Healthy Small Groups
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible: New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Begin your meeting by leading group members into God’s presence. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name” (Psalm 100:4). The worship leader leads best by worshipping God herself. Use tapes, CDs, instruments, group singing, thanksgiving for specific ways God’s grace has been experienced, or praising God using the names by which he has made himself known in Scripture.
If you have a worship team, your worship leader can train the small group leaders how to lead worship effectively. Vary the content of the worship portion of your meeting.
Begin your small group meeting with a worship segment. If you already do, get feedback from your members and seek to improve it.
Grow in Christ
Be the Steering Wheel
The “Jesus Factor” makes a small group Christian — “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Small groups in Alcoholics Anonymous help people, but a vague “Higher Power” can’t free people from sin like the resurrected Jesus can. “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:31-32, 36).
Small groups in the church are healthy only if Jesus is steering each member of the group. The hang-up isn’t so much a lack of knowledge as a lack of submission. Human nature rebels against being controlled, even by Jesus. It wants to drive. Growing in Christ requires letting Jesus drive. Having the whole Bible memorized without a willingness to let Jesus direct you won’t profit you. Be the steering wheel.
Healthy small groups meet the varied needs of each person when the Spirit of Jesus within directs and empowers each member. Do you know how to comfort a group member who is experiencing sorrow? Jesus knows. Do you know how to worship the Father in spirit and truth? Jesus does. How can the Bible teaching portion of group motivate members to hold to Jesus’ teaching? Jesus knows. How can you contribute to the group in a way that will build it up? Jesus knows that too. If you become the steering wheel, Jesus will drive.
Abiding in Christ is the spiritual anchor that holds the small group securely against the forces that would make it irrelevant (John 15:5). Jesus is the rock you can’t see on the bottom of the river of life, and your faith is the biting edge of the anchor that grips him. Your small group is securely anchored to the extent your members entrust Jesus with the steering wheel of life.
Repeatedly emphasize in your small group the value of submitting to Jesus’ control.
Eat Home-Cooked Meals
Children and Christians must eat to grow. Seeing pictures of food, listening to bacon sizzle in a pan, or sniffing apple pie baking in the oven won’t help you grow. You must eat. Similarly, hearing Bible lessons taught or stories about what God is teaching others in their daily devotions is no substitute for God’s working in and through your life. Spiritual maturity is home-cooked. You must spend time in the Bible daily and apply it to your life. No one can do it for you. God wants to do a unique work in each believer. Every member of a small group must learn to feed himself/herself from God’s word, to pray, and to obey. Spiritual maturity is home-cooked.
Spend part of your small group time sharing with an accountability partner what God has taught you in his word during last week’s devotions.
Passionate, joy-filled small group leaders in time produce passionate, joy-filled small group members. If your small group leaders don’t have spiritual passion, your small group members won’t either. Developing spiritual passion takes effort. Here are some suggestions to whip up something special in your spiritual kitchen:
1. Read Desiring God by John Piper, published by Multnomah Publishers, Inc., most recently in 2003.
2. Renew your spiritual, physical, and emotional strength by taking one day a week to focus on God and activities that renew you.
3. Use your time, talents, and finances to serve Christ. Someday you must give an account of how you used these gifts from God. Moreover, in the present, God dumps joy into your life with the same size measuring spoon you use to give your resources away. “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). Use a big spoon!
4. Eat properly, get sufficient rest, and exercise regularly. Emotional health, spiritual health, and physical health are interdependent.
5. When you pray, don’t do all the talking. Be quiet and listen for God’s still, small voice. Obeying his prompting brings joy. “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).
6. Pass on what God has taught you by mentoring someone. “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). You experience Jesus’ joy when you give to others. “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). See Healthy Leadership for details.
7. God designed you to experience joy when you use your natural and spiritual gifts to benefit others. Use them to minister to those in your group.
8. Yield to the Holy Spirit of Jesus every morning when you awake. Release control back as many times through the day
as you snatch it away through sin. You’re the steering wheel, not the driver.
9. Don’t put your faith on the shelf at home. Your relationship with your spouse, family, or closest friends is the testing ground and cutting edge of your faith.
