of the larger culture in which we live. We have been far too satisfied with counterfeit hopes and unbiblical theories of change, giving in to what Tim Lane and Paul Tripp describe as “hollow and deceptive theories of change that masquerade as biblical wisdom.”4
Admittedly, those hollow and deceptive theories of change are hard to see, “because they borrow some aspect of biblical truth”5 and then operate just below the biblical horizon. Ultimately, though, “they are hollow because they miss the center of biblical wisdom, which is Christ.”6
So what needs to change? And how can our group learn to see Christ better, and what would seeing him better enable us to be and do?
Christ: The Only Agent of Change
At the most basic level, our community groups have forgotten who and what we are in Christ. We have failed to point one another to him and the resources that are available in and through him by the Spirit (Rom. 8:9-11; Gal. 4:6-7). Of course, there is more to the change process than simply reminding one another of Jesus.
That’s because the rubber meets the road only when we learn to live into the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and to apply it to every area of life. One of the primary ways that happens is through small groups, especially ones that spend time praying and asking questions instead of giving advice.
Moving forward, our group plans to do just that. Rather than continuing to anesthetize one another with the worthless words of worldly wisdom, we will make a habit of praying and asking questions. Those habits will teach us how to celebrate and apply Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to every area of life, which will in turn empower us to grow into thoughtful brothers and sisters who are free to encourage, rebuke, repent, and pray authentically.
For our group, that will mean responding to statements like “My boss has been such a jerk lately . . . I think I want to quit my job” with questions. For example, “Can you tell us more about that?” or “Has his behavior caused you to respond sinfully?” or “Would you be willing to share anything about specific points of tension?” Answers to questions like that create space for honest self-reflection, and self-reflection is the hinge by which the doors to gospel application are always opened.
In other words, groups that fail to ask questions fail to open hearts. And closed hearts aren’t interested in Jesus. When we gather, we will look to Christ. We will claim all that is already ours in and through him (1 Pt. 1:3-5), even as we long for the day he will complete in us what is yet unfinished (1 Jn. 3:2).
1. David Powlison, “X-ray Questions: Drawing Out the Whys and Wherefores of Human Behavior,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 18:1 (Fall 1999), 2-8.
2. Robert H. Thune and Will Walker, The Gospel-Centered Life: Leader’s Guide (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 35.
3. Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2008), 20. For more, see Timothy J. Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Penguin, 2011) and Edward T. Welch, “Who Are We? Needs, Longings, and the Image of God in Man,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 13:1 (Fall 1994), 25-38.
4. Lane and Tripp, How People Change, 20.
5. Ibid., 20.
6. For more, see Lane and Tripp, How People Change and Tim Chester, You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010) and James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016).
Grayson Walker teaches American history at Casady School in Oklahoma City. Prior to teaching, Grayson worked for Cru and Providence Church in Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter @graysonpwalker.