Thursday, April 30, 2009

The pluses and minus of cohesion in church groups

Icy mountain posted an article on group dynamics that he wanted to discuss. It outlines the advantages and disadvantages of making groups cohesive.

Essentially increase cohesion and:
  1. Members enjoy the group more
  2. Output per individual is higher
  3. The group has an easier time achieving goals
On the other hand you also get much more group think including higher levels of self censorship and scapegoating of deviants.

Needless to say this is a good fit for the blog in terms of how discipline operates. This thread is mainly an open forum on what level of cohesion is desirable. So I'll throw it open how cohesive do you think churches should be and what about small church groups?


Icy Mt. said...

Thanks for the first dibs, CD. You need to correct your link on the original post. This is the article on group cohesiveness. Read this article first because I am not going to take up space here re-quoting it extensively. I presented this article to my 16 year-old son's bible study group. They agreed that every point on the list of positive outcomes of high group cohesion is exactly what we try to foster in a Xenos Christian Fellowship home church, cell group or ministry house. They also put forth the idea that those outcomes should be what we would expect from a healthy body of Christ.

There are two specific dynamics noted that also tend to produce negative outcomes. A desire for the group members to please one another and "further, cohesive teams generally discourage -- or at least fail to actively encourage -- interaction between the team and its outside environment." Christians are are called to "love your neighbor as yourself", a commandment repeated eight times in the New Testament. In this context, I believe that the first dynamic is unavoidable. However, discouraging interaction with the outside environment is counter to another of Christ's commandments: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." - Mt 28:19-20. At Xenos, we refer to this as the prime directive. We simply cannot carry out this commandment without interacting with the outside environment. Specifically, Xenos teaches that we should avoid losing our evangelistic focus for a number of reasons:
1. Vitality and excitement wane.
2. No new people means no home group plants.
3. We get more self-focused.
4. Relational conflict increases.
5. The church gets involved in “brass-polishing” or “gingerbread.”
6. An "ivory tower" Bible-club mentality develops.
7. A "ghetto" mentality develops.
8. The church becomes calloused to the plight of the lost (apathy).
Additionally, we remind each other regularly of Jesus' prayer for the disciples in John 17. He says that they are not "of the world" (a Xenos, if you will) but that He has sent them "into the world". So, we have two dynamics that foster negative outcomes, one is required by Christian faith and the other that must be actively avoided. Both of these practices are actively taught at Xenos.

I also presented the negative consequences of high cohesion. The young men also agreed that they have seen these happen. They pointed out the latter two points on the list were uncommon in Christian groups but that they had seen them more often at school or work. However, "Cohesive groups can be very cruel toward 'deviants,'" Aye, there's the rub. This is an undeniable outcome of a highly cohesive group. These guys related a story about a young man that left their church. One of the leaders, who had invested quite a bit in this person, said some very cruel and inappropriate things, mostly due to his own personal anger. A group of people in this church had immediately confronted him, retractions and apologies were forthcoming. "But what if no one in the group had challenged this leader?" I asked. One of the guys admitted that it would have been ugly. When I asked him what we could do to prevent that kind of cruelty, he quoted Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Not bad for a 17 year-old.

So, there we have it. Living in the body of Christ, as Christ taught us, leads to the the desirable outcomes of highly cohesive groups which leads to the undesirable outcomes of highly cohesive groups which can only be countered by Christ's teaching that we love one another. I know that Xenos teaches this. I know from personal experience that when church discipline is administered at Xenos that great lengths are taken to do so in a loving way. There is an entire class on church discipline. This class is required for leaders at Xenos. I encourage everyone to read the whole outline but I want to quote two points that have been debated at great length in the "Breaking Away" thread.

5. Normally, church discipline for serious sins should proceed in a series of increasing measures ranging from private reproof through corporate confrontation to excommunication if necessary--to persuade the person to repent (Matthew 18:15-17).
*Realize that the steps given by Jesus in this passage are not to be enacted in a legalistic way.
*Since the goal of church discipline is to win the person, it should end when there is repentance and the church should re-establish (re-affirm your love) the repentant one (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
*Christians should not relate to excommunicants as enemies to be rejected, nor as walking Christians to enjoy fellowship with--but as brothers to be admonished in the hope that they may repent (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
6. Although not commanded by the New Testament, we strongly recommend seeking counsel with other mature Christians before enacting serious church discipline.
* In Xenos, home church leaders are required to get approval by the elders before bringing someone before the church or excommunicating him/her.
We strongly recommend leaders talk with their home group overseer even earlier in the process. This is an important check on leaders who may be over-reacting because of immaturity or being too close to the situation.
*Even in lesser church discipline measures, it is wise (when possible) to talk with other Christian workers who have had experience with similar issues. If they know you, they may help you lean against your own tendency toward softness or harshness.

How do we as Christians foment highly cohesive groups while preventing cruelty to those who deviate from the group enough to require admonishment or discipline? What else should be taught or considered?

CD-Host said...

Good post Icy.