10. Attend or schedule a prayer retreat that will challenge you spiritually.
11. Forgive everyone who has offended you. You can’t have joy and a passion for God and cling to bitterness and grudges. Light and darkness can’t coexist.
12. Give an accountability partner permission to ask you specific questions you select about your devotional life, your spiritual passion, and sins with which you wrestle.
Share in your small group your strategy to stoke the flames of your personal spiritual passion, with leaders going first.
Saturate with Prayer
The health of your small group depends on prayer like a fish depends on clean water. Leader, pray for your group members every day; group members, pray for your leader and apprentice leader daily. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Pray for one another’s needs and for lost persons by name every meeting and during your devotional life between meetings. Pray for God’s wisdom to know how the group can reach out to the lost and for him to prepare their hearts for this outreach. Use sentence prayers in group meetings to encourage members who find it difficult to pray aloud. Prayer’s primary motivation is to become more like Jesus.
The acrostic PRAYER will help you develop a balanced prayer life. It represents: Praise, Rely, Admit, Yield, Express thanks, and Request.
Praise: Honor and exalt God for who he is and what he’s done. Rely: Depend upon Jesus, his word, and his finished work on the cross, no matter what. Admit: Acknowledge the sins of which you’re guilty. Express thanks: Express gratitude to God for what he has done. Request: Ask God to supply what you need (petition) and what others need (intercession).
Develop a plan to generate self-sustaining prayer power in your small group.
Treat Sin Like a Splinter
You remove a splinter from your thumb because it hinders your ability to function. Confessing your sin removes a splinter from your spiritual life that pains both you and God. Confession is agreeing with God that you have committed a sin, naming it specifically, and expressing the desire, with his help, never to repeat it.
Ask God to reveal if you’re guilty of spiritual apathy, gossip, mistrust, unwillingness to forgive, loss of first love, impure thoughts, hesitancy, prayerlessness, worry, lust, lack of self-control, competition, pride, power struggles, unkind words, or fear. Confess the sins he reveals, and claim the forgiveness he offers in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Confess your “splinters” of sin in your small group prayer time, with leaders going first.
Focus on God’s Word
Make part of your small group meeting a study and application of God’s word. Use at least 50% of this time to apply God’s word to the nuts and bolts of everyday life. Choose resources that will help group members grow in their faith and equip them to help others grow in theirs. Use material such as the Running Together to Win Series, that group members can teach to others the same way it was taught to them.
Make your teaching time Bible-centered, at least 50% application-focused and reproducible.
Meet for a Reason
Socializing is fun, but it isn’t a sufficient reason to meet regularly as a Christian small group. An inwardly focused small group without a mission and specific goals is like a team that practices but never has any games! To understand how to develop core values, mission, vision, and goals, see Healthy Leadership.
The purpose of a Christian small group is to make more and better disciples, to love God completely, your neighbor as yourself and other believers as Jesus loves you. The small group meets the needs of its members and, through them, the needs of others who aren’t part of the group, both Christian and not-yet-Christian. Regularly evaluate your progress toward your goals, and make necessary adjustments to become more effective.
Unhealthy groups value fellowship, and perhaps, Bible teaching. Members don’t know one another as well as they think they do. They don’t know what causes each other pain. They don’t share with one another about areas in which they are struggling. They wear an “I’ve got it all together” mask. Relationships are shallow. Bible teaching is application-poor. The leader (teacher) is the doer and the members are spectators. There is no apprentice leader. Most members aren’t very excited or enthusiastic about their relationship with God. There is no evangelistic outreach. Most members have no defined role in the group based on their spiritual passion, natural and spiritual gifts, and personality. They might give money to various causes, but they rarely work together as a team to serve others. The group is essentially closed to outsiders, yet the members don’t think so. It has no written core values, mission, vision, or goals. Group members meet more out of habit than purpose.
Healthy small groups agree on their core values, are mission-driven, and have a vision of what God wants to do before he does it. They meet a broad range of their members’ needs, empower them to be all God created them to be, develop them as leaders, help them to love each other, stir up their spiritual passion, inspire them through worship, send them out to meet the needs of those who aren’t yet believers, use their gifts to minister to one another, and get maximum fruit from the ministry resources they spend.
Define your small group’s mission and the specific goals you’re pursuing to accomplish it. Frequently review these and evaluate progress during group meetings at least every three months.
