Symptoms of a Healthy Small Group

I have posted several articles on the need for small groups in the church. It doesn’t matter if the small group meets in a church, a home, a restaurant, or in a park—they just need to meet. During these meetings people learn to trust, depend on, and care for one another; thus ensuring that close lasting relationships are formed.

Ed Stetzer elaborates on this topic in his post “Five Characteristics of Transformative Small Groups.” These characteristics would be good to take back to your small group to help evaluate your effectiveness.

Stetzer writes:

As culture drifts more and more toward individualism, transformational churches are taking on the responsibility of moving people into authentic relationships with each other, many through the instigation and encouragement of small groups. Though a hermeneutically responsible scriptural case cannot be made specifically for the institute of small groups, the Bible does offer examples of the need for and benefits of small units of community.

In Exodus 18, Jethro approaches Moses and says, “What you’re doing is not good . . . You will certainly wear out both yourself and these people” (Ex. 18:17-18). The principle here is applicable for pastors, church leaders, and members: when people do not have small units of connection and relationship, it wears everyone out – the pastors and leaders because they are constantly working to fulfill that need for connection; the members because they are unable to be in the nurturing relationships that they need but cannot necessarily have with pastors or leaders. Similarly, small units of community allow people to “carry one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) in a way that simply is impossible in large group settings. Therefore, Scripture favors small settings for accomplishing genuine community.

In addition to scriptural favor toward small units, the institution of small groups addresses significant cultural needs. In Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam explains the shift in our culture away from community and toward “cocooning.” Think about it. People used to bowl in leagues. They’d wear funny shirts, go in groups, and bowl together. Now, leagues are a fraction of what they used to be, and people bowl alone. Similarly, while we used to have front porches, now we have back decks. We have home theaters and home gyms. As a result of this societal shift, the nuclear family is nuclearized into small units, disconnected from others along the way. However, I believe a shift back toward interpersonal relationships is taking place.

Why is this shift happening in the church? Because small groups are meeting the needs of people to grow in faith by learning in a community with some purpose. We want and need to be connected– it is not good to be alone– so that we can grow and help one another.

Most of these needs can be best met in small groups, where people are able to mature in their faith as they respect, appreciate, listen to, and hear those in community alongside them.

Though Christians experience the need for authentic community, they often need nudging to acknowledge and live in the reality of that need – not unlike many of us who understand our need for exercise, but require encouragement to participate and, thus, enjoy the benefits! In the church setting, small groups provide an opportunity to encourage people into life-changing community. However, the significance of small groups goes beyond the benefits of personal life change and becomes crucial for the transformational church. Five important facets of small groups demonstrate their transformative nature:

1. Connectible: Small groups connect people in relationships. According to William Hendricks in Exit Interviews, one common reason given by people who leave churches is a failure to connect in relationship. Small groups provide a comfortable environment for newcomers to connect.

2. Reproducible: In human growth, multiplication allows the cell to become multiple cells, which allows change and growth to occur. Similarly, for growth to occur in the church, people groups must continuously grow and multiply. Small groups are more easily multiplied than large groups.

3. Assimilative: Just as small groups connect newcomers to the church through relationships, small groups assimilate members to ministry through service. As people in small groups grow in relationship together, they will readily serve alongside others and integrate into ministry opportunities.

4. Transformative: Small groups allow individuals to experience faster and deeper personal transformation through authentic community. For non-Christian seekers, small groups provide a safe setting to ask questions in a community of people who also wrestle and struggle. Thus, when they do come to faith in Christ, they are more likely to experience authentic life-change having been in and remaining in community.

5. Transferable: Small groups can be excellent ways to start churches. As an essential element of the transformational church, church planting generally necessitates a core group of people who are sent out to reach a new area.

Small groups provide the transformational church with an opportunity to connect members in genuine relationships. Through interpersonal relationships, small group members will experience life-change as they fulfill their need for community in an individualistic society. Ultimately, as small groups grow and multiply, so will the church.

Five Obstacles Facing Small Groups

Here is the final article by Thom Rainer from his series on small groups.

