One truth that has emerged from small groups is that there is no one right way to do small groups. Just as there are many mansions in God’s house, so there are many different needs in God’s body, the church, and today we are much more able to find a group somewhere that is designed to meet those needs.
God has placed many different gifts in his people to meet those needs. Indeed, we are a Body. In his grand design we exercise those gifts with each other and help each other grow. The small group is one of the best ways for this to happen. So it is no surprise that churches desire to connect people in small groups.
Also, the local church has varying degrees of commitment to a small group program. For some, it is an add-on program, an option, or a part of what they offer. For others, the groups are integrated with the church’s mission and designed to deepen the life past what happens in a weekly service. For still others, the small group is not a part of what they do, it is what they do.
But no matter what the style, topic, or emphasis, there are specific tasks that effective small groups perform to produce the best growth. Understanding these tasks will help you as the leader to choose the activities and attitudes that promote the most growth during the group time.
1. A Second Family
An important aspect of any growth-producing group is that it provides a context for members to reexperience whatever they missed in life the first time around. Groups are like a second family for people. Whatever needs their original families or environments did not provide, or whatever they provided that the person did not need, the group restores and repairs. It is a second chance. Like little children, members should come with immaturities and needs, and the group helps them move to the next stage. Groups of people working like that repairing family are a large part of God’s process of maturing us: “God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6).
Groups connect. That is, they bring people together on a personal and heart-based level. Connection is the basis of any good work in a group. For a few minutes every week or so, members receive the experience of being attached, loved, and in relationship with likeminded people. Connection, far more than the information dispensed, keeps people coming to group. When people feel attached, they become much more invested in the process, and their hearts become more open to God, growth, and each other. As Paul entreated his friends, “As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:13).
3. Discipline and Structure
You will always see an element of discipline and structure in a good group. Though the group is based on a foundation of grace and acceptance, it also requires order and responsibility through clear expectations about members’ attendance, involvement, and participation. Good groups use discipline and structure to protect the time, the process, and the members from disruption. They understand that safety only comes when things are somewhat predictable and when people know that out-of-control behavior, for example, will be confronted and addressed. This is not about being mean, harsh, or punitive. It is about helpgin the group function as it should.
Prayer can be one of the small group’s most powerful tools for growth. God designed prayer as a way for people to connect with him for all the blessings of life. When we are present in groups in his name, Jesus is there, too: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Coming together for prayer in small groups connects people with God and each other. Corporate prayer brings people together in their faith and love for God and in their dependence on him and each other. It draws us close, vertically, and horizontally.
Healthy groups powerfully administer grace and forgiveness, the foundation from which all growth and healing stems. Good groups are based on, and are full of, grace and forgiveness. There really can be no lasting life change without these ingredients. Grace speaks to our weakness and inability, forgiveness to our many failures. Weakness, inability, and failure are the main reasons we need group, so that we may be strengthened in many areas of life. Without grace and forgiveness, the truth cannot come out. Make grace and forgiveness evident in every meeting. As we receive these gifts, so should we administer them to one another.
6. Support and Strengthening
Support and strengthening indicate that a group is doing the right things. When members become weak or discouraged, groups can help them become stronger and better able to handle life. Groups take our weakness and transform it into strength. People who can admit their weakness can also receive the strength the group offers, while those who must stay strong miss this blessing: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). As people begin to open up in group—whether about faith, relationship struggle, or a personal battle—they bring up things they simply don’t have the strength or courage to tackle, handle, or even face. These are the substance of group work, as they require group intervention and strengthening.
The term disciple means pupil or learner. In the Old Testament it also refers to one who is accustomed to something. These definitions describe well a significant part of what groups do in their members’ lives. That is, groups help individuals become learners of God’s ways by getting them accustomed, or acclimated, to righteous ways of living and relating. Groups model and teach one another by word and by experience that the things important to God work best for us. They help members experience the freedom that comes with being honest and taking ownership over their lives. Discipleship happens because the great laws are not only true, but work in profound ways in the group and in a member’s life.
A great Bible study to consider for your group that helps in benefit 7 above, is Rick Warren’s Created to Dream. In this 6-session video Bible Study, Rick Warren reveals how God uses six phases to develop your spiritual maturity while fulfilling the dreams God gives you. A great dream is a statement of faith. Whether you dream of creating something beautiful or accomplishing something incredible, your dream is the first step God uses to develop your spiritual maturity and change your life. The Bible is full of stories of people whose God-given dreams became reality—but to get there, they had to take a journey of faith.