After such a promising start, it was shocking how fast the Bible study group fell apart. There had been a great mix of people—several from our low-income neighborhood, along with some suburban couples who were serving as volunteer urban missionaries. But within a month or so, all but one or two of the locals had dropped out. This happened not just once, not twice, but three times.
What were we doing wrong? What needed to change? To answer those questions we formed a pilot “house church” (our name for our new small groups) to figure out a better approach that would thrive in our neighborhood and lead to changed lives.
I recalled a simple, powerful tool I had run across in Lyman Coleman’s[i] Serendipity small group studies back in the 70’s—the three basic levels of communication.
- Mouth-to mouth: Small talk about weather, sports, cars, etc.
- Head-to-head: Talking about ideas and beliefs.
- Heart-to-heart: Sharing feelings, dreams, hurts, doubts, struggles, victories.
This simple insight unlocked why our Bible studies had floundered and pointed to a solution. Our Bible studies had emphasized head-to-head conversation, focusing on the question, “What do these verses mean?” Rarely, if ever, had their sharing reached the heart level.
As the missionaries in the group cited what they had learned from commentaries or years of Bible classes, perhaps throwing out an occasional Greek word or two, our neighborhood people felt intimidated and concluded they had nothing to contribute. So they dropped out.
So one principle our pilot group adopted—and which all our house churches now follow—is that in our groups we ask only heart level questions, not head level questions. Instead of, “What do you think this verse means?” we ask, “How did God speak to you through this passage? If you take this seriously, how will it change how you live?” It’s our way of reminding each other to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22 ESV).
Of course, head-level questions are essential. Our teaching and preaching needs to reflect excellent biblical scholarship. But our church chose to make heart-to-heart sharing, rather than head-to-head conversation, the core of what happens in our house churches. In these safe spaces where we share our struggles and victories with one another we now witness amazing heart transformation almost every week.
And much of it is simply because we shifted from head-to-head conversation to heart-to-heart sharing. We changed the questions.
Thank you, Lyman Coleman!
- How might you encourage a group you are in to do more heart-to-heart sharing?
- Rather than shifting the focus of an existing group, would it work better to start a new group with a heart focus from the beginning?
[i] Lyman Coleman was a pioneer of the contemporary small group movement. He wrote the Serendipity Bible and founded Serendipity House which for 40 years published small group resources and conducted small group training in thousands of churches.