Monday, February 02, 2009

Finding the Flow

I’ve been leading a small group for over 3 years. In that time, it has been through a cycle of death and rebirth. And I have been with it through a cycle of excitement, discouragement, and renewal. When I started 3 years ago, I prepared lessons full of my insights and information about the Scripture we were reading. Now, 3 years later, I write down all my questions about the Scripture we are reading. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is the book we’re reading—the Bible.

I’ve never read a book about leading small groups, so when a friend was looking for some bloggers to review this book, I decided to volunteer. She sent me a copy of Finding the Flow. The title immediately made me think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (that’s “cheek-sent-me-high,” fun to say) book Flow. Sure enough, the authors were alluding to it with their title. But they were also using it to liken the small group to a river. Carrying this forward they titled their chapters things like “Charting the Course” (Stages of Group Life), “Stirring the Waters” (Asking Good Questions), and “Rocks in the Riverbed” (Navigating Group Conflict). While the titles were a little cutesy and not wholly intuitive, the metaphor on the whole guided the writing but did not restrict it.

The book has two distinctive features worth mentioning. The first feature is the “Do This” sidebars, which appear frequently throughout the book. (I appreciate that they avoided extending the river metaphor here to something like “Paddles.”) These features suggested practical ways to implement or further explore the ideas being discussed. These types of sidebars can often be uncreative and useless, but not so here. Most of the suggestions are feasible and worthwhile. Most often, I found myself thinking, “That would be valuable or insightful” or “I wonder what interesting details that would expose.”

The second unique feature is the personal stories that appear throughout the book. The two authors Tara and Jenn trade off telling stories about their small group experiences that fit the concepts, problems, and solutions they’re talking about. The stories are a nice break from more analytical discussions.

These stories also establish a congenial tone for the book, which carries on throughout. The more casual tone makes the book easy and readable. They also made the authors a bit more accessible and the ideas a bit more digestible.

With this sort of accessibility, the authors’ own backgrounds are a bit more open to scrutiny as well. Picking up the book, the back cover notes that one worked as a pastor and the other serves as an elder within their church. They describe the church as “nontraditional,” specializing in being “unchurchy,” and made up mostly of people “in their twenties and thirties.” Jenn brings a corporate background to her perspectives on group dynamics and leadership and recently “started engaging in spiritual direction.” Both authors work now as life “coaches,” an emphasis which comes through strongly in the chapter on developing new leaders, “Creating New Streams.” Growing closer to God through information-gatherings is “a modernist idea,” they tell the reader. They refer to books ranging from John Steinbeck’s The Grape of Wrath and P. J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell to Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Dudley Weeks’ The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution.

There’s plenty of Bible in there too. Tara pulls no punches—“My bias is for the Bible,” she writes, suggesting that it’s the best book for small group study when seasoned with open-ended questions and a Scripture-driven imagination. Lectio divina, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright are other alternatives. “Choose something substantive,” she advises.

The 200+ pages are broken into 7 chapters (with an Introduction and 7 short appendices also). They address the following topics: Knowing Yourself (the facilitator), Stages of Group Life, Listening to God and Others, Asking Good Questions, Navigating Group Conflict, Developing New Leaders, and Spiritual Transformation. Except for maybe one chapter, I felt I could read through each one in a single sitting. But that is not to say that the chapters are without substance. Indeed, I think the book addresses some of the foundational matters small group facilitators should think through (including the distinction between “leaders” and “facilitators”). The book is an easy read, and the suggestions are substantive enough for readers to come back to for fresh ideas and ways to navigate basic obstacles they’re facing.

For my first book on small groups, I felt it offered some good things to think about. This book explores the dynamics of small groups and looks for God in the mix. I thought it balanced the philosophy of small groups well with practical application, and connected the two. I’d primarily recommend it for a facilitator who’s currently leading a group. It may help someone who’s preparing for one or considering leading one, but I think it’s most valuable to someone actively involved with one. I’ve already recommended it to the other small group leaders I know, and I will probably lend my copy to another friend as well. I guess that’s an endorsement.

In my next post, I’ll offer a bit of a critique and personal note.

No comments: