Friday, May 13, 2022

The Dangers of Relational Narcissism


To catch up on the earlier articles that explore small groups through the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

Have you ever been a part of a small group where an individual aggressively dominated the conversation in a manner that made you or others uncomfortable? Did such a person cause you to reconsider attending one of the meetings or possibly even the rest of the group meetings, altogether? What if there was a way to protect the group from narcissism but also rebuild and empower those who have a tendency to exhibit narcissistic behaviors? Authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks and their book The Other Half of Church can help as they outline some strategies that help to equip us in addressing this type of character dysfunction. Let us view their perspective through the lens of a church’s small group ministry.

Relational Narcissism
While the Webster’s dictionary definition of narcissism is egocentrism or love of one’s body, Wilder and Hendricks offer a different perspective of the character dysfunction from a relational perspective. Here, they offer a description where a narcissist is “someone who is unable to metabolize shame in a relational way…they lack empathy, have a strong need for admiration, and want to be the biggest personality in the room.” Perhaps this description fits the previously mentioned person who aggressively dominates the conversation in a small group. Or perhaps there could be a quieter member of the group who directs their narcissism more towards individuals who can be used to achieve a certain goal. Regardless of how an individual exhibits narcissism, our authors explain that ongoing relationships are one of the best tools that a church can use to address this challenging behavior.

Previously, we explored what toxic and healthy shame are and the importance of nurturing a culture where healthy correction was utilized within the small group community. It is through this perspective that Wilder and Hendricks interpret narcissism to be a “shame disease” at its core. They explain that when we learn to think that all shame is “toxic shame,” we resort to non-relational strategies (such as retreating, silence, hostility, self-righteousness, blame, etc.) in order to justify ourselves and to avoid any further shame from exposing us. And when narcissism is given an opportunity to be expressed, it grows to breed more narcissism among others within the church as the “relational soil” of the community is slowly depleted. It is here where we begin to witness all of the previous articles in this series converging to form a holistic framework, one that proposes a church’s small group ministry to be the most effective vehicle for facilitating healthy and transformational relationships within our communities.

Resisting Enemy Mode
Even if we ourselves are not being overtly narcissistic, we still must take caution in how we actively perceive the other members of our small groups and our fellow churchgoers. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 that “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” If we are not actively pursuing the Lord in our own spiritual lives, then how might we view our brothers and sisters in Christ when they don’t express love to us first? When our “relational circuits” are running as they were intended by God, we are operating in what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as “Relational Mode.” However, when we are unable to share in the pain of others or unable to spread hesed love and joy among others, we are in a brain state that Wilder and Hendricks refer to as “Enemy Mode.”

While “Predatory Enemy Mode” is the more extreme expression of intentional hostility that blatantly uses other people for person gain, “Simple Enemy Mode” is the more elusive state of the heart that interferes with our ability to connect with others and prevents us to view them as anything other than problems to be solved or avoided. It is this mode that we must especially be wary of. If not noticed, Simple Enemy Mode could convince us to skip small group because we don’t want to listen to that one member of the group exhibiting narcissistic behavior, or it may even prevent us from wanting to join a small group altogether if we are not in a state of the heart that desires to minister to other individuals. When in Simple Enemy Mode, we tend to judge others’ intentions and argue aggressively in an effort to have them adopt our viewpoint (hardly helpful if trying to contribute to a welcoming small group environment). While it is difficult to know what exactly causes us to find our way into Enemy Mode, what is exciting is to know is that attending a small group is what allows us to break away from this mode of thought.  

A Culture of Correction
When we regularly attend small groups, we are able to keep our relational tanks full. It is here when Wilder and Hendricks note that “in order to love my enemy, I must have sufficient joy and love so it overflows to others.” In other words, when each of our small groups embody a community of joy, hesed love, group identity, and healthy correction, it corrects narcissistic behavior within group members by training the other group members to love on each other in such a powerful way that narcissistic individuals become completely disarmed. Wilder and Hendricks add that when a community as a whole is trained up to love on these individuals without giving them a free pass for their dysfunction, a culture of correction is established that “lowers the intensity of shame because everyone has their character corrected” on a frequent basis. After all, Jesus exhibited this strategy perfectly, most notably in how He unashamedly corrects Peter in Matthew 16:23 but also lovingly redeems him in John 21:15-19 (only to then once again correct him a few verses later). In Christ-like fashion, let us develop the capacity to love difficult people so that we prevent narcissism from growing within our respective communities. Let us recognize small groups as the ideal way to challenge us appropriately so that we may be able to facilitate spiritual transformation in a powerful way. Through our small groups, let us uplift one another and encourage one other to be humble servants for the kingdom of God as we bless one another abundantly.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Transformational Love of Healthy Correction

