The year 2020 was an unprecedented time in history when it was socially acceptable (and even mandated!) to walk into a bank with your face (and thus your identity) completely covered with a black mask. Before 2020, such a choice of attire would have led everyone in the bank to suspect that you are a bank robber!
But while this was the norm in our culture in the wake of COVID-19, we don’t want this to be the norm in our small groups. What I’m not talking about here is whether we should wear physical masks in our small group meetings. I’m talking about a different kind of mask. A kind of mask that is much easier to slip on without anyone noticing. A kind of mask that has been around and stuck around a lot longer than the cloth variety. A kind of mask that the Pharisees frequented. The kind of mask I’m talking about is the mask of false righteousness (Matthew 23:27-28).
One of Jesus’ main critiques of the “teachers of the law and Pharisees” is that they portrayed themselves to be clean and righteous on the outside while they concealed all kinds of uncleanness and wickedness on the inside. Most of us know this about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and recognize that this hypocritical behavior was contrary to the ways of God’s kingdom. But might we be in danger of walking the same Pharisaical path in our own religious circles? Is it possible for us to be professional mask-wearers among the people who should know us most?
How often does your small group talk about sin? I’m not so much asking how often your group talks about sin in the abstract. I’m asking how often the individual members of your group talk about the sin that they are struggling with in their own lives. When was the last time a member of your group shared about a specific sin that they have been struggling with that week? Maybe it would sound like this: “The sermon this week was really convicting. It really showed me how much I worship comfort – I run to my favorite TV show every night to escape from the stress I’m feeling from work.” How often does the conversation get real like that in your group?
How you answer this question is a good gauge of how masked your small group really is. Your answer to this question will tell you whether your small group has a culture of putting on face coverings of false righteousness.
In a healthy small group, we are not looking for holy attire but rather heart transformation. In our groups, we want people to be transformed from one degree of glory to another as they grow in their love for Jesus and one another (2 Corinthians 3:18). But in order to get there, we need to calibrate the culture of our groups to the teaching of Scripture. In many places, the Bible indicates that sanctification happens when we open ourselves up in vulnerability to God, his Word, and one another. Let’s consider just a few passages that teach this:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Notice the vulnerability this passage assumes. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another when we behold Jesus with unveiled face. When we gain this kind of raw exposure to Jesus, we change. Transformation happens when we come to Jesus with all the ugly sin our unveiled faces betray and behold him in all his beauty and grace.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).
There is no hiding from God and his Word. His living and active Word pierces into the innermost desires of our hearts and transforms them with power. Before him, we are naked and exposed – he sees everything. But that is the best possible position for us because, like a skilled surgeon who decides to cut a little deeper to gain more visibility and make sure he gets the whole tumor, God is committed to cutting out every inch of the cancer of sin that plagues us.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (James 5:16).
God’s treatment plan for our sin-sick hearts consists of raw exposure to him, his Word, and one another. Sanctification will start happening in your small group when you unmask your sins, unburden your souls to one another, exhort and restore one another in a spirit of gentleness, and unleash the power of intercessory prayer into one another’s lives.
So how do you get there? How do you change the culture of your small group into a sin-confessing, grace-receiving, heart-transforming group?
The answer is simple: you lead. You lead your group in confessing sin.
You will be amazed at how the atmosphere of your small group will change if you humble yourself and become vulnerable and real with your group.
Let me offer you three practical ways that you can begin to lead your group in confessing sin:
Begin to look for opportunities to be more transparent with your group about your own sin struggles.
When you are leading Bible or sermon discussions, don’t just think of yourself as the facilitator who asks questions and spits out Bible answers. Think of yourself as a member of the group. Look for opportunities to share how God used the sermon to convict you of sin. Get specific. Share examples of how the Bible passage you are discussing sheds light on a specific struggle in your thought life or a specific conflict in your marriage (with your spouse’s permission, of course!)
When you ask for prayer requests, ask the group to pray for you for a specific heart struggle that you are having – “I’ve been struggling with anxiety over the big work presentation I have next week. Would you all pray I would trust Jesus and seek his kingdom first this coming week?”
When you lead in sharing this way, others in the group will follow!
When you begin to lead in confessing sin before your group, others will follow. You may lead in this way for two months in a row before the next person is brave enough to open up but remain faithful, and the Lord will bless it. Whenever that next person does open up, shower them with encouragement. Thank them for being willing to open up in front of the group and respond graciously and gently to what they shared. Repeat sweet promises of Scripture for those who confess, like 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
As your group gets into a groove of confessing sin to one another, bearing one another’s burdens, praying for one another, exhorting and restoring one another, I will tell you what will happen: growth. Growth will happen. You will begin to see people gain victory over sin in ways they never thought possible. You will begin to see sanctification happen, slowly but surely, right before your eyes. You will begin to see people grow in their love for God and for one another. It will be messy and uncomfortable and painful and awkward. And it will be glorious.
As you begin to see this growth happening in your group, celebrate it. When someone shares how much they have grown in a particular area of their lives, spend time praising, worshipping, and glorifying God for that growth with your whole group. And as you continue to celebrate growth with your group, growth will continue to expand all the more among your group.
When mask mandates were lifted, and many of us went back to church for the first time or went to a restaurant for the first time without wearing a mask, it was a refreshing and freeing experience. I want a similar experience to happen in our small group. I want you to experience the freedom and the refreshing power of confessing your sin to your brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, brothers and sisters, demask your small group! Lead your group in confessing sin to one another, and watch God transform your group for the glory of his name and the good of his people!