My teenage son and I stayed up late talking a couple of nights ago. He told me how he’d like to have deeper conversations at church. I was fascinated by the way he described the vision he had for these authentic group discussions, largely because he seemed to have a vision similar to mine. Like me, he wanted to be able to disagree with a standard party line — not to be a heretic but to be able to share honestly and openly in an effort to be more real with God and a community of friends.
I’ve learned that God is not afraid of our honesty, even if it makes other people nervous and uncomfortable. My son reminded me that God already knows what we are thinking so of course He doesn’t mind if we express our doubts, fears, questions, and disagreement. God wants to hear from us so that He can speak to us, often through these honest discussions.
Set ground rules for authentic group discussions that focus on being honest without disrespecting others
When I started to think about how to create the atmosphere that encourages authentic dialogue, I realized that there should be ground rules (not necessarily written ones but guidelines to follow informally). In general, be honest without disrespecting other people. More specifically, do the following:
- Set aside any personal agenda; focus on letting God speak to you and your group through conversation (you can still have goals for a session but need to be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading)
- Consider identifying controversial topics and intentionally avoiding discussions on those topics, especially if the people in your group have sharply opposing perspectives (for example, avoid lengthy conversations on local politics)
- Bring discussions back on track if they wander too far from the topic (think of yourself as a forum moderator, respecting individual rights but serving the group’s needs to explore a specific topic)
- Note that certain groups (ones consisting of teenagers, for example) need to be careful with wide open discussion as talk can veer off course quickly and deteriorate rapidly; recognize and halt discussions on sensitive matters
- Don’t judge other people for their shortcomings or share their stories to others outside the group
- Remember to infuse the central theme of God’s grace, particularly when people get stuck or confused
Set the tone for authentic group discussions by revealing your failings and struggles
No matter how open you’d like a discussion to become, people often won’t share honestly until you speak and set the tone for an authentic conversation. You often need to reveal your darker side in order to make others feel safe enough to talk about their imperfections. Conversations may start like this:
- I know the scripture says _______ (fill-in-the-blank with something Jesus tells us to do) but I have a problem with the idea of _______ (fill-in-the-blank with a hard thing to do, such as loving my enemy, forgiving again and again, and visiting people in prison)
- I used to think _______ (fill in the blank with prior beliefs that you now question, such as God generally bestows success on people who follow Him and prayer answered “yes” always means a changed outcome) but now I think _______ (fill-in-the-blank with different perspective, such as God promises to meet our needs but not give us everything we want and prayer often gives us wisdom and new perspective)
- I still struggle with _____ because of _______ (fill-in-the-blank with an ideal behavior followed by reasons you fall short, such as being grateful because I think God wants me to strive for more or being still because our society seems to value productivity)
- What exactly was going on when _______ (fill-in-the-blank with questions about the actions of Biblical characters, such as why Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister or why David was considered holy even though he had an affair with Bathsheba)
The more you know scripture and the more honest you are with God, the easier it is to participate in and lead these types of discussions.
You may have a fear of letting things get out of control and letting people wander into dangerous territory without being able to reel them back in. But consider that boxing God in, distilling His truth to a bunch of platitudes or simple explanations is worse. The more you can share what you really think, the more God can talk with you and share what He thinks.