 

To catch up on the earlier articles that explore small groups through the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

For an individual who has not been a part of a small group before, signing up for one can be a huge decision. If we place ourselves in their shoes, maybe we would find ourselves unsure as to if we will be able to easily make friends. Perhaps we would be wondering as to if the other members of the small group will accept us for who we are. But there also may be a more subtle concern that is not so easily identified, such as the concern of admitting that we need to change unhealthy behaviors or habits in our lives. Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks in their book The Other Half of Church can provide guidance within this particular area, explaining that “healthy correction” can be one of the best tools available to help us maintain our identity in Christ within a hesed community.

The Clash of Old and New Values
While it certainly would be ideal for an individual to improve upon their daily habits so that they can engage and care more for their family and friends, easing a person into such change can seem daunting at first. The good news is that the input received from an individual’s small group can help. According to Wilder and Hendricks, they define “character” to be what “lies at the intersection of identity and values…it is the combination of our known responses (what people have done in the past) and our values (what our people prefer to do).” They elaborate further, explaining that our character is “a collection of observed responses to various life situations that is quickly filtered through the options that my people value.” For small groups, this can mean that we learn from the values and behaviors of our fellow small group members. From here, we compare these observations against the values and behaviors that we have previously learned. If our established responses and beliefs are different from the members of the Christian community that we’ve chosen to be a part of, then there is a clash in values and we are confronted with a choice of what to do next.

Changing Our Values through Small Groups
When such a “clash” happens, how do we increase the chances for the more Christ-like response to be chosen? Wilder and Hendricks state that “in order to improve our behavior, we need to change our values and update our stored examples of how our people act. We cannot change our values directly. We must get them from our community, our group identity.” They explain further that instead of us trying to change a person’s character by moral truth and choices, it is more impactful for the person to be a part of a community that is composed of mature individuals who can share their life experiences and provide deeper insights into Christ-like living.

A church small group can best describe this type of community for three reasons. First, when groups are tapped into the overarching mission of their local church, the Lord is invited to be a part of the process. Whether it is to explore a curriculum, to host a kingdom-building activity, or to lead a prayer meeting, Christ is indeed in their midst and the Holy Spirit is actively engaging their hearts (Matt 18:20). Second, small groups provide the consistency needed in order for group members to check up on one another and provide accountability to one another. If a group meets only once a month or once a quarter, then sinful habits may not be challenged often enough for transformation to take effect. Third, small groups that consistently meet are living life together. As individuals spend more time with one another, various life events are witnessed within the group; individuals not only have a supportive community rallying behind them during a tough season, but they also have previous examples to glean wisdom from when other group members find themselves in similar scenarios.

The Necessity of Healthy Shame
For small group ministries that pursue a path of intentional growth, attendees will likely be challenged to repent from some of their habits or behaviors. When group members realize that their actions do not align with their Christian identity, this can generate a degree of shame within their hearts. While this may not sound like an ideal outcome, it can in fact be a good thing when it is processed in a positive way. Wilder and Hendricks argue that shame is not only important for socialization, but in fact “necessary for character to change.”

But how should a small group respond to shame when it arises? On the one hand, they could respond by exhibiting what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as “toxic shame” (a message that leaves us alone in our shame and communicates one’s “badness” without any offer of grace). On the other hand, the small group could respond by exhibiting what the two authors refer to as “healthy shame.” Allowing individuals to stay connected, healthy shame “affirms the relationship above the problem” and is a method of communication that lovingly reminds one another of who they are within the group identity of their hesed community.

