Last week I had the honor of sitting down for a chat with author and consultant M. Scott Boren. Boren’s books Missional Small Groups and Leading Small Groups In the Way of Jesus have been very helpful for my own ministry journey. Scott is also a fellow Aggie and old friend from our long-gone years in the Aggie Baptist Student Ministry, so we spent an hour discussing Aggieland, Baptists, and the muse. In between all that we talked a lot about small groups too. Here are the parts that were fit to print, as well as a discount code for 38 percent off his book which expires on March 31, one week from today!
Ryan: I want to ask you about scripture and community. I seem to talk and write a lot about John 13. I just think that passage about the New Law and “they will know us by our love” is powerful. I’m wondering do you have a go-to passage of scripture that informs your work with small groups?
Scott: That’s interesting that you brought up that passage because I think about it a lot. Have you read Difference Makers?
Ryan: (Abashedly) No, sorry.
Scott: No, not at all. But in that book I use that passage a lot as a metaphor, and kind-of as an outline: letting Jesus wash your feet, then wash one another’s feet, then wash the feet of the world. I think it’s a powerful image. It’s one of my favorite passages about Christian community.
Ryan: So since you mentioned Difference Makers, are you working on another book? What’s next?
Scott: Yes. I’m writing one now to help church leaders move their ministries to a more missional posture. For instance, if I were leading a church of 100 people into community in the way of Jesus — by the way, I use that phrase interchangeably with “missional.” I think missional is losing its meaning though. I just mean this as a community doing life and mission together; more than a Bible study — anyway, if I had 100 people I was trying to lead in that direction, most likely 90 of them are not going to be ready for it. Most people are just overworked and overstressed and trying to get by and don’t have time for real community. Or think they don’t. So what I’ve encouraged churches to do is to take a subversive route rather than a direct or overt route. I love Eugene Peterson’s book Subversive Spirituality and I like to use that language. The idea is that if I come right out and tell those 100 people what I’m up to, I’m going to get fired. Because if I tell them that the Kingdom of God stands against their American consumerism, they won’t understand. So what I want to do is to lead them gently — or subversively — by creating environments where they can have these “Aha!” moments and see a way forward themselves.
Ryan: Yeah, well that doesn’t sound all that subversive. It sounds like any good teacher, doesn’t it? A good teacher doesn’t present answers, but presents questions and lets the student find the answers?
Scott: Exactly. But that’s not the methodology we’ve taken in our Enlightenment culture. What we typically do is say, “We don’t know what to do. Let’s go get an expert and he’ll tell us what to do.”
Ryan: So we have to sort-of roll out our discipleship at a pace our people can handle?
Scott: Yes, or at least offer that pace. I often encourage churches to do a sort-of dual track. Ninety percent of your people are going to be on the more programatic, lower-expectations track. If they get together twice a month, you’re happy. And that’s what most small groups books focus on. For that track, just find a system you like and work it. There’s no magic there. But let’s not call that the Kingdom of God. Or our goal. Let’s make that the public track, but at the same time, let’s identify those 10 people who are asking different questions, who are hungry for more. And let’s work with those people to create really compelling, Kingdom-building, life-changing communities. That takes a while. We’re probably talking eight or 10 years. You’re not going to confront Christianity done American style in six weeks, especially not in your setting in Dallas.
Ryan: Go back to the “aha moments” track though. In a sense, isn’t that a step we need to take before we get on the fast track? Isn’t that also part of discipleship?
Scott: Absolutely. In fact, extend that farther. It’s part of evangelism. If we’re supposed to be like missionaries, our job is to accommodate the culture until they get to the place where Christ can confront what in that culture is contrary to his Kingdom.
Ryan: Yeah, I think you say in Leading Small Groups In the Way of Jesus that “We listen people into change.”
Scott: Glad you actually read something.
Ryan: Touché. But that dual track idea is interesting. In my context, I feel like we’re doing that, just not on purpose.
Scott: I bet you are. In a big church with as much diversity as you have at IBC, I’m sure you are. Years ago when I started pastoring small groups, my goal was always to get all the groups looking the same, then get them multiplying. But that’s just not — getting everybody into exactly the same thing is pretty unreasonable. It’s a mechanistic model. And in America it usually only works in very homogenous churches. The more diverse and the more educated your church gets, the more freedom you have to allow.
Ryan: But that’s also more to manage. It’s so much easier to get people on a program!
Scott: Yes. And here’s another danger: if your groups aren’t all moving at the same pace, you’ll start to look down on the groups who are lagging behind.
Scott: I think that’s always a temptation for pastors or anyone who is “up front.” For you — I know you didn’t ask for my advice but — I would say keep blogging, but protect your soul when you do. Jesus invites us to follow him to the cross. But how an author’s or a pastor’s worth is measured is antithetical to that message. It’s all about how big a platform you can build.
Ryan: Yeah, on the bookshelf behind me right now there’s a copy of Michael Hyatt’s book Platform and a book by Thomas Merton that talks about serving God in “obscurity and oblivion of all things." I get it.
Scott: Yeah, and so maybe now we’re back to foot-washing.