Have you ever led a small group in which the following type of scenario took place?
You're excited because you invited a new person to your small group–perhaps a young co-worker or a student you met on campus–and this person is not a believer. He or she lives with their boyfriend or girlfriend and is very much immersed in the secular world, but you've had some promising conversations with them lately, and they're definitely curious.
The small group time goes smoothly–lots of interesting conversation, and the new person is welcomed by the group. You feel encouraged and exhilarated! Then comes the prayer request time. A member of the group begins to share about their dating relationship and confesses the need for prayer and accountability with sexual purity. They explain, "We just keep going too far and I feel convicted about it. We haven't had sex or anything (spoken with a worst-case-scenario kind of tone), but we are really struggling."
And with that comment, you immediately cringe. Unintentionally, the speaker just qualified their sin as being less severe as others. While the group member acknowledges that their sin is wrong, they've implied that it's nowhere near as bad as some people's–such as the new person sitting right next to you.
As a small group leader for college women, this happened to me many times. Numerous well-intentioned young ladies voiced their prayer requests in ways that not only condemned those struggling with "worse" sins, but made me feel a little unqualified to be their leader. While I commend these women for opening up, they simultaneously condemned every woman in the room who has ever done anything worse. To begin a confession with a tone that says, "I'm not as bad as that, but. . . " is a sure-fire way to stifle vulnerability in a small group.
These experiences have, however, had a significant impact on my leadership style. The way we talk about sin can either empower or condemn those around us. That said, I have spent the last several years learning to harness my identity as a sinner, seeing it as a kind of strength rather than hiding it as a weakness. By this I don't mean glamorizing my past mistakes or diving into details that no one wants to hear. But I'm not sweeping them under the rug either. In the service of a redeemer God, there is opportunity for grace in a history of brokenness.
What does this look like practically speaking? First, it means reframing the way we talk about sin, and that often involves swallowing our pride. There's a temptation to feel that because you are the small group leader, you must somehow be spiritually and morally ahead of the people you're leading. While this is true to an extent–you should not be leading if you're caught in the throes of unrepentant sin–it doesn't mean you must be without fault either. When we feel the need to stand over those we are leading, we have a tendency to cushion our confessions with disclaimers, watering down our past and present mistakes as much as possible. When I do this, the only person I help is me.