Rainer writes:

Over the past two weeks, we’ve covered the five myths facing small groups as well as the five benefits of small groups. Unfortunately, there are still challenges and obstacles that hinder transformation in and through small groups.

The first obstacle to transformational small communities is that the transference of information is valued much more than life transformation. Biblical illiteracy is a problem in North America and even the church. But the work of a small group or Sunday School class does not end when the members can all find Thessalonica on the map in the back of their Bibles. The purpose of community must be to engender the desire and see the effects of transformation. Somewhere between biblical literacy and biblical minutia we find spiritual maturity. Knowledge puffs up and cannot be the goal alone. Transformation includes biblical learning, but it does not end with it.

Another obstacle to transformational small communities is that teaching is valued more than learning. We have already pointed out the danger of only recruiting the uber-qualified as leaders for classes and groups. The goal must be that people are joyfully learning, not that one person is happy teaching. Leaders should focus as much on application of the truth as the delivery of it. For small groups to be transformational, they should include monologue and dialogue. Leaders of groups should always have these questions in mind:

  1. How well are members applying God’s truth?
  2. Where is each participant with the Lord?

Remember the agenda is Christ being formed in the lives of those involved in your small group.

The third obstacle to small communities is when they become a reflection of past practices. Churches with a strong history and tradition can be closed to deeper discussions and questions. They have done groups a certain way for years. The way is safe. The connection is important. Group life is a tool of God for His purposes, not an institutional expectation. Groups provide the opportunity to live life on life.

The fourth small communities’ obstacle is a segmentation of the mission of God. The mission of small communities is not to teach the Bible only. Every expression of church owns all the mission of God. Your smaller community owns the mission of God. You have been called and empowered. The danger of segmentation is great. The smaller communities say that is not their role. Our purpose is to get through the study, they think. Instead, every small group could adopt a nation in the world or a people group. We are going to go. We are going to connect. We own the mission of God.

The fifth small communities’ obstacle is a lack of intimacy. We use the term community freely, yet there are multiple layers of community. Community in a broad sense is achieved around common interests. The most concrete example of community is your local neighborhood. You may not have any significant conversations with your neighbors, even though you have lived on the same street for years. Normally if there is a series of break-ins on your block or another neighborhood crisis, you start talking to your neighbors. You now share a common interest: the security of your personal property. Although new friendships can begin because of the mutual interest and corresponding conversations, you only experience community on a shallow level.

The next level of community is critical for a smaller group to become transformational. The word is communitas. Communitas is a threshold or space where deeper sharing and conversations take place. The dynamic of a deeper level or threshold of sharing is not automatic. The smaller group becomes a safe zone where deeper questions and struggles can be discussed. The environment is relaxed and open. People can pray for one another in the moment. People can pray (and do in a transformational small group) beyond living rooms and meeting times. More conversations evolve outside the meeting. Actions and accountability take place.

What obstacles are small group facing? Are you developing true community?

Five Benefits of Small Groups

Here is part two of Thom Rainer’s  three-part series on small groups.

Rainer writes:

Last week, I wrote on the five myths of small groups. This week, I turn my attention to five deliverables of small groups. For a church to have transformational small groups, it must first recognize how its small groups will equip participants for the mission of God and the cause of Christ.

Today I examine how the activity of community within the context of small groups results in transformed lives.

Deliverable 1: Smaller communities deliver deeper friendships.

As our churches continue to grow larger, they must also grow smaller to connect people on a transformational level. We may not like to admit it, but we know when we are known, and we like it better that way. It has been said that our own name is the sweetest word in the world to us. Nothing is more personal and unique. Nothing gets a quicker or more emotional response.

For transformation to take place, we must know and invest in relationships with one another. By joining other Christians in small-group communities, believers can find the environment where life change can often occur most readily.

Deliverable 2: Smaller communities deliver accountability relationships.

The most valuable takeaway in a smaller community is the person sitting beside me. Our lives become a weekly narrative to one another of God’s faithfulness and our response. Connecting to a small group of friends means that we leave our halo at the door. The accountability living in a class or group helps us to live in the transformation brought about by Christ.

