Thomas* sounds tired when I bring up the subject of Bible study. There’s a long list of reasons why he has found his mid-week church group difficult.
“You wouldn’t think that people still need help making conversation with each other,” he says with a sigh. He also finds the lack of commitment from other members frustrating, along with the hostility of members who are there.
“It’s hard not to take rejection personally when people say they can’t make it because they’ve got work commitments, exams, or are just tired. They don’t realise that I also work and have kids, too.”
When Katie* moved churches, she went from doing Bible studies with people who met weekly and socialised frequently, to a group that didn’t do the things she loved about her old Bible study. Socialising outside of the group was less frequent, and the Bible study met less than her previous one. This lack of connection only intensified the awkward moments.
“There were a few incidents where I felt very judged for asking questions I had about what the Bible was saying,” Katie says. “I questioned God’s reaction to the Israelites, and one member raised her voice and demanded I stop questioning God. It made discussion very uncomfortable and made me feel like I needed to pretend to agree with everything.”
While many people have wonderful experiences of growth groups, perhaps you can relate to Thomas’ or Katie’s experiences of Bible study. Sometimes meeting with one another in a community is challenging and can feel like a chore.
“Most dysfunctional groups have a majority of people who are partly engaged.”
Why groups don’t function as they should
“Well done for persevering,” says the Rev Archie Poulos, head of the Department of Ministry at Moore College. “The way our world tends to function is, if something doesn’t go the way I want, I’m out of there straight away. The fact that people are disheartened means they’re pushing on. That’s the work of the Spirit of God.”
He observes many factors that feed into why groups don’t work well, including:
- pragmatic factors such as the day, time and location;
- attendees solely seeking their own growth rather than the growth of others;
- unstable group attendance, with some groups having a different make up of people every week and other members hardly attending;
- different levels of Christian maturity and understanding;
- relational dynamics and disharmony;
- theological differences and tensions.
“Most dysfunctional groups have a majority of people who are partly engaged,” Mr Poulos says. “When you turn up and have people with arms folded, it says, ‘I’m distant from you’. Or, someone may inadvertently say something that you take really personally.”
What should we do when growth groups feel grueling?
Mr Poulos believes all Bible studies have a life cycle. He draws his observations from research into group development – and the Bruce Tuckman team development model outlines four key stages of a group life cycle: forming, norming, storming and performing. It’s important to recognise which stage your group is in and contribute appropriately.
“One thing to help with Bible study is to make sure we are praying for the other person in our group right from the early days,” he says. “The group life cycle matters and you have a contribution to make towards that. What you’re doing is putting funds into the good will bag that will help you for the rest of the group’s life.”
Be mindful of the positive influence you can have on the group. “As you say, ‘I pray for you on Friday mornings, how can I pray for you this week?’ that activates the prayer life in other people,” Mr Poulos says. “There’s often not much reason why you’re together, but the divine answer is that God has put this group together.”
Keep reflecting on the blessing of gathering as God’s people. “It’s an incredible honour,” Mr Poulos says. “The challenge is not what I get out of church, but what I can contribute. [Gathering] is a divine blessing for me and others, and we have to be reminded of it as well.”
“Sometimes there are issues that make it really hard. Sometimes there is the blessing of departure – either you or other people.”
Leaving is not a rash decision
It’s important that, even if the group is tough, our exit should not be hasty. “If it’s tough for you, it’s tough for the whole group,” he says. “In the first instance you need to ask, what can I do to help the group? What do you do to help the leader? Keep praying for them, and let them know you’re praying for them. Ask them how you can help.”
Sometimes, sadly, the relational dynamics of a group mean that it is appropriate to leave. “Romans 13 says, as far as possible, strive to live at peace with one another,” Mr Poulos says. “Sometimes there are issues that make it really hard. Sometimes there is the blessing of departure – either you or other people.
“First of all, strive to change yourself and if that doesn’t work there are times that you move on. Don’t do this reflection on your own. It’s easy to justify ourselves and to put down another person. It’s always good to have somebody else who can help you with that, asking someone to check how you’re thinking and hold you accountable to thinking it through Christianly.
An important element, he says, is to recognise “that we are both Christian and creatures. And so God gathers us together around his word, and by the encouragement with each other around his word he grows us as Christians.”
*not their real name