Care for Each Other
The small group must be a safe place for each member to share struggles. Confidentiality is essential. What is said in the group stays there. To keep all members on the same page concerning confidentiality and other group values, ask each to sign a small group covenant (See Discipleship Tools #2 on this website).
The leader sets the pace by getting real first and to the greatest extent. If the leader expects each member to share at a 7 level on a 1-10 scale of openness, the leader must share at least at an 8 level. When leaders are real, group members are most likely to share where they are hurting with less fear of betrayal or rejection. If the leader confesses problems, members have permission to have problems too.
Present the small group covenant and its benefits to your group and challenge them to sign it.
In a healthy small group, individuals are accepted and loved for who they are. Picture the leader with wide-open arms representing Jesus who said, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). That kind of accepting atmosphere attracts and holds newcomers.
Newcomers in the worship service are an excellent source of new persons for your small group. Your church should use a tracking system that monitors the attendance of people in worship services to identify and follow-up guests. Small group members can visit these guests and invite them to come to a small group social event. There they can meet and get to know the members of the group. After the social event, invite them to come to a regular group meeting.
Small groups, like glue, hold newcomers in local churches. When they visit your small group, make sure they are introduced and told they can be as involved or uninvolved as they want while they are checking out the group. They don’t have to say or do anything unless they want to. Show them a copy of the small group covenant to communicate what the group values.
Develop a strategy to bring new people into your group and make them feel welcome. Frequently evaluate your effectiveness and make necessary adjustments to your strategy.
In unhealthy small groups, members see one another only in group meetings and other church-sponsored events. Outside these activities, they live almost totally independently of one another. That might be the American way, but it isn’t the Christian way.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).
Relationships are developed by doing things together. A team must be built. Unity does not happen automatically just because you’re all in the same small group. Eat together. Work together. Play together. Pray together. Worship together. Study together. Connect with other group members in these ways at least once each month. Celebrate one another’s successes. Serve each other. When someone in the group has a need, the others rally around. Speak the truth to one another, but say it with love. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6).
Use shared activities outside group meetings to strengthen relationships among group members.
Assign a role in the small group to each member based on spiritual gifts, spiritual passion, temperament, and natural abilities. In addition to the small group leader, other ways to serve could include apprentice leader, song leader, worship leader, host/hostess, prayer leader, discussion leader, activities leader, outreach director, ministry matchmaker, ministry project leader, etc. No spectators are allowed.
The small group helps members put their faith to work. First, they discover how God made them and then a ministry that fits them. As others coach or mentor them in their area of giftedness and they become even more skilled, they experience a sense of fulfillment they have never known before. The God of the universe is using them. May they never get over the thrill!
Finding one’s ministry is at times trial and error. Give group members freedom to fail in their ministry. If at first you don’t succeed…you’re just about average! Failure isn’t final. Those afraid to fail are afraid to experiment. Fear of failure is worse than failure. Failure is stumbling. Fear of failure is paralysis.
Soak group members with oceans of encouragement. Look for what they’re doing right and commend them for it. Applaud them for trying, and clearly communicate an expectation that every group member should have a ministry that brings joy and fulfillment.
Train small group leaders or someone in each small group how to match persons with the right ministry. Check Healthy Ministry for a tool that could be helpful.
Develop a role for each person in your small group consistent with spiritual gifts, passion, temperament, and life experience.
Everything your small group does must be relevant to each member and to those to whom you’re ministering. When you’re scratching where your group members itch, you don’t have to worry about them dropping out. When you’re relevant to those to whom you’re ministering, you’re building bridges of love that will lead many to Christ and some into your group. When your group helps people in and outside it live life fully (John 10:10), where could they go to get something better?
Every three months ask small group members to circle the best answer to the following statement:
The activities of my small group are relevant to my life and meet my needs:
a. to a very great extent (0)
b. to a great extent (1)
c. average (2)
d. hardly (3)
e. not at all (4)
Identify specific problem areas and make necessary adjustments so that the average answer is at least “to a great extent” (1.0 or lower).
The health and size of your small group ministry and church depend on the quality and quantity of your leaders. Don’t wait for more leaders to appear. “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38), and then put legs on your prayers and develop them.
Apprenticeship is an excellent way to develop leaders. Choose a teachable apprentice based on character, gifts, faithfulness, availability, humility, and obedience. Don’t expect the maturity of a seasoned leader.
Make spending time together a priority. That’s how Jesus trained his disciples. You could meet with an apprentice an hour a week after the small group meeting. Pray with him/her, discuss and evaluate the small group meeting, plan for future meetings, and assign responsibilities. Train with a reproducible, “show how” process. First, you demonstrate a skill and let another observe. Second, the apprentice helps you. Third, the apprentice does the task and you help. Fourth, you watch the apprentice do the task and provide a critique. Fifth, the apprentice graduates, and another apprentice observes him/her do the task.
You’re also developing leaders by placing all small group members in ministry. Some of them will become the apprentice small group leaders of the future.
Leadership training classes help followers become emerging leaders and emerging leaders become mature. You become a healthier church by developing more and better leaders. One practical structure to accomplish this is regular leadership training classes and retreats that emphasize vision-casting, character, knowledge, and specific skills development. Small group leaders and apprentices should attend along with other church leaders. A helpful source about leadership is Learning to Lead. See the Introduction for details. Vision-casting keeps the church’s vision before its leaders and reminds them how each ministry plays an important part in achieving it. Use testimonies to highlight how ministries are helping to achieve the vision.
Small group leaders should pray about, select, and develop an apprentice leader.
In cooperation with the pastor and elected leaders, participate in leadership training classes that meet at least every other month.
Most people who don’t attend church in your community think church people don’t care about them. Many churches can do a much better job of translating their caring into action. Develop specific plans to make a difference in your community, or you’ll become “steeple people” whose actions are mysteriously hidden beneath a steeple and behind stained glass, brick, and mortar. Outsiders have no idea what happens behind your walls. Inward-focused churches don’t benefit the community and are viewed as irrelevant, secret organizations.
Follow in Christ’s steps (1 Peter 2:21), whether that means suffering or fruitful service, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). List the people you are serving. List those your small group is serving.
The next members of your small group are probably the friends, relatives, or neighbors of present members. Who among them seems most receptive to Christ and his church? Perhaps they have visited your church or even your group. Which of their needs can your group meet? As a group, tap the natural and spiritual gifts of your members and show them Christ’s love by meeting their needs.
Develop and implement plans together as a small group to serve others in your community.
Lead Others to Christ
Serving others is one of the best ways to lead them to Christ. All around the world, the most effective evangelism occurs when Christians meet the needs of non-Christians. Everyone wants to be loved. Having needs met is a love-language everyone understands. A friend in need can become a friend in creed!
Think of your small group as an evangelistic team. Everyone can contribute to the evangelistic task of stair-stepping others to Christ. Those with the gift of evangelism excel at sharing the gospel and leading others to receive Christ. About 10% of believers have this gift. They need to be free from other small group responsibilities to use that gift. Those with a servant style enjoy demonstrating Christ’s love by meeting others’ needs. Some excel at inviting others to a worship service, small group meeting, or social activity. Some influence best by telling how Christ has made a difference in their own life. Some excel at answering difficult questions others have about the Christian faith. Think of yourselves as a team.
Keep one another accountable to take risks, and use your evangelistic styles to reach out to others. At every small group meeting, talk about how your outreach is going and pray for those to whom you’re reaching out.
Multiply the Group
A major task of the small group leader is to develop other leaders and multiply the group. The biggest barrier to multiplication is overcoming an almost universal unwillingness of group members to break up a good thing. When a group is functioning well and meeting the needs of its members, it’s a sacrifice to give it up as some members go into another group. The new group has a different feel than the old group because different persons compose it.
The best way to overcome this barrier is to emphasize at the first meeting and regularly thereafter that the group’s goal is to reproduce. That way, more and more persons can come to know Jesus and experience the joy and fulfillment of small group life. To create a sense of urgency, set a date to multiply that is no more than eighteen months after the group’s first meeting. Plan a celebration party for the group’s last meeting.
