By Barnabas Piper
What do blind dates, your first meeting with a therapist, and joining a small group have in common?
They all feel like complete gambles. You walk in, meet strangers, and try to figure out how to be the kind of honest that develops a relationship but not the kind that makes you sound crazy.
The difference between a small group and the other two scenarios is that this is happening between eight or 12 or 20 people, not just two.
Developing the kind of honest authenticity (as opposed to internet influencer “authenticity”) that makes small groups meaningful can be scary, takes intentionality, and is always a gift from God.
Here are seven traits of true authenticity in a group.
1. Willingness to take a risk
Vulnerability is scary between two people, so opening up about something shameful, scary, or deeply personal in a group can be terrifying.
It’s also the only way for a group to be truly honest with one another. Someone needs to go first. Then someone needs to go second. Then it needs to happen with increasing regularity.
Once will make people feel a little weird. Regular honesty will draw people together.
2. Responding with grace
When someone cuts open their life and reveals the difficult or the ugly aspects to the group, nothing is louder than silence. A response of spoken grace—something like “thank you for telling us, that took guts”—allows them to breathe again.
Following that up with caring questions and immediate prayer shows the whole group that it’s safe to be honest and that all struggles are taken to Jesus’ feet first.
3. Asking bold questions
“How are you?” is a fine question—if you mean it.
Do you really want to know how the other person is? Are you prepared for an honest answer? It’s even better to ask detailed questions about things they’ve mentioned previously, and this means listening and remembering.
You don’t need to remember everything about everyone in your group, but grab hold of a couple needs and ask about them.
4. Answering questions honestly
If people are going to ask boldly then you must answer honestly. “How are you?” can’t have a canned “fine” as a response.
It’s an open door for authenticity, so take it. Tell people if you’re really struggling or it’s been a garbage week or your kids are on your last nerve.
Yes, this feels risky, but it’s a risk with the potential reward of encouragement, prayer, help, and deeper friendships in the Lord.
All you get by saying “fine” is more time carrying your burden by yourself.
5. No euphemisms
Authenticity doesn’t hide behind opaque phrases.
If you’re on the verge of divorce you’re not “having some struggles in your marriage.” If you’re addicted to porn you aren’t “battling some sexual sin” and if you’re battling deep depression you’re not “having a down week.”
Authenticity doesn’t go for shock value; it speaks truth. It calls sin “sin,” fear “fear,” and need “need.” Conversely, it praises and thanks and honors for specific answers to prayer and to people by name.
6. Asking for help
If vulnerability is an all-in gamble, asking for help feels like betting money we don’t even have.
That’s because in a sense, it is. We’re all lacking. We’re not able to be Christians, spouses, parents, employees, bosses, ministers, friends, or just about anything else on our own.
Yet we’re loath to simply say, “I need help.” In a group marked by honesty, people learn to express need and ask for help in real, specific ways—even when it shows weakness or makes them look bad.
Ray Ortlund, the founding pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville where I serve, often said, “You can be impressive or you can be known, but you can’t be both.”
Asking for help really makes us known, and, while that is scary, it’s also the best.
7. Sacrificial help
In a group marked by God’s grace a person asking for help is simply a glimpse into a mirror. We know our own needs. We know our weakness. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
So when someone else reveals their need we don’t scoff or judge or distance ourselves. We love as Jesus loved, sacrificially and readily. Their need becomes our need because we are one body.
The net effect of these traits is a group of people deeply aware of each other’s needs and struggles, prone to pray first for any problem, and willing to welcome in a new person at a moment’s notice.
This is because true honesty and authenticity stem from humility before God. They aren’t sustainable by techniques and efforts but only by a constant awareness of our own need and Christ’s great mercy.
When we have that, the risk and sacrifice are worth it every time and over time.
BARNABAS PIPER (@BarnabasPiper) is a speaker, podcaster, and the author of several books, including The Pastor’s Kid, The Curious Christian, and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith—which now has a small group study companion. He currently serves on staff at Immanuel Nashville as director of community.