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Life Together – Support Groups from Wesley to Willard

By Roane Hunter, Sr.  LPC, CSAT

As followers of Christ, we should have a basic understanding of the attachments, idols, addictions…you pick whatever word works for you but the bottom line is the same…we are all “addicted”, “compulsive”, “attached”, or “idolaters”.  The New Testament is perfectly clear about our capacity (1 Cor. Ch. 6) and propensity to addictions and we see it lived out in the Old Testament through the entire nation of Israel in their addictive cycle of religion.   So we must come to grips that we are all addicted or attached.  Dr. Gerald May writes in his book Addiction and Grace,

“Finally, I realized that for both myself and other people, addictions are not limited to substances.  I was also addicted to work, performance, responsibility, intimacy, being liked, helping others, and an almost endless list of other behaviors.  …I also learned that all people are addicts, and that addictions to alcohol and other drugs are simply more obvious and tragic addictions than others have.  To be alive is to be addicted and is to stand in the need of grace.”

Once we accept the premise of addiction then we must embrace the idea of recovery and if we are to be in recovery one critical element is being in a healthy, safe support group.  As Christians we are all in recovery from the deadly addiction of sin.  And recovery is simply recovering the Life that God intended us to live – Jesus even talked about recovery – He said that He came to bring recovery of sight to the spiritually blind (Luke 4).  Overcoming the lingering effects of our attachments (or debilitating hurts, habits, and hang-ups) and moving into the fullness of the abundant life is an involved, long-term process. Through support groups, people in recovery can share their experience, strength and hope with one another. A support group is usually a small gathering of individuals who share similar struggles. Larger groups may have a common opening session and then break into small groups to allow more intimate fellowship and sharing. Support groups members come together at least weekly to share their struggles and their victories as a means of mutual encouragement. The best support groups practice a policy of strict confidentiality (and often anonymity) so that their members can share freely without fear of others outside of the group learning about their problems.

Most of us become isolated and full of shame as a result of our addictions and/or our hurts, habits, and hang-ups.  This will work against any movement toward finding a better life for ourselves. A good support group will be a source of great hope and encouragement as we gain insights from becoming connected with others who share similar experiences.

Fortunately, in recent years we have witnessed the growth of Christian support groups. Those who use the Twelve Steps originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous seem to be the most effective.  Recovery is not just about stopping bad behavior but it is truly about long-term spiritual formation.  Christian recovery is “intensive discipleship.” “Putting the cork in the bottle” (i.e., not using drugs or alcohol, denial of deep hurts, putting on masks and pretensions, speaking Christianese clichés and platitudes) is no guarantee of any lasting change in an individual’s life. What all of us need, not just addicts, is a systematic commitment to an ongoing process of personal growth. Christian recovery means gaining new tools that enable us to live a new sober life and to remove all the “stumbling blocks” to a life of Christian victory. (2 Peter 1:5-11) We might also consider “recovery” as another word for what that Bible refers to as “sanctification”.  Repentance is more than simply confessing our sins to God. We all must own up to our own sin if we are to experience forgiveness. (1 John 1:9) Still an additional step is necessary — repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is “metanouia” which implies a complete change of mind. New thinking comes from new attitudes that have been formed by new perspectives. (Acts 3:19)

Dallas Willard in his book, Renovation of the Heart, states:  “Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the AA program”.

John Wesley’s Small Group Rules & Methods

Christian “support groups” are not a new idea – from the early New Testament communal church to John Wesley’s formational small groups – support groups, small groups, life groups are an integral piece of healthy spiritual growth and living out the abundant life promised by Christ.  John Wesley’s “Rules for Small Groups”, written in 1816, is an outline that embodies “the Method” from which the name “Methodist” came (see below). This method resulted in one of the greatest revivals the world has ever known. Believers gathered together in small groups, sharing honestly, becoming accountable to one another, and asking probing questions, praying for one another with a deep knowledge of their mutual needs and struggles. Any believer can benefit from this type of gathering. It can be a tremendously healing and encouraging experience for those in recovery.

In the early days of the Methodist Church, members were expected to agree to six common disciplines or “Rules” found in The Works of John Wesley (1816):

  1. To meet once a week, at least.
  2. To come together at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason.
  3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
  4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought or deed and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.
  5. To end every meeting with prayer suited to the state of each person.

To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.

Bands – The method of changing emotions and motives

The band consisted of 4 to 6 people of the same sex, marital status, and of similar age. Membership was voluntary here (though Wesley propagated it emphatically at other meetings as his favorite group), and it was for people who wanted to grow inside and in the purity of their intentions. The members of these groups shared and examined their motives and impressions of their hearts with total honesty. These meetings were closed, and they received into membership only people known, recommended, and interrogated by the members.  The leader’s role was much more limited here than in the classes – he only started the conversation in which the members took part much more readily and actively.

The select society: The method of training

From among the most faithful men and women Wesley selected some as a separate group and he trained them weekly in the doctrines and methods of Methodism, so that they show an example to other Methodists. Some people did not find other groups challenging enough, but here they could continue growing. They were not allowed to consider it as a prize for the attainment of perfection or a static plateau. This group had neither special rules, nor an official leader. Wesley initiated open discussion, welcomed criticism, and even had the members of this group participate in making decisions and determining guidelines for Methodist doctrine and practice, while he could also be totally honest and open to them, and could learn from them. Everything said was in absolute confidence; in all “indifferent matters” or issues they submitted to the arbitration of the senior minister, and just like in other groups, everyone contributed what they could to the common stock.

Penitent bands: The method of rehabilitation

On Saturday nights Wesley met separately those who struggled with such severe problems that they could not live up to the demands of the class meeting. The format and stringent measures of these meetings were designed to help the penitent backsliders (primarily alcoholics). This group was like the organization of our day called Alcoholics Anonymous.

How can a support group help a Christian who is struggling?

Ideally, a good support group is, first, a place where anyone in recovery will find true acceptance and a sense of what unconditional love is all about. It is a safe, non-judgmental setting where they can express struggles, thoughts, ideas, and feelings without fear of rejection. Hearing the stories of others with similar difficulties and how they overcame them, gives the struggling person great encouragement to continue moving towards emotional health and wholeness. Healthy support groups can provide a sort of “family “atmosphere that stimulates the hope for a better life for all involved. Because addiction and/or deep hurts wreak havoc upon an individual’s relationships with others, a good support group is a wonderful place for recovering persons to begin the difficult and painful process of re-connecting with other people.

How do you identify a good support group?

In many ways, support groups are like churches — all are not the same. That is why it’s important to attend at least two or three meetings before making a judgment about any particular group.

Here are a few “hallmarks” of a healthy support group:

  • Protects the confidentiality of its participants by not disclosing what members share during the meetings to those outside of the group.
  • Avoids “cross talk” (interrupting out of turn) and offering unsolicited advice and counseling during the meeting.
  • Provides the recovering person with a combination of support and group accountability
  • Provides a format for honest sharing of personal thoughts and ideas
  • Is a safe and non-judgmental environment for the risky experience of exploring and verbalizing emotions
  • Supplements the entire recovery process, not the single focus or an end in itself
  • Communicates acceptance and freedom of expression without fear of rejection
  • Promotes an atmosphere of positive reinforcement and hopefulness
  • Maintains a “family” atmosphere into which each individual feels he/she can fit
  • Has mature, stable leadership, but is not controlled by one or a few dominant individuals
  • Has definite format for its meetings, not rambling, directionless discussions
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