This post begins a series within a series. Broadly, it is a continuation of my series of posts on the Methodist class meeting for the twenty-first century. (Click here for a link to the previous post which also contains a link to an outline of the rest of the series.) More specifically, this series of posts is written by Nick Weatherford, who is a member of Munger Place Church and a leader of a Kitchen Group, which is a 21st century class meeting. The rest of this post and the next three posts will allow you to hear directly from a lay person who is currently leading a class meeting. In this first (and longest) post, Nick shares his story with you and talks about the role that being in a class meeting has played in his recommitting to a life of Christian discipleship. In the second post, Nick talks about the impact that leading a Kitchen Group has had on his faith. The third post discusses the impact that Nick believes that these groups are having on Munger Place. In the final post, Nick talks about the impact that he thinks reclaiming the class meeting for the 21st century would have on contemporary United Methodism. I deeply appreciate the time that Nick has taken in writing this series of posts, which will appear throughout the course of this week. He has agreed to follow the discussion and interact with any comments or questions that you may have, so I hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to interact with Nick.
A couple of weeks ago my friend Kevin Watson asked me to contribute a guest post about my experiences in Munger Place small groups to his blog. I must confess that I have been finding excuses not to get started. I have not written about my faith in quite some time and I want to do his great blog justice. Lately, I could talk to you about these things for hours, but putting them down on paper is something entirely different.
First, I thought a little background might be relevant here. I grew up in the church, particularly in the Baptist tradition here in Dallas, TX. I also attended a Christian school here. Therefore, faith was also part of the social structure of my life. It affected my standing at school and I felt like I was always under a microscope. There was pressure to talk the talk. My senior year of high school, I was not required to go to church any longer. Perhaps my mother had hoped that I would desire to go by my own will, but it didn’t happen. I figured I had had enough church: I got it. I didn’t discount it completely but my new found independence did not include anything to do with regular attendance at church. Still, I went off to college counting myself among the faithful. I can’t tell you at what point I started treating Jesus like that friend from childhood that you just didn’t want hanging around anymore, but it happened almost unconsciously for a variety of reasons I’m not exploring here. Anyway, I figured I had it down. I must not need my faith because everything is going great. Besides, I don’t really want to let people in on my little faith secret anyway. I’m having too much fun wrapped up in college and fraternity life. So began my journey through the wilderness of self reliance and self deception. I’ve got the job, the right friends, the house and the car. Weekends are booked. All is well. I was content with those things for awhile. Life was exactly as it was supposed to be. Then, the emptiness started to set in. My answers and my “things” left me feeling spiritually bankrupt. I was empty and aching.
I confess my first attempts to get back into a church were met with the same reluctance that I have felt about starting this blog post. I didn’t really know where to begin again. I dared to pray about it. My brother and his fiancé had been going to the Cornerstone service at Highland Park United Methodist Church. I figured I could tag along safely with them. Well, soon after that I heard about the Munger Place campus that was being started in East Dallas. Then I met the campus pastor Andrew Forrest at the open house. Next thing you know I’m nervously waiting in the car before going up to knock on the door at my first small group meeting (at Munger we call them “Kitchen Groups”).
What has being involved in a small group done for my own Christian faith?
I have come to realize the importance of being called into community with one another and of God’s unrelenting grace. We are not asked to, or intended to do this alone. I would argue from personal experience that our faith will wither away over time if we are not proactively involving ourselves in community with other believers.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived for my first meeting. We began with a Psalm, a prayer and then a short Bible study. Next, the question was posed, “How is your life in God?” I had never been asked that question before! What was everyone going to say? I was relieved I didn’t have to answer first. After hearing everyone’s responses I was at ease. This was a group of folks, from different backgrounds and experiences, who were not only willing to, but seemed to look forward to sharing the details of their relationship with Christ. There were other ways given to respond to this same question: “Are you further or closer to where you want to be spiritually?” “When did you feel closest and furthest from God this week?” “When did you most feel love this week?”
I don’t remember what I shared that night. I do remember that everyone listened, was honest and real. There was no pressure for me to pretend I had it together or that everything was perfect. The only expectation was that I show up, and that I share if I was willing. I did not have to measure up to anyone’s standard, this group accepted me as I was, where I was, and were genuinely interested in my personal relationship with the Lord.
Perhaps because of my background, I thought being really actively involved in church was something you did when you were on God’s “good side”, when you were in some sort of right relationship with him and following some set of rules. I have learned that all of us, even our pastors and leaders have rough weeks or periods where they question what God’s will is and whether or not they are brave enough to pursue it. Being honest with others about our faith helps us to be open books before God. Experiencing a little bit of grace each week by being accepted by those in our group with all of our messiness and brokenness has been a gift. I often find I hear just the thing I needed to hear whether it is in the form of encouragement, or if I am being pushed a little bit.
I think we are our own worst enemies and toughest critics. If we are not forgiving ourselves and accepting grace from each other, how can we accept the gift that Jesus has freely given us? The Kitchen Group helps me to do that. And, by more deeply understanding His grace I am more eager to dare to be like Him. So, realizing that we all have the same struggles no matter how long we’ve been at this and that faith does not always come easily for all of us has made participation in our church seem more genuine and authentic to me.
Kitchen Groups foster a community of honesty and personal accountability. The accountability comes not in any prescribed set of rules or confessions (this is not group therapy or a 12 step program) but in learning to understand and respond to all of our experiences, good and bad, through the perspective our relationship with God. I think more about my faith than I ever have in my life, asking myself more and more often “how is my life in God”, even outside of the group setting.
Finally, I think the small group experience provides a sort of spiritual checks and balances. Weeks where I have dragged myself to a meeting because I didn’t like anything that I might have to say for myself, I have gained from the group the strength I need to keep trying. Weeks where I can really feel God’s presence, I am sobered by the struggles of my brothers and sisters and I get to do some encouraging.
I think this helps us learn to approach God even in our weakness, to understand our brokenness. I was reminded just last Sunday that we so often resort to our default answers when we interact with people. Even at Church on Sunday. We smile and say we are doing well when we are asked, sweeping whatever might really be going on under the rug. I am guilty of pretending that I have it together even when I am a mess. At small group I am honest. I am forced to reconcile myself to how I am REALLY doing. I read that it saddens God when we don’t believe that we are totally forgiven and are uncomfortable approaching him. I find that in my life, I sometimes have the hardest time forgiving myself. The group experience helps me do more of that each week.
In contemporary churches, there seem to be ample opportunities for Bible studies and programs, but Kitchen Groups don’t follow any particular curriculum. We just ask you to analyze your own experiences through the lens of faith. What has God revealed to you this week? What do you need to work on? What is holding you back? It doesn’t ask you to measure up to any particular standard other than a genuine desire to be more of who you are being called to be as a follower of Jesus.
– Nick Weatherford