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Leading a house church -- A guide on the side, not a sage on the stage
By Dave Kahle

The transition from an institutional to a house church can be confusing and challenging. This is especially true for the people who lead house churches, who face some unique challenges.

For generations, many of us participated in the practice of absorbing wisdom and knowledge at the feet of ordained ministers and pastors. Pastor-lead Sunday morning Bible studies, pastor-presented sermons at official worship services - these were deemed essential to our definition of what it was to be a Christian.

This led us to an implicit definition of teaching in the church: Some wiser and more studious person tells others what he/she knows. Teaching is active, learning is passive. The teacher prepares and tells, the students listen and absorb. Regardless of the denomination, the content, or the size of the congregation, this practice is universal.

Unfortunately, it produced an incredible waste: Generations of Christians living spiritually superficial lives, never unleashing their spiritual gifts, and never coming close to experiencing the fulfillment of a "royal priesthood."

The house church movement offers us an opportunity for a change. This generation of Christians includes some who are hungry for a more biblical spiritual walk. They want a relevant, interactive, active spiritual experience. No more sitting passively in pews, absorbing a seminary-trained, ordained pastor's particular slice of truth and wisdom. Our high tech, rapidly changing world has stimulated the hunger for high touch, interactive, relationship-enhancing experiences.

However, the pastor model is so firmly entrenched in our culture, that even house church advocates often fall back into the model. I recall one of the first house church conferences I attended. The main agenda item was a 45-minute sermon! On another occasion, we invited someone to visit our church and share experiences of house churches in a foreign country. He ended up lecturing us for an hour.

In each of these cases, the intentions were good, but the teacher-as-truth-bringer model was too deeply embedded. This is unfortunately true in many house churches. Unless some change is made, our house churches are going to be just smaller scale models of the institutions. It's time for a radically old, yet new model of spiritual development. Goodbye to the sage on the stage, say hello to the guide on the side. Goodbye to the large group formal worship services. Say hello to small group, interactive experiences. Goodbye to the pastor. Say hello to the small group facilitator.

What's a facilitator?

Imagine this. A group of people are sitting around a living room, discussing a passage of scripture. One describes a moment in her life when that passage cleared up some confusion and gave her a clearer insight into how to handle a difficult situation in her family.

As she talks, another of the group grows excited. That's exactly the problem she's facing in her family! She listens carefully to the description of the situation, the insight, and the way the other group member experienced resolution. "That's it!" she thinks. "A new insight! Hope for a difficult situation." She feels like the Holy Spirit spoke directly to her need through the words and the life experience of the other group member.

And she was right. That's exactly what happened.

Now, imagine lots of similar experiences happening throughout the session. Got the picture? Good. The facilitator's job is to help make that kind of thing happen.

A facilitator creates an atmosphere that allows the Holy Spirit to work through the lives and voices of the group members, ministering to one another and learning from each other. The facilitator shows the group members how, and helps them do so.

A facilitator understands that it is not important to teach. Rather, it is important that the group members learn. And they'll learn best when the Holy Spirit speaks to their needs through one another.

Facilitators help that happen. They are Holy Spirit helpers. Guides on the sides, not sages on the stage.

Does the Holy Spirit need help?

In one sense, no. God will achieve His purposes with or without any one person. Sure, He can zap wisdom and knowledge directly and miraculously into people. But for His own reasons, He seems to prefer to work through people.

Unfortunately, most groups, left to themselves, seem to go in one of two directions. Either they become mini-institutions presided over by a strong individual, or they fixate on superficial conversation. The more assertive individuals control the conversation while the more reserved remain uncomfortable in quiet isolation. Both groups miss the mark, falling far short of their potential for stimulating real growth.

The missing ingredient in both situations is a skillful facilitator.

What does it mean to be a skillful facilitator? Here are a few of the key characteristics.

First, we need to recognize that the way to measure the impact of a good facilitator is not to look first at what the facilitator does, but rather to view what the participants do. We judge the skill of the facilitator by the impact on the behavior of the group members.

  1. The group members are comfortable with the facilitator as well as with one another.

    A good facilitator is proactive about introducing himself/herself to the members and trying to introduce them to each other. A good facilitator finds things that the members have in common and mentions those so that they feel comfortable with each other.

