I will never forget the first time I shared in an accountability group for pornography addiction. I was ashamed and nervous, had a dash of hope and lots of pride. Like the Pharisee looking down on the tax collector in the famous parable Jesus told, I thought I had a corner on God and did not really need to be there. I have never been more wrong in my life.
I imagined I would only be in the group for a month, three at tops, mainly to show my wife that I was serious about change. Suffice it to say, I brought the proverbial car into the shop for an oil change, but it really needed a whole new engine. This became evident about 10 minutes into the first meeting.
Starting with silence
Riley was the group’s leader, and he had a strange way of praying. He would begin prayer with a few minutes—it felt like 10—of silence, which always slightly annoyed me. In the quiet I could not hide. I felt so exposed to myself, others and especially God.
Saint John of the Cross says that silence is God’s first language. God is very comfortable with silence, and the older I get the more I appreciate what silence can do: bring to the forefront what is really the root of our problems.
Soren Kierkegaard says, “If I were a physician and I were allowed to prescribe one remedy for all the ills of the world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence!”
Rooted in unconditional love
After we finished the mostly silent introductory prayer, Riley would read the group covenant and then ask questions to whoever’s turn it was to talk. The covenant consisted of tone-setting reminders like this is not a place to throw stones and what is said in the group must stay in the group unless someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves.
In just a few sentences the covenant reminded us that we were all broken and flawed in similar ways and yet perfectly known and loved by the God who created us and was in the room with us. That reminder of unconditional love and grace was so essential because what followed was one of the most difficult steps—actually sharing. Riley would help us along by asking questions that were thoughtful and open-ended.
Asking good questions
A good question followed by, you guessed it, silence can expose someone like none other. Author and pastor John Mark Comer says that spiritual disciplines are any behavior that Jesus routinely did when he walked this earth. A quick reading of any of the gospels shows a lot of red question marks. “Do you want to get well?” “Who was a neighbor to the man?” “Why are you so afraid?” “Do you believe?” Jesus’ questions, much like Riley’s, pointed people to the heart of the matter.
It’s funny, sometimes in a group of 10 guys who all struggle with porn, that specific subject never actually comes up. Instead the questions can dig into root issues such as anger or financial insecurity, stress or fatigue, forgiveness or past childhood hurts. It gets very real very quickly when the foundation of grace is laid and then someone asks a good question or two.
The anatomy of change
No one can change by themselves. Lasting change at the heart, mind and soul level happens in community with God and others. There is an old African proverb that says if you want to travel fast, go alone, but if you want to travel far, go with others. I think this applies to every area of one’s life, especially breaking free of unwanted behaviors. A group of Christians who all are open and honest with each other and all headed down the same road together can quicken the change process.
Change still takes time—three to five years is the average for someone to go from being addicted to porn to freedom. But when you are shoulder to shoulder with someone who wants to make the same changes you are making, it somehow becomes more doable.
It took a few weeks for me to let my guard down, but once I did, I knew I had just tapped into something more powerful than my shame. Once I was able to talk openly about the good, the bad and the downright ugly in my life without fear of being judged or criticized, the darkness in me fled. Like shining a bright light at cockroaches, the power of the secret sin vanished.
Community brings success
Over the years I have tried to dissect why groups are so critical to changing unwanted behavior. While this list is not exhaustive and not in any order, here are my top five reasons why community is so essential to real change.
Confession: The act of owning my mistakes and fully acknowledging them out loud to God and other people is imperative to the process. Sometimes Riley would say, “What is it that you really don’t want to share? Go ahead and start there.” Confession humbles us. It also forces us to see the lie(s) that we believe and provides us the opportunity to replace that lie with the truth that we are not alone.
Relatability: Being in a group with people that can relate to me and my pain is incredibly comforting, just as it’s comforting to know that Jesus can relate with us on a human level. Isolation breeds fear and depression. Knowing that we are not the only one struggling, knowing that we are not alone, gives us hope. And hope makes the process of change bearable.
Vulnerability: Being vulnerable means I have to put words to my feelings and then I have to hear myself say those words to other people. Then the group asks me questions about what they heard. This process is painful, but like I tell the guys in my group—the alternative is worse. The alternative is to be covered in self-hatred and shame with no hope for change, in total isolation and confusion because of all the lies floating around my head. Vulnerability is hard but not being vulnerable is actually more difficult.
Consistency: Brené Brown says, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.” After my first accountability group meeting, I knew that even though it was awkward and painful, I just needed to keep showing up. The guys were going to love me, encourage me, pray for me, celebrate with me and pick me up when I fell. At times when my sin increased, grace increased even more. And that is about the time when I realized that this was not just a group of Christians, this was the body of Christ consistently shouldering my burdens.
Grace: When God shows us grace, it does not mean that he lets us off the hook or lets us get by with sin. Grace means that God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. So when I am in the pit and there is no way out, my group members can remind me of the truth of the gospel: I am loved, rescued and redeemed. I am not alone in the pit, and actually there is no pit at all, Jesus is with me and he is paving the way for me to get back out there. This gives me hope again to trust that Jesus will continue his work in me until it is complete. I just need to trust the process: confession, relatability, vulnerability, consistency and grace.
What can the church do?
Not everyone deals with addictive behavior, but all of us need to be transformed and being in true community is the only way it happens. Church services are important and valuable to grow in Christ. It is good to worship corporately and to have the Bible preached in a coherent manner. But there just is not time in the hour and 15 minutes that we give to a church service to have everyone confess, pray, celebrate, listen, encourage, cry with and in short carry everyone’s burdens.
Our small groups, though, can do all that and more. The problem is our small groups often function at a surface level. Men and women eat and play games and talk about the weather or how awesome their favorite college basketball team is. No one really gets vulnerable. No one gets real.
When did the church become a place for people who have it all figured out? How did it change from a gathering of messed up people who love Jesus to a place where Pharisees would feel comfortable? I am not saying that church should look exactly like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but I am asking the question: Where does change happen consistently? I think the church can learn from and begin to practice what is at the heart of AA and other recovery groups: small groups of people who know they desperately need God.
How can this be done? Don’t worry, it is not a new flashy program. There is nothing to download onto your computer. Churches don’t need another line item in the budget. What you do need are small groups defined by the five practices that lead to change:
• Space for confession,
• Freedom to express doubts and questions,
• Opportunities for silence and other forms of prayer,
• Grace and acceptance as defining characteristics rather than relationships that are conditional in nature, and
• Consistent meetings.
God sent me someone named Riley. Could he be sending you? All you need is to be sensitive to the five practices that lead to real change, several chairs in a circle and one hour each week. God can do a lot with these ingredients—he has brought about change in my life and he can do it for you too.
Kevin Larson is a resident educator at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college in Hillsboro, Kansas, which means he and his wife, Jill, and their three children live on campus in a residence hall apartment. For a decade, Larson was a youth pastor at two different churches, including Garden Valley MB Church, Garden City, Kan. The Larsons attend Hillsboro MB Church and Kevin serves on the Southern District Youth Commission where he works with the junior high youth conference.