There are a lot of books and articles that have been written and are being written about life groups, small groups, cell groups, community groups, impact groups, or egroups. I’ve even read a fair number of these books, white-papers, and blog articles. Furthermore, I’ve been involved in small group membership and leadership, in one form or another, for years. At this point in the church community small group revolution, I think I can safely say that small groups, life groups, or whatever you want to call them, are the salvation of the church.
Citing the classic, widely used passage of scripture in Matthew, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19, 20 NLT), I would even go so far as to state that the development of small groups within a church community is the most direct and honest application of Jesus’ command to make disciples.
The second most important need, after salvation, that every single human on the planet craves is community. For the sake of clarity, I will define community as interpersonal connections, and life-affirming relationships. I’m not going to spend my entire time within this article shouting out the gospel of small groups. We are all members of small groups: family, classes, sports teams, job/career “teams”, marriages, etc. Without group membership of one sort or another we, as indiviuals, slip into the morass of depression and lonliness. Yes, there are reams of studies supporting the need for personal connections.
We, in the church community, should all know by now that people don’t come to church and STAY in church because of a particular pastor’s powerful messages, or energetic and engaging worship presentations. People stay in a particular church community because of the people they meet and the connections they make. Conversely, people also leave churches because of their lack of meaningful connections and relationships within any given church. Granted, powerful preaching, fantastic worship services, and amazing outreach programs do draw people into a church building, but they do not assimilate people into church community or grow disciples. Small groups/life groups are the work-horse of church ministry. Ideally, small groups are where evangelism occurs, tears flow, disciples are grown, and servant-leaders are shaped.
Ok, enough speechifying. I’ll get off my soap box now. Allow me to share with you what I personally consider to be key elements in sucessful small groups/life groups:
1. Authenticity – Small groups must be built on authentic relationships (self-disclosure, care-giving, humility, truth-telling, and affirmation).
- This, for me, is the most crucial element of any small group.
- Ironically, it is also one of the most difficult for Christians. As Christians, we all want to wear our safety cloak of smiley spirituality. Somehow, church attendance has turned into a masquerade ball. It’s almost a cultural cliche. Church people are seen by many as the most hypocritical group of people on the planet.
- For your small group/life group to succeed the masks must come off. Granted, this can be a slow process.
- One cannot demand self-revelation, but one can gently prod people along by leading through example.
- It is not coincidental that many Christian families have a long and strong tradition of eating out with friends from church after the Sunday morning service.
- Amazingly enough, I have seen a correlation between lite food and lite discussion in small groups I have attended and led over the years.
- People who eat well (a full-fledged meal) together, seem to share more willingly with each other.
- Better quality food = better attendance and = better discussion. I know, it seems strange, but it is also true.
- Don’t tell me it’s not true. If you know that ‘Charley’ is going to be bringing his famous ‘super-spicey, life-changing chicken’ (just as an example), you are more likely to get your butt-off-the-couch and drive to your life group, than if you know people are only going to bring some chips and cookies they picked-up at the store on the way to life group.
- Not all life groups meet for the same reason. Some groups are study-oriented, some groups are “seeker”-oriented, some groups are relationship oriented (not gossip-oriented), and some groups don’t know what they are doing.
- Some churches strongly encourage sermon discussion, and others are more open-ended.
- However your group functions, be intentional in the ‘content presentation’ portion of your group.
- Regarding content, I am a big fan of video podcasts. More and more churches and big-name speakers are making quality video podcasts available for anyone with internet access to take advantage of for free.
- “Stream” a message, or series of messages, to your group for everyone to discuss.
- Ask leading questions in the ‘discussion portion’ of your group.
- Share personal examples, and get participants to share personal examples during ‘discussion time.’ Tie ‘it’ together, and make the content ‘meet the road.’
- Small groups are supposed to be a place where truth meets life. Guide conversation in that direction if it doesn’t go there naturally.
- Encourage the quiet people to share, but don’t beat them over the head to get them involved.
- Tell the discussion hog, or person who always leads the discussion ‘astray’ to shut-up (using friendly words.)
- Don’t ask for general prayer requests.
- Ask each person, by name, “how can we pray for you this week?”
- This is a subtle, yet important, step in getting people to share what’s going on in their lives.
- This is stage 2 in group authenticity. I don’t care if your group meets at Chilis Restuarant, or goes bowling every week, if your group wants to be Christ-centered then you need to be praying for one another every week.
- Even if your discussion falls flat and seems like a failure, prayer needs will bind your group together.
- Don’t wimp-out or beat around the bush. Just do it. Everyone has needs. People may not share openly immediately or every week, but, consistent, intentional, gently confrontational requests for prayer works miracles.
- With regard to prayer requests, share the requests with the group via email or text consistently every week.
- Don’t just go over it and forget about it during the week.
- Pray intentionally, and check-up on ‘vital’ requests and situations through out the week (everyone, not just leaders.)
- Community = Connecting. Create as many ways to connect with your group as participants will take advantage of.
- For example:
- Get email addresses and phone numbers for communication and texts (old school.)
- Create a closed Facebook group for your small group/life group.
- Create a blog for your group to contribute thoughts and musings to through out the week.
- Create a Twitter feed for instant surveys and inspirational blurbs.
- Create an Instagram hashtag or group identity for people to follow and share photo highlights of their personal life.
- Take advantage of social media: It’s free. It’s the wave of the present and future.
- Consistency = Stability.
- Don’t constantly reschedule, cancel, or change times and dates. Participants want to be able to count on the consistency of their friends and new connections. Trust and growth occur when a ‘consistent core’ of people are always there, and ‘the core’ group people communicate beyond and outside of the group meeting.
- Contribute to the group, and make personal connections with people in the group.
- Don’t sit on the sidelines and complain about your group.
- Get Involved & Get Invested, or Get Out.
- This sounds harsh. It is a little harsh. But seriously, if you are not comfortable getting involved and getting ‘invested’ in a group, then go find one that you can get involved with.
- Don’t be dead weight.
- As for leaders: ‘Be one & Lead one.’
- Small groups/life groups are about discipleship.
- Scope-out participants with leadership potential.
- Pull them bit-by-bit out of their comfort zone (if they seem unwilling).
- Pile on the responsibility (again, bit-by-bit).
- As you may have noticed, I’m not “super-‘seeker’ subtle.” Kitsch religion doesn’t work.
- I firmly believe that ‘wishy-washy’ doesn’t work. I do believe in being polite and sensitive to people’s needs and emotions, and recognizing where they are at in life, but not at the expense of truth.
- Life groups are all about building relational bridges, not burning them. But, bridges made of steel last longer than those made out of twizzlers.
- Don’t afraid to let people know where you stand, and confront sin. At the same time, let others know that you are ok with them confronting you and keeping you accountable as well.
- We are all of us human. No one is perfect. Don’t be an arrogant hypocrite who cannot take what they dish-out.