Methodist house churches: Group dynamics

October 24th, 2018

The following article is part seven of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here.

A warning

If you are implementing an organically-multiplying house church strategy, you are always in church-planting mode. There is no magical place you “arrive” when you are done with planting and can cruise on institutional momentum, when you can breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank God we are now institutionally stable! We’re done!” No, a house church (or a network) is a complex social web full of complex people. People are messy. Relationships are messy.

One thing I’ve heard from many, many church planters is this: beware toxic people. Especially if you are trying to create a community that reaches people who have been hurt or burned by church, you need to be aware that “hurt people hurt people.” There are folks who will be drawn to new churches because their manipulative, bullying or predatory behavior wasn’t tolerated by the last three or four churches they left in a huff. There are folks who will be drawn to small churches (like house churches) because they get to be a big fish in a small pond, and they will stymie efforts to reach new people. There are folks who like “small” and “new” as long as it remains small and new. There are folks who feel that proximity to the pastor gives them power they lack in the secular world, and if you prioritize your mission over their personal need, you will become their mortal enemy.

All of this goes with the territory.

Of course, all of these characters make regular appearances at established churches, too. But in established conventional churches there is more likely to be size, tradition or institutional inertia that mitigates their influence. Organically-reproducing house churches can’t rely on institutional inertia or size, so they must develop a healthy culture. A healthy culture is obviously a more desirable immune system, but I’ve come to appreciate that even institutional inertia has some benefits when it comes to toxic people!

I have met pastors who have become bitter and hurt themselves because of their encounters with toxic people. In professional clergy circles, we often romanticize the messiness of human relationships, especially when we talk about “meeting Jesus at the margins” without recognizing that the margins also represent the fallout of trauma, abuse and oppression. In order to do ministry with people who need healing most, we have to think theologically about group dynamics and creating a healthy culture in the congregation.

Dynamics are about power

Power is the ability to do work or create change. “Dynamics” is simply a description of how that power operates (from the Greek dynamis, power). When we talk about group dynamics, we’re talking about who is in charge (formally and informally), who wields influence, how people get their psychological and spiritual needs met within the group, who speaks and who is silent, and who feels included or excluded. Huge sections of the New Testament are given to describing the dynamis of the Holy Spirit, but as Martin Luther King Jr. said, Christians are often reluctant to talk about power — either socially, spiritually or interpersonally. Once we open the door to talking about power, we also have to become aware of how things like racism, patriarchy, classism, cis-heterosexism and ableism find their ways into our personal relationships. We have to be honest about things like fear, power-sharing, vulnerability and healthy boundaries.

The pastor of a house church can uncover some of these dynamics by simply asking some questions: Who speaks up in the group? Whose voice, though it may not be loudest, seems to sway others? What roles do various actors and stakeholders seem to play? How does my presence and absence, my speaking or my choosing to remain silent, affect how the group operates?

Finally, and most importantly: Has this group reached a point where they can operate without me, or with a substitute coach or leader?

This final question is really the goal of all disciple-making leadership, in my opinion. The organic house-church movement anticipates a future where professional full-time clergy are increasingly rare. Rather than building big-box retail churches that can support a giant staff, we are doing grassroots community organizing to midwife into existence an ancient-future way of being church together. In order to accomplish this goal, the communities we create are going to need to model spiritual maturity and healthy group dynamics.

Here are just a few principles I use for thinking about healthy group dynamics in house churches:

The dishwasher principle: The one who loads the dishwasher gets to decide how to load the dishwasher. I use this illustration to talk about how married couples (and groups) often create unnecessary conflict. We all may have different opinions about the correct way to load the dishwasher, but if you are the one loading the dishwasher, you get to decide how it gets done. If someone else has strong opinions on how to load the dishwasher, they are free to share their ideas with you, but they are not free to judge you. If they start judging, they can either do the job themselves, or hush. (This could also be called the “no armchair quarterbacks” principle).

Complaining is helpful; criticism is not: Of the many principles John Gottman shares for making marriage (and other relationships) work, this one is primary: a healthy number of complaints indicates long-term relationship success. People who complain are giving you a gift: they are helping you make your relationship better. But a complaint is not the same as criticism. A complaint names a specific behavior, names the way it makes you feel, and names a specific action that can improve the relationship. For example: “When you leave your wet towel on the bathroom floor and I have to pick it up, it makes work for me, and I feel frustrated. If you would hang up your towel, it would keep me from having to do more laundry.” That is a complaint. A criticism attacks the character of the other person: “Are you too lazy to pick up your towel?”

We are often taught that complaining is bad, but if someone complains to me in an appropriate way, it’s because they don’t feel they have to walk on eggshells around me. It takes courage to complain, because if you admit ways someone else’s behavior has hurt you, you make yourself vulnerable. If you complain, you trust that there is enough respect in the group that a complaint will be received and honored. We need to model good complaining in all our relationships in church.

There is no substitute for time: Group dynamics are built on individual relationships. That means conversations in small groups and one-to-one meetings where we share what’s going on in life. In a house church or leadership team meeting, someone may be worried about their finances; someone may have found out their loved one has cancer; someone’s child is depressed and struggling in school; someone is hurt and angry because of a church decision that didn’t take into account their needs. These private worlds we bring into a church are not secondary to “church business”—they are church business. But often they remain hidden while we plan Vacation Bible School or clothes closets or make hiring decisions.

It is essential that the congregation embody what we professional clergy often call “pastoral care” for each other. This means meeting together in one-to-one conversation and in small groups, both informally and formally. Although many churches describe themselves as “friendly,” Natural Church Development evaluates loving relationships with a very concrete question: “Have you shared a meal or coffee with someone from your church in the past month outside of normal church hours?” Sharing meals and time is sacramental. If we do not spend time with each other uncovering our common self-interest and caring for each other’s pain and joy, how can we embody the love of Christ to the world?

Being part of a house church is like having a master class in group dynamics. If there is a concrete gift house churches can offer the wider church at large, it is how to build authentic community and healthy groups.

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