It is here where this type of healthy correction will sustain a church community and where it will allow relationships to thrive within a small group ministry. Next week we will unpack further what occurs to our small group ministries when we do not pursue these practices. But for now, let us take a moment to pause and reflect upon our teaching of healthy correction in our communities: Are we uplifting one another within our hesed community in such a way that healthy shame can be utilized to help facilitate transformation within our small groups?  


Friday, February 25, 2022

The Encouraging Sway of Group Identity

 

To catch up on the earlier articles that explore small groups through the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

Acclaimed by many as having one of the greatest theme songs in the history of television, the show Cheers follows the antics and daily lives of the employees of a Boston bar and its patrons who frequent the establishment. Through the many failed relationships, the changes in management, the transition of characters, and the numerous wacky conflicts that transpire within Sam Malone’s bar, the characters forge a community that supports one another, loves one another, and cherishes the time spent with one another. Now viewed from our perspective in the year 2022, the community and friendship displayed throughout the show Cheers has become more revered and appreciated. Perhaps one of the more appealing elements of the show may be what Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks refer to as the concept of “group identity” within their book, The Other Half of Church. With group identity, the focus isn’t placed so much on an individual’s beliefs, but rather the positive influence that a group can hold over one another within a community. Stemming from a healthy level of joy and hesed love, they explain that Christian group identity “answers the questions, ‘As followers of Jesus, what kind of people are we? How do the people of God act?” Let us explore three areas in which group identity operates within church small groups.

Group Identity that Changes our Behavior
When it comes to changing our behaviors, Wilder and Hendricks help us to understand the science behind our brain’s ability to control our willpower: “Direct willpower has little effect on our character…When we understand how God designed our brains, we can see that willpower is too far downstream to directly influence reflex reactions.” Instead of trying to use raw effort in changing our character, the two authors recommend tapping into a high-joy hesed community that possesses a strong group identity. Within our churches, the small group ministry is an ideal source for this, for the support that is available can help each of us navigate distressing scenarios and can assist us in the creation of strategies that change our daily behaviors.

The commonly known “iron sharpens iron” phrase from Proverbs 27:17 is easily applied within this context as small groups allow us to learn from others who have experienced similar seasons of life. In our last article, it was stated that one of the more dangerous tools that the enemy uses against us is the state of loneliness because he has an easier time to convince us to make poor decisions (actions that we otherwise would not have made if among others). Would Eve have made the decision to eat the apple if Adam was by her side? Would David have pursued Bathsheba if Nathan was walking alongside of him on the rooftop that night? Group identity becomes a support net for the scenarios in our lives that tempt us to sin or to stray away from holiness. When we are vulnerable and share our hearts, our brothers and sisters in Christ are able to give us meaningful and impactful advice that can lead us to change our behaviors and to become more Christ-like.

Group Identity that Forms our Character
Another danger of being in a state of loneliness is forgetting our identity in Christ. Yet within a small group that meets on a consistent basis, Wilder and Hendricks explain that more opportunities are available for us to remind each other who we are. They elaborate, explaining that “regular reminders ground our identity in the character of Jesus. We need to tell each other what kind of people we are, not only as a reminder but also to immerse new Christians into their new identities.” Even in Cheers, we see this process as new “outsider” characters like Kristie Alley’s Rebecca, Woody Harrelson’s Woody, and Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier each come aboard in later seasons and become integrated, accepted, and then eventually acclimated into the community. Wilder and Hendricks note that “character is revealed by how we act instinctively to our relational surroundings” and that over time, “the people with whom we share joy, hesed, and belonging change us outside the realm of our direct willpower.” Just as a battery can be recharged when electrical current is run through it, our faith can be recharged by spending time with fellow Christians.

Group Identity that Solidifies our Purpose
According to Scripture, each of us are born with at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:7). Such gifts are not meant to be left idle, but rather meant to be shared with others whom the Lord places into our care. While some use their God-given gifts to go on to minister to the world, others are called by God to use their gifts to minister to the individual standing right next to them. In the eyes of the kingdom of God, each scenario is just as important as the other (Matt 18:10-14), and, in either case, we can discover deeper purpose for each of us here on this earth. By being in a small group, we are greeted with the chance to utilize our spiritual gifts more often and experience the heavenly affirmation that comes with the feeling of being used by the Lord for the benefit of His kingdom. Wilder and Hendricks say, “Our group identity must reflect the multifaceted character of Jesus.” Indeed, when we utilize our spiritual gifts within a joy-filled hesed community that has a healthy group identity, we put on display the image of Jesus and show a glimpse of what He might do if He was still in human form today. Let us foster a community within our small groups that allow us to speak into each other and reaffirm what kind of people we are. Let us make a commitment to be in fellowship so that we sharpen one another and recharge each other’s batteries. Let us pursue a group identity that mirrors the bold image of God for all the world to see.