It might sound a bit strange, but the local church needs more provoking. We read, “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). In the KJV the word promote is translated “provoke,” which provides a more vivid picture. We like the word provoke because it feels a bit more aggressive . . . of course in a positive, Christian way. Our nature is to be a sinner and drift away from God and His purposes. We need a bit of positive provocation to keep us on path through the accountability of friends.

So small groups cannot be just another program provided to those interested in . . . small groups. Smaller communities must be part of a commitment to spur one another on in our Christian commitment.

Deliverable 3: Smaller communities deliver environments for spiritual growth.

Attraction may get someone in the front door of a church on Sunday morning. The unchurched, previously churched, and church shoppers are looking for excitement, energy, and creativity. Churches have never been better at producing solid Sunday morning environments. But relational connection and life transformation in small groups will move them beyond the spectator level.

Also, what attracts them into the front door will not translate into personal transformation even if they attend multiple times. Initially they may only feel comfortable enjoying and engaging at a distance, but something must make them more involved in the action. One visit a week or a few visits a month are less evasive with less results. The nature of a smaller group results in another connecting point. In most churches new attendees only see multiple layers of structure and little relational space. Connecting them to a small community is critical for their spiritual journey.

Deliverable 4: Smaller communities deliver maximum participation.

Even the normal size church (seventy-five on Sunday morning) is driven by its worship service and is limited in the number of people who can participate. Transformational small groups require more than just attendance. Attendees must take responsibility for the long-term functionality of the group. The more responsibilities can be distributed, the healthier the group becomes. We believe in small communities that give everyone a job. Prayer leaders, home hosts, greeters, communications leaders, facilitators, and community mission leaders are just a few job opportunities in a small group. Normally small-group jobs are simple and do not require knowledge or experience. The group belongs to the group. When we get maximum participation, we get maximum buy-in for people engaged in God’s mission. That matters.

People need to move from sitting in rows to sitting in circles. Sitting in rows you are watching someone else using their gifts. You are more a passive spectator than an active participant. Small groups help people move from sitting in rows to sitting in circles and from sitting in circles to going into the world.

Deliverable 5: Smaller communities deliver missional opportunities.

The small groups in your church must be more than social or study groups. If they are biblical communities, something else must happen. They must be filled with people who hold to a missionary mentality ready to engage in the mission of the church. Mission will provide the glue for the group.

The group and classes will serve to minister to the members. But to keep the members ever transforming to look like Jesus, they must be given the opportunity to help the community reflect the kingdom of God. The goal of a group must be the multiplication of disciples for Jesus.

What is your small group delivering? Are you producing true disciples? Are you provoking one another to good deeds?

Five Myths about Small Groups

Here is the first of a three-part series by Thom Rainer on small groups.

Rainer writes:

Discipleship is a hot topic within the local church right now. This is a good thing since it’s an essential component of the Great Commission. Making disciples is one of the primary functions of the church as well as one of the most important measurements of church health.

Discipleship manifests itself in the local church most often through small groups. But building effective small groups takes a lot of work, and can be difficult to implement. They often struggle to be successful and transformational because of wrong expectations, beliefs, or myths about how they work best.

Myth 1: Your current small-group configuration is permanent.

Jesus’ small-group configuration was for about three years. Proof texting you might say? I don’t think so. How important was this small group to God’s plan? Our current small groups are direct descendents from that first one. The one method of a group represented by Jesus and the apostles would not be constituted as the killer app. But the group was a critical component. More was coming.

Notice also, much was going on in the discussions. All the discussions of the disciples did not happen while the facilitator (Jesus) was in the room.

The configuration and context changed after the Lord’s ascension. New clusters developed. New people were introduced into the groups. A transformational group is one that adjusts as needed to encourage growth of the group and growth in the members of the group. Just as you rearrange the furniture in the house to accommodate changes in life, a group adjusts to accommodate changes in the community or church.

Myth 2: Small-group meeting locations are limited to church facilities or member homes.

If small groups are transformational, the math is simple: More Groups = More Life Change.

So here are a couple of key questions: What are some other places for small groups? How can you help facilitate them? How can you celebrate them? Small groups can gather at work, school, coffee shops, health clubs, or under a tree somewhere.

