Conversatio Divina

Part 16 of 18

Guiding the Conversation: A Discussion about Spiritual Formation and Community

Joannah M. Sadler in Conversation with Kim Engelmann

Joannah Sadler & Kim Engelmann

If you’ve been a subscriber to Conversations for any length of time, you’re familiar with our feature writer, Kim Engelmann. In each issue of the journal, Kim takes us deeper into the conversation with her thoughtfully crafted “conversation guide”—turning each issue into an individual or small group study. She has become a dear friend of Conversations, and her column a favorite among readers. We are so grateful for her gift of summary and synthesis—and probing questions that make us really think about what we are reading and how we might apply it to our own lives. Recently I sat down with Kim to talk about her latest book, and her thoughts on the role of spiritual formation within the context of community.

Joannah M. Sadler: Kim, first, thank you for taking time to “join the conversation” in every issue and challenge us with ways to discover more about ourselves and each other with the discussion guides you provide. You’re a busy wife, mother, and senior pastor, who manages to write books and articles, too! I’m inspired by how you seem to balance it all, yet still take time to invest in your own spiritual formation, and that of others as well.

In your book, Soul-Shaping Small Groups you discuss how small groups have the potential to be different (refreshing even) than what we’ve become used to (and burned out on) in the typical church small group. What happens in small groups, that doesn’t happen individually in regards to our spiritual formation?

Kim V. Engelmann: Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” There is something mysterious and wonderful about being together in community that ushers in the presence of God. You get this also in the book of Acts just before the Holy Spirit comes the text reads “They were altogether in one place.”

Jesus was all about community—he chose twelve folks right from the outset, quarrelsome, cantankerous, slow learners—because they needed to learn to love each other, share with each other, and pray together.

When I am alone with God I have my own subjectivity and the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit. When I am with others I have a visible, dynamic group of human beings who are a representation of the Body of Christ. These people stretch me because sometimes they are hard to love, difficult to understand, quarrelsome, stiff-necked and broken. However, these people also are willing to pray for me, take me at my word, listen to me, share with me their struggles, and allow me to pray for them. I am humbled, and recognize that Jesus, the Creator of the Universe, decided to dwell within my weakness and the weakness of those around me. I am reminded of the unconditional love of God, the amazing grace that spills over onto all people everywhere, and the power of prayer that is revved up when we agree together in our mutual weakness and bring it to an all-powerful God. Nothing connects human beings with more strength than sharing our spiritual journey together over time. Nothing grows us more than learning to love those who are difficult to love.

JMS: Being that the theme of this issue is “The Problem of Pain,” it reminds me that community in this context (deeply personal and vulnerable space of small groups) can be difficult and sometimes painful. Why should we pursue it?

KVE: Anytime you do something significant in this life, there will be difficulties. Jesus was always pulling people out of their comfort zone and putting them into situations where they might get roughed up a bit. This is because he wanted to show them that when they took risks in his name he would be there for them. (He puts together the most unlikely band of disciples, from tax collectors to fishermen to follow him; he calls the woman with the flow of blood who’d been living in isolation for years, to announce publicly who she is, etc.) It was never easy. God says: live in community and even when it gets dicey and difficult look out because I am at work. We pursue community not because it is easy, but because our faith is all about God loving people, and Jesus’ command that we do the same. If “we can’t love our brother who we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20, paraphrase)

JMS: In the book you reference the REVEAL™ study done a few years ago by the Willow Creek Association, and suggest that the problem is not small groups, but the way we do small groups. You note that the way we currently do small group life hinders the spiritual development of mature believers. What is changing, and what still needs to change in how the church treats spiritual nourishment that occurs in community?

KVE: What is changing is that people are tired of rigid formulaic answers for the complexities of life that come out of a workbook designed for small groups. There is a high value in our culture right now placed on authenticity. What is changing is that people have a renewed interest in “spirituality” and are rediscovering the value of meditation. What still needs to change is the way we conduct ourselves in the Christian community. Sometimes we interact as if the horizontal relation-ships we have with one other are primary. We must start including the presence of God in our gatherings as if God were actually there and the defining reality for all we do— talking to him as much as we might talk about him; centering ourselves in the reality of his presence that is holding us all; allowing ourselves to open up to the possibility that God, at any moment, might show up in stunning ways; and taking the time we need to invite him into our midst. In and through all of this we must allow the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit to guide our groups first and foremost, before pushing through with our own agenda.

JMS: I love how you just said that—“We must start including the presence of God in our gatherings as if God were actually there.” Thank you for these helpful insights on how community can be both challenging and painful— yet deeply authentic and refreshing, which is what we all ultimately long for in community.

One last question, Give us three reasons why folks who like Conversations should rush to Amazon and buy your book?

KVE: Rushing is something I do on a regular basis, yet it is something I am trying to STOP doing because I never read anywhere in Scripture that “Jesus rushed.” Is it in there somewhere? But if anyone is led by the Holy Spirit to calmly and eagerly go to Amazon and look it up, I have tried to write from my own experience, in a funny way, how small groups have just been the nemesis of my life because of their dull, plodding, predictable nature. If you have been disenchanted with your small group, I give some practical tools on how to liven things up a bit, and open doors for the work of the Holy Spirit. I try to speak as a leader and as a participant. I use the Emmaus Road story in Luke as a template to guide people through the essentials of small group ministry. This story wraps up both the “teaching of Scripture” as well as the “Aha!” of experiencing the risen Christ. When an authentic experience of Jesus Christ and intellectual rigor are combined in small groups things get very exciting!


Kim Engelmann is senior pastor at West Valley Presbyterian Church in Cupertino, California. She is the author of several books, including her most recent Soul-Shaping Small Groups (IVP, 2010) She has also written Running in Circles, Seeing Jesus, A Walk with God Through Friendship, and three children’s books entitled the Joona Trilogy.

Joannah M. Sadler, LMFT, who is our managing editor and also looks after our Features section, divides her time between part time work for the journal, teaching, and working at Richmont Graduate University as a therapist. Joannah is married to Jason and lives in Atlanta.