Friday, February 4, 2022

The Power of Hesed Attachment

1 John 4:16 says that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (NIV). From what we understand as Christians, the very epitome of what could be considered unconditional love is Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for us. Yet the capability to express love is not reserved to just those who are religious; even if an individual is not a Christian, humans are able to express love towards other. Believers understand this phenomenon to stem from the understanding that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). So if we wanted to live our best lives and surround ourselves with the most enriching and loving relationships that we can possibly have, then what are our options? Based upon the research noted in the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, an individual's small group within their church may be one of their best options. Today, we will be focusing on the covenant-like love that can be expressed within a person's small group.

To catch up on the earlier articles that discuss small groups through the book by Wilder and Hendricks, click here to navigate to the first article within the series.

Healthy Attachment
When discussing the topic of relationships, the word “attachment” isn’t often used in positive terms. While Eastern cultures are more apt to take on a close-knit communal approach to relationships, Western cultures tend to lean more towards relationships that consider other individuals to be more like acquaintances instead of intimate friends. For a Western individual, to be “attached” to someone who is not a member of their immediate family can seem odd, perhaps even countercultural. However, Wilder and Hendricks help us understand the critical function of “attachment” within our brains:

Attachment is the strongest force in the human brain. It is not an emotion. Although we feel it strongly, an attachment runs much deeper in the brain below willful control. Attachment is the best word scientists could find for what glues people together and little creatures to their parents. It produces an enduring care for the well-being of another. Attachment is a life-giving forever bond with no mechanism in the brain to unglue us.

One of the more dangerous tools that the enemy can use against us is the state of loneliness. By getting us to feel alone or to feel like no one else understands what we are going through, the devil is able to convince us to pursue actions that we would have never considered before. However, when we are a part of a community that expresses a covenant-like hesed love toward one another, it creates what Wilder and Hendricks refer to as a “family structure,” an environment where we are able to experience the type of oneness that Jesus promotes in John 17:20-23. It is in a family structure, Wilder and Hendricks notes, that our perspectives change and the strong attachments we create will establish a flow of transformational power. They continue, informing us that “our brains draw life from our strongest relational attachments to grow our character and develop our identity. Who we love shapes who we are.”

When Fellowship Occurs Without Attachment
When small groups meet without an intentional roadmap to developing attachments, its participants who are seeking genuine fellowship within the church may still be left wanting. Wilder and Hendricks note that in the context of the overarching culture of the church, attachment-deprived fellowship can stunt relational growth within the community. In a “low hesed church,” they note that while a friendly community may not experience as much conflict in the short term, it struggles to accept the pain and character flaws that inevitably occur when individuals begin to grow closer together; “High-hesed” churches on the other hand are willing to accept pain and character flaws. Indeed, they expect the pain to occur. But because of the presupposed covenant-like hesed love that the community operates from, there is no shame or withdrawal from the difficult or vulnerable areas of our lives. Weaknesses are used as launching pads to help strive for the transformative character growth that is collectively pursued.

Yet Wilder and Hendricks remark that meeting with one another just for the sake of communal gathering is not enough. In one of the few occasions in the book where they actually do address small group ministries, they explain that hesed love does not automatically grow on its own within a small group. Rather, they argue for an approach where the church proactively trains up its small group leaders with a curriculum that “make[s] relationship-building a centerpiece of the group curriculum instead of an afterthought.” By incorporating these concepts into our scheduled meetings with leaders, the long-term effects can be largely impactful as small group leaders begin to operate their groups more through the lens of hesed relationships.