A practical question is, Where are small groups already naturally meeting? Service and leadership teams are one example. They gather in or around your church facility to take care of church responsibilities. With unlimited possibilities for the time and place of small-group community, your church can leverage every meeting for life change.

Myth 3: Your facilitator must be a highly trained spiritual superstar.

Having a group of excellent teachers is good. But more than any other trait, small-group facilitators and Sunday School leaders need love for the people if you want to have transformational small groups. They need communication, resources, and encouragement. But they must, above all else, love God and His work in people.

If you place the standard for teaching skills too high, it can be counterproductive to your small-group structure. It can limit how many groups you can multiply. The goal of “excellent teaching” should be replaced with “effective teaching.” Excellent teaching is characterized through teacher led and dominated class experience. Effective teaching is based upon taking class participants from where they are presently to a preferred future.

Setting the standard for teaching skills too high will cause members to choose groups based on the leader. The dark side of recruiting only superstar leaders is reinforcing a celebrity-obsession mentality in the church. Our small communities ought to be consumed with seeing all lives changed, not personal entertainment by an astounding lesson week after week. When people choose attending a particular group solely because of the leader, it builds unhealthy competition between the groups and suppresses the missional impulse for multiplication. After all, who wants to go start over in a new group when Superman Stan is our teacher?

I’m not advocating throwing out all standards for small-group leaders. But I am asking you to think about where to set the bar that communicates the reason for pursuing community in the body of Christ.

Myth 4: Small-group organization must be complex.

Simple is the word of the day. In fact, I have written two books on the subject, Simple Church and Simple Life. If we want more groups and even a transforming movement of small groups throughout our community, then we will make things simple. Many of the reasons for simple have already been given in this current list of myths.

The small-group system must not become so rigid that it is unchangeable. I’ve both served effective churches with small groups and traditional Sunday School as our small-community delivery system. The complexity (which can be avoided) comes when the same leaders, in the same rooms, with mostly the same participants, spend extended time together. The lack of focus on a simple system that is easily reproducible results in a self-centered system that becomes inflexible over time.

Myth 5: Only pastors are qualified to administer pastoral care.

As a church begins to grow, the paid staff is unable to keep pace with pastoral care needs. But people still need to be touched with grace, mercy, and sometimes admonished in their Christian walk. Unfortunately, many churches have adopted a clergification model of ministry. They consider missionaries the supremely spiritual people who go to far-flung places to preach. Pastors and staff are next, and they are paid to do the local ministry. Then there’s the rest of us who “pay, pray, and get out of the way.” The only problem—this is not a biblical system.

Churches practicing transformational community expect that ministry can occur even when a person with “Reverend” before their name is not present. God knew we would all need a form of pastoral care, and so He formed the body of Christ with the necessary gifts and abilities to share His grace from one person to another. No professional degree required. Transformational small groups are alive with ministry to one another.

What are the challenges you face in your small groups? What have you tried that was successful?

Small Group Etiquette

I think small group Bible studies are one of the best ways for Christians to grow in Christ. It is an opportunity to listen, share, and learn from others who may be further along in their Christian walk. However, if small groups are going be productive for everyone in attendance, then there are a few simple rules that should be followed. If not, then discussion can disintegrate into prideful arguments which do more damage than good.

Randall Chase gives some helpful advice to ensure that Christ is glorified by all during biblical discussions.

Chase writes:

Point One: Remember true relationship building is going to have the greatest lasting impact. This means that it’s not about how well you argue a point if the person that you’re speaking to doesn’t respect you as an individual enough to receive what you’re saying. While you may get the point across, chances are he will not develop a lasting, life-altering outcome. The old saying “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” holds true even in the world of apologetics. This is the case too in the event of large debates, where two speakers are standing in front of an audience. The two speakers must have enough respect for one another to remain calm and collected, otherwise it simply becomes an argument. Not much is usually gained through simple argument. 

