During my days as a missionary in Alaska, I came to appreciate the pace of life on the Last Frontier. Life was slow, outside, and together. The community was small, and we didn’t have to meet for coffee or design time to sit in a room and look at one another. Instead, long hours putting wood up for the winter, or paddling out to the glacier, or canning freshly smoked fish created organic environments for mutual discipleship. Life in the city, though, that is another story! Your co-pilgrims are multitudinous and spread far. And Life is fast. Life is full–often, too full, and if we don’t schedule time together, nothing is going to happen. But both lifestyles contain the same issue: how do we intentionally focus time on building into one another?
Small groups are by far one of the most practical means of caring for one another in a busy, distracted world. If you have ever spent time in a a church setting, the chances are pretty high that you have been asked to lead, or at least to participate in a small group. My introvert friends go running for the hills, but the extroverts eagerly join all available options.
I have struggled with participating in small groups for a number of reasons: my inconsistent schedule, a preference to teach more than to learn (aka pride), a selfish focus on the benefits for me rather than on what I can contribute, general exhaustion after long days of work. . . I could come up with other reasons, but in the end, its not you, its me.
But small groups are important. So, below you will find a series of questions that anyone in church ministry should be asking about small groups when they are invited to lead (or even participate in) a small group.
What makes up a good small group?
Have you ever been a part of a bad small group? Maybe the group has been together for a long time and newcomers don’t feel welcome. Maybe there are too many people in one place to fellowship or hear each other, or maybe there are too few people participating to have a comfortable discussion. Gossip, lack of vulnerability, and inconsistent scheduling all are contribute to undesirable small group experience.
On the other hand, a good small group is open and welcoming, consistently building relationships that encourage and challenge each other to grow. The best small group is rooted in a love for each other. Delicious treats, both salty and sweet, also contribute to a good small group, creating a context where community begins to happen.
What kind of small groups might you participate in?
It is easy to think that small groups all take one form or shape–the one your most familiar with. However, many possibilities exist for different types of small groups, and some groups may include combinations of the types below:
- Individual session: You might be asked to participate in one session of a group that meets regularly, but that you don’t attend. Find out as much about the purpose of your attendance and the attendees as possible.
- Weekly or Semi-Weekly Group: Some groups will meet every week. Others every other week, or at other regular intervals. Whatever the schedule, consistency is the key!
- Demographic Groups: Age, gender, and season of life are all illustrations of the demographic elements used to form some small groups. By way of illustration, small groups are the bread and butter of youth ministry, so the group may be comprised of 8th grade girls who live in Somewhereville north of the church.
- Bible Study: The Bible Study group is the most frequent shape of most small groups I have attended. The group might be coed or not, multi-generational or a single life status, require rigorous preparation for all participants or just show up.
- Discussion: A small group might focus on a recently published Christian book or a specific topic that impacts life.
- Book Club: The local library isn’t the only group that can host a book club. This type of small group might examine a popular book as an opportunity to build relationship with neighbors.
- Prayer Group: A small group might meet together to pray about one area of life or ministry. This might be a group that gathers to pray for the pastor or missionaries on Sunday morning or a group of moms who pray for their kids at public school.
- Evangelistic study: This type of small group meets specifically to explore the claims of Christianity. They may work through the Gospel of Luke (written to Greeks who had no background to the Scriptures, whereas the Gospel of John was written for a second generation of the church where were struggling to believe and obey, but that is a post for another day) or a specific study like Christianity Explored.
What do you want people to know, do, think at the end of your time?
What is the objective of the small group? Do people need fellowship with believers more than they need instruction? Do they need to learn how to pray? Are there specific skills that attendees need to learn for more effective study or communication of the Bible and the Gospel? How would you answer this question: “At the end of this study, the participant will be able to. . .” That’s your objective. Then everything you do points to that skill or knowledge.
What are the various roles of the small group leader?
If you have been asked to participate in the leadership of a small group, there are a number of roles that need to be fulfilled. Depending on the size of the church, sometimes one person will need to accomplish more than one role. Other times, roles can be shared among several participants.
- Teacher: Based on the type of study, someone needs to study to prepare to teach. In addition to a teaching a lesson, the teacher will usually provide discussion questions to direct the formal interaction around the topic or passage.
- Manger: This person is the schedule maintainer, the person who reminds people that study is coming and gives any necessary updates along the way.
- Host: This person is responsible for providing the hospitable context and making sure that people feel welcome into whatever space the group might meet in. Hospitality is the act of anticipating people’s needs. By way of personal experience, it can be difficult sometimes for the teacher to also act as the host as generally either the teaching or the hosting will suffer.
What kind of participants can you expect in a small group?
As with any gathering of humanity, a small group will consist of a variety of personalities. It is part of the teacher’s role to recognize personal agendas of the talkative and draw out the quiet people in discussion.
- The Know-it-all: This participant grew up in Sunday School and had the fastest Bible in the Sword Drill. They are quick to answer, slow to listen, and would rather hear their own voice than listen to anyone else’s. Sometimes, the teacher has to gently break in and resteer the discussion. “What I hear you saying is ‘X.’ Does anyone else have any comments about this topic?”
- The Know-nothing: This is the outgoing person who is new to Christianity. They wouldn’t know Paul if bumped into him on the Damascus road, and the theological constructs that your group bandies about is like a foreign language. “Propitiation, What?” This person is eager to learn and asks a lot of questions. They are good to remind the Know-it-all just how exciting and foundational the Gospel is.
- The Quiet One: A genuine introvert will not always speak up in a group setting or discussion. But still waters often do run quite deep, and it is the teacher’s joy to find ways to gently bring that out for the group. “Hey, Jim-Bob. I know you have been thinking about X. How do you think that impacts Y and Z?”
- The Emotional Wreck. While the previous three people typically follow the same behavioral pattern, at one point or another, everyone has a significantly bad day… or month…or season. And in a caring environment, sometimes that floods out. I think of my friend who had just had a miscarriage. She went to a small group, and her tears were strangely unwelcome. That IS the setting for those tears. Yes, God works all things for good, and Yes, He is sovereign in loss, but those are not the first words she needed to hear. Let’s weep with those who weep. That’s what community is for.
- Many, Many Others: Chronic Complainer, Phone Scroller, Over-Sharer, Sullen Spouse… You get the idea.
There is more to cover, but this is getting too long. Part 2 will cover asking questions and Part 3 will include a practical method of quickly preparing a simple, worshipful small group lesson plan.