  2. The physical environment is conducive to interaction and introspection.

    A good facilitator controls the physical environment so that it makes it easy for people to hear and see one another. It's easier to learn in the living room of a home, for example, then in a tent in the middle of a mall parking lot. It may at first seem unfair to hold the facilitator responsible for the physical environment, but that environment can make a big impact on the quality and quantity of conversation, and that is the facilitator's concern.

  3. All of the group members participate in a thoughtful, transparent manner.

    Two issues here:
    1. All the members participate. If they don't, the facilitator hasn't done a good job of including everyone.
    2. They participate in a thoughtful, transparent manner. We're not talking about superficial stuff here. Its not just "Pray for my Aunt Jane's gall bladder operation." It is about real, personal, thoughtful stuff from their lives and from their thoughts about God and His word. This doesn't mean that every comment has to be deep and spiritual - however, in the course of the meeting, some should be, and a visitor would have the impression that any and every member could be the source of those insights.

  4. Sooner or later, the group members are confronted with these questions in one form or another: "What is God trying to tell me today?" "What should I do about it?"

    The primary purpose of the meeting is to bring every member to openness to God's direction, and to a personal response to that message. God speaks to people in multiple ways. In a facilitated group dialogue, He speaks through His word and the life experiences and perspectives of the group members. These questions don't need to be verbalized, although they often are. Nor do the answers need to be verbal, although they sometimes are. Nor does every person always confront these questions in every meeting. But, these two questions form the overriding organization for the conversation, and are always present in the background or foreground of the discussion.

  5. The group members do most of the talking.

    In a well-facilitated group dialogue, the facilitator talks less than the average group member. Of all the conversation in the session, something like 5 - 10% of the words ought to be spoken by the facilitator, and 90 - 95% by the other group members. This is the biggest challenge for traditional teachers, who are accustomed to dominating the dialogue.

Being a skillful guide by the side is a unique and special ministry whose time has come. We need less teaching and more learning in our churches. We need the active input of every member. We need to see the Holy Spirit speaking through the perceptions and live experiences of each other. In order to make this happen, we need Holy Spirit helpers - skillful facilitators.

Facilitation requires a different mind set than that to which many have become accustomed, and a set of skills that challenge the traditional Bible "teacher-as-truth-teller." Yet a well facilitated group dialogue can be counted on to involve people, open the door to the Holy Spirit's intervention, and help spur group members to a more intense spiritual walk.

To what degree is your house church well- facilitated? Complete this self-assessment to gain a perspective. Select the most appropriate response.

1. All of our group members are very comfortable with one another.
    a. Absolutely. Every single person is comfortable with every one else.
    b. Some are. Some are on the fringes, still not completely at ease with others.
    c. Not quite true.
    d. They don't even know each other.

2. The physical environment is conducive to conversation and introspection.
    a. Absolutely.
    b. Most of the time. Some times it becomes a little too noisy or chaotic.
    c. This is a bit of a problem for us.
    d. Our view is, "As long as they can hear the teacher what difference does it make?"

3. In a typical meeting, all the group members participate.
    a. This is always true.
    b. Generally true. We have some quiet people who don't have much to say.
    c. A vocal few do most of the talking.
    d. Most people answer questions when the teacher calls on them.

4. The quality of the conversation is often deep and personal.
    a. We almost always share personal thoughts, feelings and experiences.
    b. It's not at all unusual to have some one share at a deeper level.
    c. Occasionally happens. Most of the time we talk about the Bible, not our lives.
    d. The teacher will try to make life applications of Biblical truths for us.

5. The questions, "What is God trying to tell me today?" and "What should I do about it?" are, in some way, a part of every session.
    a. Undoubtedly true. We ask these every session and encourage people to answer them.
    b. These are an unspoken part of every meeting.
    c. Every now and then, we'll deal with these in some form or another.
    d. Our teacher explains this to us.

6. The group members provide at least 90% of the words spoken during the session.
    a. Always true. Our facilitator some times has a hard time getting in a word.
    b. Usually true. Our facilitator sometimes has to prod us and direct us.
    c. Not usually. Most of the lesson is provided by the teacher.
    d. Never. How can they learn if the teacher doesn't teach them?

Scoring: Give yourself 10 points for every a response, 5 points for every b, 0 for every c, and -10 for every d. Add up the total. If you have a total of 45 or more, congratulations, your group demonstrates the results of good facilitation. If you total score is 10 - 45, you have lots of room for improvement. If your total is under 10, you are in danger of replicating the institutional practice in a smaller setting. You may be creating a mini-institution.
 
     
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