Point Two: Don’t speak beyond your knowledge base. Nothing kills an argument or discussion quicker than when you throw out a piece of information that you simply looked up online or pulled from a blog and you can’t verify it. And NEVER make something up. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.” This not only builds your credibility as a researcher but it also opens the door for follow-up conversations. Just remember that true research requires honest research. The following quote speaks volumes:

One of the most disastrous illusions of the internet age is that an amateur plus Google is equivalent to a scholar. A search engine offers information, more or less relevant according to the skill of the searcher. But it does not sift that information; it does not sort fact from fancy, wheat from chaff… A bright amateur armed with the internet may at best be better informed than he would otherwise have been, and he may occasionally catch a real scholar in a factual error. But it will not turn him into a scholar himself. There is no such thing as effortless erudition. —Dr. Timothy McGrew

Point Three: Always be willing to learn. There is a great need for learning and growing in the field of apologetics, before you ever get to the point that you can share what you have learned with others. You need to grow in your personal understanding of the truth claims in Scripture. Partly because at this point most aren’t on the level of public debating, but rather we’re just beginning to understand what it means to teach and how to organize an apologetics program. Everyone has to start somewhere, from C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, and even Thomas Aquinas. They all began learning and growing at some point in their relationship with God. Likewise, they all started attaining to be more educated and learned in apologetics. The goal isn’t to be a better arguer, but rather the goal is to first grow more in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Then with this we can share the truth.

We see clearly that Jesus calls us to Love him with our entire mind. When He was talking to an Expert in the Law in Luke, one can see that there is just as much importance placed on Loving God with his Heart, as there is with loving Him with his Mind.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Luke 10:25-29

If your ultimate goal is simply to learn how to debate well and win an argument there’s other classes for that. This class should be the edifying and building up of fellow believers with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit within our life, and eventually to share the truth of the gospel with those around us. Each person has a different reason for desiring to grow apologetically. My personal desire was to be able to build up and edify in the mission field. Now understand: mission fields are not always some far off overseas place but they may be your neighborhood, school, or place of business. Start in your own backyard this is where God calls us first; it is our Jerusalem as in referencing to Acts 1:8.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Point Four: Listen first, respond second. Understand that when you do learn about your faith and the faith of others that you are maintaining a solid grasp on truth. This type of training isn’t done so you can dominate the debate. Remember the key is compassion. When you speak to someone of a different faith or lack thereof, you must make sure they see first your compassion and then they are more likely to hear you. You must also learn the art of listening—this is one of the greatest lost art forms. So often if you watch debates with others or listen to conversations, people are so focused on getting their point out there that they neglect to listen and respond to the others concerns. This will immediately put you a leg up if you are willing to listen before you respond and then respond appropriately to the concerns laid out before you.

Sometimes its just takes a person verbalizing a concern or hurt they have to begin a healing process for them, or to help them to understand the truth. Along with this know that when you do present something that is different from what they have thought and believed it may come as a shock to them. Oftentimes when I am speaking on the subject of the historicity of Christ, I am met with disdain and repugnance; once I am able to clearly elucidate the truth of the historical claims to Christ I am met with positive questions rather than smart retorts. Remember above all else you are representing Christ in all things, therefore do not get sucked into the trap of the quips and snide comebacks. These will shut the open mind of the genuine seeker quicker than anything. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:2

You can change the mind quickly, but changing the heart takes time.

Rethinking the Small Group Focus

Small groups within a church are clearly a great way to develop disciples. Within these groups are great opportunities to grow intimate relationships with other believers. These growing relationships can demonstrate the love, compassion, support, and encouragement found within the body of Christ. However, these attributes will not be seen or experienced by those needing Christ unless our small groups invite those without Christ to become a part of the group.

As a small group family grows closer, fears can begin to arise about bringing others into the group. The end result is a small group that is organized to meet “our need” for friendship, spiritual growth, encouragement, and support. These are not bad in themselves; however, when we limit them to “our group” then we have become a private club, not Christ-followers seeking to make disciples. Disciples should focus on personal growth, but a growth which equips them to be better disciple makers.

Logan Gentry shines a bright light on the need of small groups to get past their fears of growing in his post, “Community on Mission with Depth of Intimacy.”