How do we as Christians foment highly cohesive groups while preventing cruelty to those who deviate from the group enough to require admonishment or discipline? What else should be taught or considered? Well there are a variety of things.

1) Awareness training. For example Meyers-Briggs came up recently so I know you know it. Originally it was used by the army (WW 1 I think) to give people coping strategies for one another, people with whom they disagreed. Encourage small groups to be cohesive but make them aware of these tendencies.

2) While having the groups young (in general) have a middle aged person who is talking to everyone the equivalent of a faculty adviser. This creates dual hierarchies and puts a check on the escalation procedure.

3) Xenos is big enough to have 3rd party checks on unhealthy group dynamics. Do anonymous statistical assessments of the people in the group. Maybe have a social worker from another church talk to some people. Catch things that leadership is unaware of. I've seen these in companies and they work really well.

4) Xenos is old enough for this. Do 10 year later survey of people who left a decade ago. See what they thought were good and bad things. Regardless of how they left: slipped away, transferred, excommunicated...

5) Use a small group <--> large group merge requires people with good people skills.

6) Stop bashing postmodernism. Postmodernism is the strategy that societies have developed to deal with different points of view.

I could think of more in the same vein, so what's your opinion of the vein? Basically it comes down to have small cohesive groups, but have checks on their destructive potential.

Bill K said...

see my post on the breaking away thread for another evaluation of cohesion in groups and pain when individuals and groups separate.

Icy Mt. - loved the post and emphasis on how Christ will fix the unhealthy group tendencies.

CD-Host - thought suggestions 1-5 were good. Disagree with 6. Mainly because postmodernism (and especially relativism) take true data and extrapolate this to false conclusions (namely that truth is relative).

Icy Mt. said...

Just a quicky:
I'm with BillK (great post on the breaking away thread, leaving will be painful even if the church has done nothing wrong. You can leave!). Numbers 3 and 4 are problematic in that I don't know if the issue @ Xenos is big enough to justify $ spent vs. directing the money to buying school books at Harambee. Number 5, please explain, I don't understand.

Number #6: Later, it's Friday night.

CD-Host said...

Bill I agree good post on the breaking away thread. Hopefully that discussion can get more productive.

Icy --

On #5 The idea of the interface is that as the groups get more cohesive internally they get less able to function with other groups that are composed of different sorts of people. That can cause a situation where Xenos isn't meaningfully the church but the small church is and a person can't change small churches if things start to deteriorate. It can make oversight more difficult and cooperation more difficult.

So what you want to make sure is that interface people between groups are the sorts of people people that "everyone likes" rather than representing their groups fully. This insures the intra-group connections are still strong.

Icy Mt. said...

1) Given what I posted above I would say that awareness training is in place. I am an opponent of the Myers-Briggs. If you want to do awareness training on social styles without putting a label on everyone, go for it. Let people figure out what my social style is on their own. Otherwise, instead of people approaching somone based on their temperment, you get people who say, "Well, she can't lead because she's a melancholy.

2) There is a defined heirarchy that places more mature Christian leaders in mentorship and oversight roles at every level, junior high cell groups, high school home churchs, college ministry houses and home churchs, adult home churchs, etc.

3) & 4) These are very good suggestions. These things take time, effort, and planning. In any organization, you must be able to justify the cost of fixing a problem against the cost of the problem itself. It's worth a look.

5) All our small groups gather regulary at what we call Central Teachings. Small group leaders consult with sphere leaders singly and in groups on a regular basis. Since anyone in any group is free to interact with anyone in any other group, I don't see this as an issue. For instance, as a leader in a junior high group, I routinely interact with the leader of a home church and members of at least a half dozen other home churches. This is common for anyone involved in a ministry at Xenos, which includes just about everyone.

6) Good luck with this one. Postmodernism is the strategy that lies to itself that every point of view is equally valid. It quashes debate better than any other method. How do you debate when everyone is right? In a meeting at work, I once told someone that they were wrong and explained why. Even though this was a black and white issue and the group consenus was that I was right, my boss pulled me aside later and told me "You can't make polarizing statements like that." What? When you believe that something is right, then saying so is polarizing? Enter someone who will then tell you that you are wrong but somehow since they are "postmodern" this not a polarizing statement. This is a bunch of wishy-washy crap that makes it impossible for anyone to stand for anything. No, thank you, just because you don't believe in everything does not mean that you cannot believe in something. This view is also counter to any kind of structure full of people organized on a common goal. Postmodernism's adherents have an instrinsic reaction of suspicion and/or scorn of anyone that joins such an institution. They are against anyone organizing for the common good because they believe that you cannot define "common good." As a cure for what ails people, I'll take Christianity over Postmoderism, every time.

Overall, I think the vein is good. I think that the awareness and oversight are in place at Xenos. In the end, I think Bill K has defined the issue "That being said the medicine is more dangerous than the disease if cohesiveness in groups is removed to protect individuals from the possibility of being hurt when they are separated from the group. Keeping everyone at a distance so that you are never deeply hurt also keeps away the deep joy of friendships/relationships."

I think the deep joy of intimate friendships is well worth the risk of being deeply hurt.