If you are familiar with other books we have written, you may already know that we define grace as far more than forgiveness. It is unmerited favor. We define truth as God’s truth, the reality that structures our lives. The next few pages will give you a fuller understanding of the rich concepts of grace and truth. But we want to alert you to these definitions so you understand what follows.
Giving and Receiving Unmerited Favor
Too often, Christians understand grace only as forgiveness or unconditional acceptance or the absence of condemnation. Certainly those are aspects of God’s grace, but grace is more than that. It is God’s giving to us what we cannot provide for ourselves. Grace is unmerited favor. It is God’s bestowing on us good things that we do nothing to gain, earn, merit, or—and here is a big key for groups—produce. In other words, grace is brought to us, not created or produced by us. We cannot merit it.
A small group offers a powerful expression of grace in contrast with the individual spiritual walk. Other people can give us expressions of God’s grace that we cannot produce for ourselves. In a good small group, people get from others things that they are unable to give or get for themselves.
Without this full-orbed understanding of grace, small groups fall short. They provide safety but not other aspects of grace that help people grow. In the book How People Grow, I (Henry) described one man’s experience of truncated grace. Dangerously overweight, this man learned from his doctor that he needed to lose more than a hundred pounds. He came up with a program of diet and exercise and formed an accountability relationship with my friend.
My friend continued to meet with him during the weight loss regimen, but the man’s weight went up, not down. My friend wondered what to do. So I asked about their program. They had a plan with goals and tasks, such as monitoring food and exercising. The man was to pray and study the Bible as well. But the main plan was to stick to these goals.
Then he would meet with my friend for an “accountability” relationship. They’d get together, and he’d confess his failure. He’d feel guilty and repent, receive forgiveness, and commit to doing better. The “deeper commitment” language seemed to be a big part of the plan. This overweight man and my friend had decided that he just needed to commit to more self-discipline.
When my friend asked me what to do about the failure, I responded that the plan lacked grace and was destined to failure. Caught off guard, my friend said, “No. I give him a lot of grace. We pray, receive God’s forgiveness, and I accept him, too. He has total grace.” I knew my friend was right about that, because he is a very accepting and gracious person. But the program itself was falling short of grace. It had forgiveness but was missing “unmerited favor.”
To experience victory, the man needed the whole of grace. In other words, he needed unmerited favors. He needed people from the outside to give what he was not able to produce for himself. Where is someone without self-discipline going to get it? From himself? We just said he did not have any, so it can’t be from himself. It has to come from outside. Otherwise, it would be like telling a car that is out of gas to “get more self-gas” or “get more committed.” If it could have kept running on empty, it would have. Grace is the gas pump that comes alongside the car and gives it what it needs to make the trip. It is the rescue that Paul mentioned in Romans 7. The overweight man had to join a group that could give him more than forgiveness and acceptance. Such a group could provide:
• Safety to lovingly let him know that he is powerless to get there on his own
• Acceptance and love in his powerlessness, just the way he is
• Forgiveness, such as he was already getting
• Support and encouragement to reach the goal
• Help through weakness, such as group members he could call when tempted to eat or skip exercise
• Healing of the pain and grief that he was covering up with food
• Support in stressful situations that he was “eating over”
• People to give honest feedback on his plan and progress
• A place to process his failure and learn why and how he fails
• Limit-setting and confrontation on his other excesses
• A push to see that their group was not enough and that he also had to join a more structured program
Do you see how through the group the man could receive gifts from the outside? Asked to provide those disciplinary things for himself, he could not do so. He needed unmerited favor—good things that he could not produce. That is why they are grace. And the more your group sees grace that way, the more people will grow. It is a culture of asking, “What do you need that we can give you?” Then the group gives what is needed or supports the person to go out and seek it.
Again, don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t have to figure out the right kind of grace for every problem. Your group’s particular materials and content aids should do that for you. Instead, you must make sure that the individuals see grace as more than forgiveness and get good things from others in the group. That’s true facilitation—not doing everything yourself, but making sure it happens through the group.
Seeing Ourselves in Relation to God’s Truth
Remember my experience with the minister who stood up and protested my talk about how people need other people to help them grow? He was adamant that people grow in response to “the truth.” He thought that God’s truth was what made people grow. But he limited that definition. He thought that truth is delivered only through preaching and teaching. He believed that if the pulpit does its job, everyone will complete the growth process.
We agree that truth is an important element in growth. If we do not have God’s truth, we do not know how to live. As Moses said, “The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today” (Deuteronomy 6:24). David prayed, “Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (Psalm 25:4–5).
But the Bible also teaches many ways of realizing God’s truth. Along with seeing the truth of his statutes, we also have to see the truth of who we are in relation to those standards. We have to see how to grow toward those statutes. Teaching and preaching help us grow, but so do other experiences. We need all these aspects of truth at work in our lives, and a small group is a great context. Here is a partial list of how groups help us grow in truth:
• Teaching—instruction of God’s truth
• Confessing—telling the truth about where we are (James 5:16)
• Opening up our hearts to deep truth (Psalm 51:6)
• Correcting each other with the truth (Ephesians 4:25; Proverbs 15:32)
• Containing each other’s sin through confrontation (Matthew 18:15–19)
• Finding out the truth of our deepest parts (Psalm 139:23; Matthew 23:26; Mark 7:20–23)
• Learning to walk in God’s truth and integrate it into life as we “hold to it” (John 8:31–32)
• Modeling truth for each other so we can do it for ourselves (1 Corinthians 4:16)
• Finding safety and security in the boundaries of God’s truth (Proverbs 1:33)
• Hearing truth from each other in ways that build us up (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
• Helping each other build character (2 Peter 1:5–8)
• Revealing the truth of our pain so we may grieve and be healed (Romans 12:15)
• Opening up honestly so we may be more closely knitted together (Ephesians 4:15–16, 25)
This is just some of what the Bible teaches and group research affirms regarding the different ways God uses the truth in our lives. Certainly teaching is important, but do not limit your experience with the truth to one sermon a week. The small group is a place where that truth can be taught, caught, and realized in very important ways.