Gentry writes:

 Small groups have become a staple in the American church as a way of cultivating friendships, developing community, and encouraging spiritual formation. Pastors and other small group leaders often cite Acts 2:42-47 as the model for such community devoted to God and devoted to one another through shared time, resources, and space. But there is growing sentiment for small groups to fulfill the rest of that passage—God adding to their numbers daily—by extending the gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers.

We love to study the Scriptures and discuss the glorious truth of the gospel with one another, and we enjoy spending time with fellow believers. Yet we’re often fearful and uneasy about what will happen if we invite people who do not believe as we do into these environments. What will happen to our intimacy? What will happen to our deep community?

I worried about the same things when church leaders first asked me to transition my community group toward an outreach focus. Now, as a pastor seeking to foster community, I’m encouraging others to transition their groups, and they’re reacting with the same skepticism. One particularly apprehensive community group pushed back hard during a couple tense lunches. They feared the destruction of their friendships and community developed over the last three years as a closed group. This community group was the reason they stayed at our church—even stayed in our city.

We all desire to be known in community, to have friendships with people we trust and enjoy. We long for a community like the one described in Romans 12:15 that rejoices when we rejoice and grieves when we grieve. But what if intimacy and community isn’t the end goal of small groups?

When Jesus Blew Up the Small Group Model

While most small groups aim to develop and maintain Christian community, Christ himself built a community around him that reflected a different goal. The group aimed to exalt God among believers and non-believers alike. They sought to spread worship and enjoyment of God above all things.

As I read the Scriptures alongside books like Total Church by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch, and others, I began to discover what the community groups I led were missing. Our community wasn’t a failure, but it was incomplete. Community had become an end to our mission rather than the context for it. We had embraced the blessings and transformation of the gospel as a community, but we did not seek to extend these benefits to others. I came to realize we needed to radically redefine our purpose for small groups.

We often seek to develop intimacy through conversation, confession, and prayer within a small group that grows together with time and trust. Burt actually, we tend to form our lasting friendships through shared experiences, shared time, and shared mission. This insight reflects what we see in Scripture with Jesus and his disciples along with the early church. Luke 10 show us Jesus opening up and sharing his compassionate mission with his disciples. They celebrate together when the disciples return from mission. The relationship between mission and community extends throughout the book of Acts.

In my own life, as my community has taken a concern for the people in my life who I desire to know Christ and follow him with their lives, our relationships have gone deeper. Our conversations no longer center on the surface level of catching up on activities since we’ve last seen one another. When they ask about the things I love the most (God and people), I feel more cared for and connected, because these friends reveal that they know my heart and share my compassion and mission for others.

The same thing happened in our church’s community groups that initially resisted change. Over the first year of the transition, they began opening their community and inviting co-workers, neighbors, and even their doorman. Their community began to grow to beyond capacity. Six months later, during a training meeting, another community group leader expressed the same concern about destroying community by expanding the group. I asked one of the other leaders to answer. “We were expecting it to hurt our friendships,” he said, “but it was the exact opposite.”

This moment felt almost scripted, but it was joyful to see the truths of Scripture and the promises of God lived out in our midst. It was a powerful celebration of God’s work as we fought through the fears and apprehensions to value the gospel of Jesus Christ more than our conception of community.

How Does This Work Out?

Practically, this shift does not require the community to sacrifice their conversation, confession, or prayer together, but it may realign the context and focus. Often we seek to cram Bible study, discussion, confession, and prayer into a two-hour block on a weeknight, which usually means one of them gets sacrificed (often prayer because we this time will lead to drawn-out requests).

Instead, we may develop gender-specific, Christ-centered accountability groups outside our regularly scheduled small group meeting. This may seem like an additional burden, but it’s part of approaching your regular life with more intentionality. I’ve often heard it said that you don’t have to do different things, but do things differently. Jeff Vanderstelt of Soma Communities describes this as living ordinary life with gospel intentionality.

Many small groups have only a façade of intimacy because they do not help members reach friends and neighbors they want to know Christ. A small group that reflects the focus of the Acts community to love God, one another, and others becomes a community on mission with depth of intimacy.