Welcome To the Freak Show

“Now we’re going to have a time of confession. Who would like to go first?”

I had been a part of a college Bible study for six meetings when the leader hit us with that question. There was dead silence. I heard deep breaths, crickets, and I’m pretty sure I heard the guy next to me cuss under his breath. No one was going first. I sure wasn’t.

It wasn’t that we were perfect; every one of those guys was flawed and fallible. It wasn’t that we were prideful; every one of us was aware of his sinfulness and genuinely seeking God through it. It wasn’t that we disagreed with the premise; it was right there in front of us, printed in black and white in the Bibles on our laps: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Hard to argue with that. It wasn’t that we didn’t trust the scriptures or want to obey them; it was just that … well … it was weird. These were brand new relationships. It felt strange to confess in that context. I barely knew these guys. I knew I had things to confess, but were these the guys? Could I trust them? Would they be around next semester? It felt too soon to tell, and too soon to confess. Though we didn’t have words for it then, I think we all felt the same hesitation. Too soon. Too deep. Too weird.

That wasn’t the last time I experienced weirdness at church. Christians are good at being weird. Think about all the weird stuff we do every week.

  • We ask people to sing in public. Where else do you do that? Concerts? Karaoke bars? Rotary club? All equally weird.
  • We ask people to tell one another things they’re ashamed of. Who does that? Not even your lawyer asks for that kind of honesty.
  • We ask people to give away money, and they fall for it.
  • We ask people to read ancient literature. Name one book you’ve read this year besides the Bible that was written before 2000. Unless you made another one of those New Year’s resolutions to read the classics, I’m betting your list is pretty short.
  • We ask people to close their eyes in public and talk to an unseen being. Try this at your next board meeting and see what kind of reaction you get.

And that’s not even considering the weird things we expect people to do with their dress, their speech, their diet and their calendar. Are some of those things good or helpful or necessary? Sure.

But also weird.

And if you want to get really weird, try a small group. After years of careful and scientific research, I’ve concluded that the sociological and cultural dynamics present in Christian small groups multiply weirdness by a factor of 87.3.

Off-the-charts weird.

At least on Sunday morning if you’re not really into the responsive reading or the Holy Ghost Hop, you can just sit tight and let it pass. In a small group, there’s no place to hide.

Now don’t get excited. This blog is not going to teach you how to remove the weirdness from your small group. But like fear, the weirdness seems to lose its power if we just acknowledge it. So let’s acknowledge the weirdness right up front: small groups are weird. We’re trying to do some pretty spectacular things in small groups — trying to go some place not many people go — so it may take some more extreme measures than we’re used to. If our relationships are only about having a good time, then traditional measures will do: grab a few beers, watch the big game, play fantasy football. But if we hope to follow the command to “love one another deeply from the heart” given to us by our ancient sage; if we’re serious about taking up arms against a common enemy; if we aspire to bring the shalom of heaven to Earth; if we’re willing to sacrifice our own interests and die to our old way of life to make much of our King together, then traditional measures won’t do.

If you find yourself part of a small group meeting like the one I attended recently where the conversation turned serious and one of the men (only half joking, I think) said, “Is this gonna get weird?” the answer is “Yes!” Or even better: “Oh yes, dear Lord, I hope so!” That’s small group life. Welcome to small group community. Welcome to the freak show.

Ryan SandersComment