One way to multiply is for the leader to take half the people in the group and the apprentice to take the other half. It is best not to assign people to a group. Let them choose. The apprentice can make caring phone contacts with those the leader anticipates will be led by the apprentice after the group multiplies. Both the leader and the apprentice of the first group will select an apprentice and grow their groups until they are large enough to multiply again. Prepare for multiplication by forming two groups for discussion, sharing, and prayer after a joint worship time. Do this for a month or two before multiplication. The leader takes one group and the apprentice the other.
Another way to multiply is for the mother group to send out its apprentice and another member of the mother group who will become the new apprentice. A third way is to send out the leader of the mother group with a new apprentice to develop a whole new group. The apprentice of the mother group becomes its leader and a new apprentice is selected from the original group.
Set a date to multiply your group within the next twelve to eighteen months, and develop necessary plans and leadership to do so.
Carefully Consider Your Small Group’s Decisions and Actions
Your small group’s decisions and actions affect your whole church. Success in multiplying your group encourages other groups and the church. Newcomers to the worship service your group recruits can’t be in another group. As they find a home in your group, many will decide to join your church. The leaders your group develops will bless the whole church. The resources you use reduce what is available for other ministries. The new believers your group introduces to the life of the church have the potential to bless it in many ways. The development of your members in worship in your small group equips them to worship more fully in the worship services. Your prayers for your own ministry and for other ministries increase their effectiveness. Your mobilization of your small group members in ministry and outreach increases your church’s influence for Christ in your community. That is only the tip of the iceberg of your influence.
Consider how your group’s proposed plans will affect all the other ministries in the church. Adjust to promote long-term positive benefits to other ministries.
Harness All Energy to Build the Kingdom
Not everyone in a small group is giving his all for the kingdom. Some already have the pedal to the metal in high gear. Some have the accelerator floored—in reverse! Some are just idling in park. The challenge is to motivate and unite these diverse individuals into a winning team.
Those already racing in high gear and those who are hurtling around the track in the wrong direction often have the most leadership potential. Harness the energy of those who are already supportive of and committed to the group’s mission and goals. Make sure their ministry responsibility fits their spiritual passion and gifts. They are willing to do anything and everything to help. Beware of wearing them out in ministry that “somebody has to do.” Channel their energy into what they do best.
Those speeding around the track the wrong way resist the group’s mission and goals. The leader should meet with these persons individually to discover why they are resisting. Perhaps they don’t realize how they’re coming across to others in the group. Communicate the desire to work together as a team and converse with the individual concerning her part on the team. Perhaps a different role on the team will bring a different attitude. The goal is to turn all negative energy in a positive direction that’ll help the small group achieve its vision, mission, and goals.
Group members who are idling in park need to be convinced that the vision, mission, and goals of the group are worthy of their best effort. Perhaps they are too busy to contribute because of wrong priorities. The leader should frequently remind the group where it is headed and why that is significant. Match idle persons with a ministry within the group through which their life can make a difference.
Mobilize the energy of your small group members to accomplish your mission and goals.
Use Your God-Given Resources Efficiently
Seek to produce the greatest amount of fruit from your resources and to foster self-sustaining small group ministry. Finance your own ministry, and use the natural and spiritual gifts of group members. Each member should be matched with a ministry that provides fulfillment and fruitfulness.
Develop your own leadership to sustain and expand small group ministry by appointing an apprentice leader from the beginning of the group’s life. Group meeting time doubles as training time for the apprentice. The leader might also meet with the apprentice after the group meeting to evaluate the meeting and give assignments to the apprentice. Begin and end meetings on time. Don’t waste the time of group members.
Train all your leaders and apprentices together at regularly scheduled meetings. Share curriculum, meeting places, equipment, and worship resources among small groups.
Conduct small group ministry in a way that will make it healthy, self-sustaining, and continually expanding beyond the lifetime of present members.
Work Together with Other Small Groups
Working with other small groups on ministry or outreach projects can accomplish more than the small groups could achieve separately. Most projects require skilled persons and helpers. Groups working together increase the number of skilled persons and the number and variety of tasks that can be successfully completed. Small groups that meet in the same facility at the same time could benefit by combining for the worship portion of the meeting. Use your creativity to generate other ways groups could work together for mutual benefit.
Cooperate in ministry with at least one other small group in ways that benefit you both.
Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Small Group
To evaluate the health of your small group, complete the Healthy Small Groups Underlying Issues Inventory in "Underlying Issues Inventories" on this website.