You've probably never heard of Christopher Langan. But if you have, you know he's purported to be the smartest man in America, with a staggering IQ of 195. As a high school student, Langan could ace any foreign language test by skimming the textbook for a couple of minutes before the exam. And when it came to taking the SAT, he slept through part of it and still obtained a perfect score.
But in spite of his genius, Langan failed to use his exceptional gifts and instead worked in construction and even as a bouncer until in 2004 when he ended up working on a horse farm in rural Missouri.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, points to Langan as a man who never had a community to help him capitalize his gifts. Gladwell summarizes the story of Langan in one sentence: "Langan had to make his way alone, and no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone."
Whether we like it or not, each of us has an unshakable dependence on others.
It's what philosopher John Donne was getting at when he said so succinctly, "No man is an island." We need relationship. We need community. It's not an option in life or a sentimental trimming. We need to belong.
Besides that, it's profoundly biblical. God himself, from the beginning, has sought community with us (Gen. 1:26). Jesus called a small group of disciples to live and walk in community with Him (Mark 3:7-10). Our message to the world, as Christians, is seen in community (John 17:21, 23). It's in community that we make good decisions (Prov. 15:22) and become encouraged and find strength (Prov. 18:24). Ultimately, our sense of belonging is found in community (Rom. 7:2-4). That's why being part of a small group is so essential to our spiritual well being and personal growth in Christ.
The problem comes in realizing that all groups are not created equal. For reasons that are sometimes inexplicable, a group just doesn't click. And just as mystifying, come groups immediately resonate.
For more than three years now, I've been in a men's group with seven other guys who meet twice a month. I can't wait to join their company as we "do life together." But before this group, I was part of a similar band of Christian brothers that sputtered through a year before we called it quits. The difference? It wasn't leadership or purpose. I can sum it up in a single word: personality. A group will sink or swim based on how the different personalities gel. Or don't.
How do I know? Because I've been teaching small group courses at my university for over a dozen years and I've observed interactions in countless groups. I've come to realize that you can do everything possible to help a group work well together—whether it's an accountability group, discipleship group, missions group, study group, or whatever—and it will still fall flat if the varying personalities are not understood, appreciated, and respected. In fact, this thought compelled me to eventually develop an on-line tool, the Small Group Insights Profile, that dramatically increases the odds of enjoying successful group connections. How? By revealing each group member's personal "group style."
When it comes to small group interactions each of us typically falls into at least one of these categories that make groups fun.
- Doer—Direct and to the point, they keep groups moving forward.
- Thinker—Careful and strategic, they uphold the group's purpose.
- Listener—Quiet and devoted, they nurture group members.
One style is not better than the others. They each add unique value to the group process, even if we at first don't understand another's style. In time we will, and once we do connections begin to click. Knowing what "group style" we each have can go a long way in cultivating community. As I say to my university students, successful small groups depend on authentic relationships. The better the connections, the better the group. And that′s just what discovering each of your group member's styles will do for you.
So if you've been skeptical of starting or joining a small group, I urge you to give it a try. It's easier than you think and the benefits of belonging are well worth the effort. It all comes down to empathy. When we put ourselves in each other's shoes, when we see the world from one another's perspective, our longing for belonging has a fighting chance of being realized.
Les Parrott III, founder of RealRelationships.com and SmallGroupInsights.com, is professor of Psychology at Seattle Pacific University. His best-selling books include Love Talk, Trading Places, and Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts.
Want to Improve Your Small Group Experience?
It's easy, simple, and quick. The tool is called the Small Group Insights Profile and you'll find it at www.SmallGroupInsights.com. No training required. No manuals to read.
Holiness Today, July/Aug 2011
Please note: This article was originally published in 2011. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.