Hesed as a Part of Our DNA
So important is the concept of hesed love for these two authors that they claim that “until we restore our loving attachments to God and each other, we are wasting our time doing ministry, church, or anything else for that matter.” With this bold stance in mind, it must be our goal to achieve a clear understanding of love so that we are able to become living examples of hesed for those whom God places in our care. Perhaps some examples of this can include the launching of new small groups that focus predominantly on purpose-driven relationships, or perhaps more concerted efforts to build joy within the community, or maybe even surveying the community for suggested activities that would allow everyone to work together and interact more often. In a high-hesed environment, members of the community are confident that they can experience a loving fellowship that uplifts them and helps them in their journey. Wilder and Hendricks encourage us to restructure how we relate to one another and practice being a family until hesed actually becomes a part of our DNA.  Let us express hesed love to one another in such a prominent way that it may multiply within our communities and set the stage for the next two key ingredients of Christian relationships: Group Identity and Healthy Correction. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Relational Joy of Small Groups

 

So far in our series on The other Half of Church, we’ve established that our brains process information from the world first through the right-brain before the left-brain has the opportunity to contribute to our thoughts and feelings. Such a concept has the potential to make a large impact on the mission and vision of a church’s small group ministry. Rather than encouraging groups to meet and discuss curriculum in the hopes that they will build relationships along the way, a right-brain oriented small group ministry opts to have their groups meet and seek fellowship with one another and explore curriculum through the context of relationships. It is from here that we will continue to unpack what such a model can look like, focusing today on when small groups make the intentional effort to practice relational joy with one another.

To experience joy is to experience what God desires for us. In Psalms 16:11, David says to the Lord “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (NRSV). Peter says that when we believe in Christ, we are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for [we] are receiving the end result of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9, NIV). Jesus even took a moment to explain that when we keep His commandments, we will remain in His love, His joy will be in us, and our joy would be made complete (John 15:10-11). In other words, when we remain in God’s presence, when we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and when we follow the commands of Jesus, we end up experiencing a joy that is so pure and powerful that nothing else can be added to it in order to make it better!

Many of us are familiar with this phenomenon if we recall the season that took place shortly after giving our lives to Christ. Commonly, a new believer throws themselves into the faith and passionately dedicates themselves to these three practices. Yet as time progresses and the fleshly driven world begins to chip away at their ability to adhere to these three practices, their “joy tank” is replenished less often. Some individuals may even experience dry seasons where one or more of the practices are set aside entirely. This causes a dilemma that many believers are experiencing (especially in a post-pandemic world): if we are not independently seeking these three practices, how can we then restore joy both inside and outside of the church? The good news is that according to brain science, small groups may be one of the very best options we have that is available to us.

When discussing how our joy is impacted by the relationships that we develop with one another, authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks of The Other Half of Church arrived at three important points of convergence within their studies:

1) Joy is primarily transmitted through the face (especially the eyes) and secondarily through voice.
2) Joy is relational. It is what we feel when we are with someone who is happy to be with us. Joy does not exist outside of a relationship.
3) Joy is important to God and to us.

These three points are satisfied by small groups in a marvelous way. First, the authors point out that the face is key. While in the past we’ve made note that online groups are a great stepping stone for individuals to transition into in-person groups, the ideal will always remain to be in-person groups. With an online group, genuine eye contact is lost and we don’t know who is looking at whom. As a result, we have difficulty establishing an intentional connection with a specific person in order to receive the joy-filled connection that our brains are seeking. Second, joy is not possible without relationships. With a small group, there is intent and anticipation in meeting together and we experience a celebration when individuals arrive at the group where they are expected and welcomed. For those who hope to haphazardly experience joy through chance encounters or accidental interactions with others, their joy-deprived hearts will forever remain unsatisfied. Third, the three practices noted earlier from Scripture requires genuine relationship with not only God, but also with others as we actively live out the commandments of Jesus with those whom the Lord places into our lives.

There is a joy to know and to be known within a small group. Wilder and Hendricks note that “brain science reveals that this joy sensation is crucial for emotional and relational development.” From this perspective, joy can be viewed as a catalyst that can help to generate fresh transformation in Christ. Sharing praise reports, intentionally seeking out an individual to spend time with them, and expressing gratitude to one another can all be methods that help increase joy in our lives. Let your church’s small group ministry be the vehicle that the Lord can use to help weave these precious moments into your community.