February 27, 2007
Crowded Loneliness & Quiet Contemplation
Our fractured lifestyles pose new challenges for small group ministries.
Sam O'Neal, our colleague at Christianity Today International and the managing editor of ministry resources, recently participated in the small groups conference at Saddleback Church. In this report, O'Neal shares insights from two presentations. One highlighted the challenge small groups face in our culture, and the other presents an ancient alternative.
Last week, I had the privilege of representing Building Small Groups at the first-ever Purpose Driven Small Groups conference, hosted by Saddleback Church in sunny Lake Forest, California. Because the Purpose Driven folks were running the show, I've returned home with a great deal of useful information, almost all of it nicely packaged into acronyms and "pathways."
But I was most impressed by two presentations that drifted outside the Purpose Driven model. Both of them picked up the gauntlet thrown down by noted church consultant Lyle E. Schaller, who said: "The biggest challenge facing the church is to address the fragmentation and discontinuity of the American lifestyle."
Early Tuesday morning, Randy Frazee spoke on the call to community. According to Frazee, the average American family manages 35 separate relationships on a day-to-day basis - children, extended family, neighbors, government, school, friends, work, Starbucks employees, landlords, telemarketers, etc. And this is before that family gets invited to church, which usually adds another 6 connections - at least.
As a result, Americans are knee-deep in the unprecedented phenomenon of grouped isolation - what Frazee refers to as "crowded loneliness." We are in desperate need of meaningful relationships, yet too busy and too pulled to maintain them.
Even worse, our attempts to relieve our sense of isolation often contribute to our fragmentation. We might join a small group, for example. We'll get in contact with 3 to 11 other dedicated Christians and commit to meet and study the Bible every week.
But what happens? Those 3 to 11 people become another chunk of relationships that we have to manage - relationships that require phone calls, polite questions on Sunday morning, and Christmas gifts. That weekly Bible study devolves into thirty minutes of preparation, thirty minutes in the car driving to and from the appointed house, thirty minutes of genial conversation, thirty minutes of discussion, thirty minutes of prayer, and thirty dollars to pay the babysitter. In other words, our attempts to forge meaningful relationships often add up being "just another thing to do."
Randy Frazee did such a good job of highlighting the problems facing American small groups, and the perfunctory way we engage them, that I began to recognize a few disquieting patterns in my own life. How often have I approached the Bible as just another book to read? How often have I looked at Jesus as just another morning conversation?
These questions helped pique my curiosity about a workshop I spotted on Wednesday afternoon. It was called "Be Still." The presenters for the workshop were Judge Reinhold and his wife, Amy. You may be familiar with Judge from his roles in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop. He was also Aaron, the "close-talker" from Seinfeld. I just had to check out what he was going to say.
It turns out that he and his wife have produced a documentary on contemplative prayer with Scripture, otherwise known as lectio divina. The DVD, also called Be Still, features some of the most prominent Christian thinkers of our time - Dallas Willard, Calvin Miller, Beth Moore, Max Lucado, and Jerry Root, among others.
And yet, as much as I appreciated what each of those people had to say, what I found most valuable was taking the final 10 minutes to practice the discipline of lectio divina myself. The experience was very, very cool.
I alternated between listening to Matthew 11:28?30 (read by Richard Foster, no less) and sitting quietly for several minutes at a time, allowing the Holy Spirit to seep through the tangled clutter of my thoughts and nurture me with his Word. I was surprised at how natural the experience was - at how easily the words of Jesus settled into a place of prominence once I pushed everything else out of the way.
While Randy Frazee's talk helped me recognize the hectic and fractured reality of our lives, the Reinhold's workshop revealed an alternative way. In Amy Reinhold's words, we need to give ourselves "permission to stop." Permission to put everything else on hold and experience the presence, power, and direction of the Living God.