In fact, experiencing truth in a group would drastically affect the overweight man I described. Applying the truths listed above would create an almost perfect prescription for weight loss. Doing those things would help him much more than just dieting, being held “accountable,” and then trying harder. If he were letting the truth work in these ways, the solution would be happening that would help him lose the weight he needs to lose.
Grace and Truth Dwelling among Us
Small groups must avoid two extremes: grace only or truth only. Perhaps you’ve found one group that loved you, accepted you, forgave you, helped you, and showed you all sorts of grace. Yet not enough change took place over the long haul, because you did not learn new ways of being or doing, or didn’t get input and correction about how you were already being or doing. You weren’t held accountable. And there wasn’t enough probing to uncover deeper truth about what needed healing and changing. So you remained comfortable and stuck in your grace group, but not growing. You longed for more change over time.
Maybe you joined another group, a truth group, which did the opposite. You experienced direction, accountability, confrontation, structure, rules, and pressure to be different. But this group may have lacked safety and acceptance, so you felt guilty and ashamed, never good enough. You longed for more acceptance and love. The standards were strong, but the forgiveness was weak, and there were more shoulds than you could measure up to.
Too many people have experienced small groups that lacked something. Growth did not happen to the degree it could have, had the group mixed grace and truth. Fortunately, God had the same thought. More accurately, God was the thought. He himself is the combination of grace and truth, and in this combination we find healing. John puts it this way: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17–18).
Jesus was the realization of grace and truth together. He was total unmerited favor. He loves us, accepts us, and helps us when we don’t deserve it. He favors us and brings us favors, just because he loves us. He also gives us truth—the truth of God, the truth of life and how we should live, the truth of who and how we really are. Jesus offers the love that gets us to face and deal with reality. The safety of his forgiveness and grace take the shame and sting out of our daily failure to live up to his standards.
The exciting thing about experiencing grace and truth together is that we can become friends with the standards. The way we “ought to be” can become a goal, a direction, instead of a judge. Because of grace, we can begin to say, “I want to see where I need to change, so I can be and do better. Show me the truth and where I am in relation to it.” Jesus’ grace enables us to become friends with truth.
Now, think as a small group leader. You are God’s representative to your group. How will you help members grow? Which will you bring? Grace or Truth? Fortunately, you don’t have to choose. You can bring both—you can bring Jesus, as John describes him: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
You can bring Jesus to your group the ways that this verse describes: fleshly dwelling, glory, grace and truth. Fleshly dwelling means that God became man to live with us. God offers his gifts, love, help, and more to live inside us. We are his physical body on the earth now, dwelling with each other. As we saw in the first chapter, your group is one of the prime places where the members will be “with God.”
At your meetings, God will be present—in the flesh—in grace and truth. You will help your group experience God’s presence in his body—your group. They will feel God’s grace through acceptance, help, love, care, support, and forgiveness. They will live God’s truth through standards, accountability, principles, reality, and honest self-assessment.
As group leader, you must help make sure that the right God shows up there. In other words, you will guide processes, set the tone, and assign tasks to create a group experience in which both grace and truth are realized. That is who he is, the real God.
The rest of this book will show you how. No one gets it perfect. But if we keep the goal in mind from day one, we can get closer to it each time we meet. Remember that bringing grace and truth to your group is a process that happens over time. As the next section explains, God gave us redemptive time so he can heal and change us, gradually growing us into people more like Jesus, who perfectly and eternally embodies grace and truth.
Groups Take Time
I recently attended a party where I saw several dear friends I hadn’t seen for years, not since we all worked for the same company. I had always had very warm feelings toward these folks. They were good people, and we had gotten along really well. At the party we did the usual catching up with each other’s lives, relationships, and families. Later, when the lights dimmed, the music grew softer, and others left, my former colleagues and I sat around the table telling old stories. One story made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. Some stories were sad. Some were touching.
What struck me most about that evening, however, was how present those past memories were. It really seemed we were once again that group in that company again, in those former ages and stages of life. I remember looking at everyone’s faces and seeing them as younger and different, the way they were then. It was a bittersweet but positive experience, a little like what the characters of the movie The Big Chill encountered at a reunion after their friend’s death. I liked being back there with those people. And in my head, at least, for a few brief moments, time stood still. Things seemed just as they had been back then.
The “group experience” I just described wasn’t about a growth group or support group or anything of that nature. It was just a few good friends with strong, common past experiences. Though not a group thing, it spoke to the heart of what happens in good groups: healthy support groups provide glimpses of eternity. That is, in a good supportive setting, daily world obligations go away for a while so growth and healing can occur. This doesn’t mean that members go into denial about their real lives outside the group. It does mean, however, that groups provide people with enough time, space, and safety to deeply experience their real selves, others who care about them, and what is truly important in life. Today’s crises, chores, and to-do lists fade from view, revealing love, loss, growth, pain, and the truth about ourselves.
Time is as necessary an ingredient as grace and truth in creating good groups. The better you understand time’s relationship with group process, the better your group will be. In contrast with how easily my old friends and I talked, have you ever wanted to talk to someone about a problem or struggle but ended up talking about logistics, the daily grind, and the weather? Time intruded on your conversation, and something you might have needed was lost. So the more intentional we are with group time, the better the group operates. The more you make time your ally, the more successful your group can be.
Let’s look at several principles of how time functions in groups.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2010). Making small groups work: what every small group leader needs to know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.