Shifting to “Spiritual Time” in Our Small Groups

small-groupsThe distinction is false. We make it all the time, but the reality is that there is no such thing as religious and secular. In the words of the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” We tend to think of the world in terms of “church stuff” and “normal stuff”. We compartmentalize our faith. When this happens in small groups it can be disastrous. Shifting to “spiritual time” in our small groups may suggest that certain areas of our lives are actually unimportant to the group and unimportant to God.

It’s not intentional, but some groups tend to communicate that there are two parts to our meeting. First, there’s the socializing part. Here we eat together, laugh, talk about sports and life activities. We discuss our work and hobbies. We do icebreakers or have fun. Then, we shift, sometimes abruptly, to the “spiritual” part. This is where we talk about God, where we pray, where we get serious. It’s here that we read the Scriptures, confess sin, repent, and have “meaningful” conversation. The two parts rarely mix and the line is often, intentionally or unintentionally very hard. This hard-line suggests that there is life and then there is spirituality, and the two don’t mix.

This approach often says to people, what you experience in your normal everyday life isn’t actually meaningful. What you do for a living, the hobbies you enjoy, the family outing you went on, that television program you watched last night, that is all unimportant. It’s irrelevant. It might suggest that these areas of my life are really unimportant to the people in my group. The only thing that matters to them is what I think about the passage of Scripture we’re discussing tonight, or my thoughts on the sermon. The only thing that matters is my prayer time, devotional life, and with whom I am sharing the gospel. Such a perspective within a small group will hardly create community. It breeds separation and isolation. Real community, however, cares about whole people, not just specific parts of their lives. Do I love the people in my group enough to invest interest in their hobbies? In their kids? In their jobs? Do I know where they live, and whether they like their neighbors? Do I care that they are lactose intolerant? Such knowledge shows genuine interest in a person, and not just some pseudo-commitment to them while we are in “spiritual time.” Shifting to spiritual time often suggests some conversations matter more than others, and that means some parts of your life matter and some don’t.

Such a division might also translate into the belief that my everyday life is irrelevant to my spiritual life. So what I watch, what I do, how I raise my family doesn’t have any bearing on my spirituality, and vice versa. In essence, I can be a perfectly good Christians without considering how the hobbies I enjoy can honor and glorify God. This separation is the difference between living a transformed versus a compartmentalized life. Brad House writes:

When we relegate these conversations to specific times of “care and share” or Bible study, we are effectively compartmentalizing our lives. We are propagating the belief that these conversations and convictions should not spill over into unsanctioned times. We condition people to make a mental separation between spiritual and practical matters…But if we talk about Jesus only during Bible study, if we pray only in that circle, if we cannot articulate the gospel’s influence on our view of politics, business, sports, and entertainment, then we are not living transformed lives. We are still compartmentalizing the gospel. (Community, 98)

Compartmentalizing means we not only “shift to spiritual time” in our small group, it means we “shift to spiritual time” in life in general. It means we begin to think that God does not care about what we do Monday through Saturday. That what I do at home, behind closed doors, and in my own mind is irrelevant to Him. But the gospel doesn’t just impact our soul, it impacts our whole life. The gospel changes everything!

When you read throughout the New Testament you find that God’s Word gives directives on every area of life. Jesus applies a Kingdom ethic to a wide range of matters in the Sermon on the Mount, including anger (Matthew 5:21-26), lust (v. 27-30), divorce (v. 31-32), oaths (v. 33-37), retaliation (v. 38-42), and love of your enemies (v. 43-48). We find among the apostle’s writings that Paul speaks about marriage (Eph. 5:22-33), parenting (6:1-4), and employment (6:5-9). We find also that Paul talks about issues like laziness (1 Thess.3:10), sexuality (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10), and lying (Col. 3:9). Ultimately Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). There’s nothing off-limits to God, all is to be dedicated to Him. There is no need to “shift to spiritual time,” because it’s all spiritual time.

It’s important that I clarify what I don’t mean by this statement. What I don’t mean is that there’s no place in small group life for casual chit-chat, small talk, or banter. Part of getting to know each other means developing the kind of healthy relationship that allows simple, free-flowing, conversation about a host of life details. What I do mean is that even this small-talk has the potential to be sanctifying, and should be engaged in with no less gospel-intentionality than the “spiritual” conversations. There is nothing that we discuss that is unimportant, irrelevant, or detached from our spiritual life and relationship. All of it matters and all of it can be an occasion to talk about Jesus, to pray, to bring Scripture to bear, and to fulfill the “one another” commands of Scripture.

When we talk, then, about not “shifting to spiritual time,” I have in mind the kind of small group where we don’t reserve certain kinds of conversations for certain times of the meeting. I can ask for prayer long before it’s “prayer request time.” I can share a burden while we’re socializing, and during our discussion of the sermon I can still mention that funny joke I heard the other night. We’re not drawing sharp lines that distinguish between “normal life” and “spiritual life.” How might this look in your small group? Maybe it means  that when two ladies get into a meaningful conversation at the dinner table and when every moves to the living room they are free to continue to talk and pray with each other, while the rest of the group moves on. Maybe it means that you don’t have to be so serious when you discuss the sermon, you can laugh and joke about something funny that happens. Maybe it means you don’t have to wait until “prayer time” to stop and pray for a need. Maybe it means you can have meetings that are less driven by agendas and schedules and more driven by people.

We don’t need to divide our meeting up with such hard lines. Care and support, prayer and repentance, love and laughter, can happy any time during our meetings. We ought to allow that to happen by how we structure our time and how we think about our gatherings. Small Groups that “shift to spiritual time” may do a disservice to their members. But groups that view all of our meeting as spiritual time help us to think and live Biblically.

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