I recently taught a group of church leaders on the topic of leadership and asked them to submit questions in advance, so I would be sure I was addressing their main areas of concern. I was surprised by how many questions I received on the topic of small groups. Here’s a digest of some of those questions, along with a summary of my responses, in case some readers are wondering about similar matters in the group life of their own congregations. Obviously, there’s no one right answer for all contexts, but reflect on the ideas and see what might be helpful in your own setting.
What is the ideal length of commitment for joining groups?
I recommend a trimester schedule, with on-ramps and off-ramps for groups three times a year. This allows people to 1) try out a group long enough to really get a feel for it, 2) get out of groups that aren’t a good fit, 3) join new groups at convenient times of the year, and 4) stick with groups they do like through regular re-enrollment if they don’t opt out. One of the best things about establishing clear timeframes is that it avoids the indefinite commitment problem. No one wants to join a group forever, especially if they’re not sure they’re going to like it. I’d add that in some cultures, the summer should be off to give the leaders a break and to account for absences.
What type of curriculum or content is best?
There are a lot of options out there. Start by thinking through your church’s values and your current balance of outreach, ministry to others, and spiritual formation. Essentially, you want to choose a group’s curriculum or activities so they correspond with the outcomes of discipleship you are currently working on improving. You don’t need formalized curriculum to read and reflect on one passage of scripture. I’m a big fan of keeping group life simple and action-focused: making more and better disciples. Whatever you do, people need to connect with God and then have the opportunity to respond to his Spirit.
Are life-stage groups or cross-generational groups better?
It all depends. All types of groups have something unique to offer. Cross-generational groups serve to widen people’s perspectives and often work much better than most people expect. These groups also often foster relationships unavailable to people elsewhere in their lives. Yet life-stage groups can be geared toward specific needs and tend to be better at reaching those outside the church.
Should small groups be combined with accountability groups?
Don’t try to combine programming for these two types of groups. They are quite different from one another and require different levels of trust. A significant need in the church today is getting rid of extraneous programs and time commitments. Too much programming leaves no time for outreach or service. However, for those who want to do both, accountability groups (like Life Transformation Groups) can function nicely independently and grow organically and even be done via zoom, so they don’t need to be programmed into the small groups. The question is where with each individual will grow best.
How can our small groups incorporate outreach to non-believers?
Deliberately incorporate questions into your group time to ask people to reflect on where they see God at work. I often open each group meeting with, “How have you experienced God this week?” As the groups—and the individuals in them—begin to experience God in their everyday lives, they will also start to see where God is at work in the lives of those they are in contract with. As you go, see where God is working and follow his leading.
What can I do about groups that are tight relationally and don’t want to multiply?
You can’t force multiplication with existing groups. If you try, you’ll be amazed at how much resistance you face—particularly with groups that have strong relational bonds. Generally, these groups will either die off naturally or will continue indefinitely without doing you any harm. I’d recommend instead focusing on starting new groups with multiplication in their DNA from the beginning. Now, if you can spot a potential leader within one of these non-multiplying groups, you can recruit them to be a part of this new pilot group and train them to start more groups.
How do I raise up new group leaders?
Good leaders are developed, not ready-made. Choose people to invest in who are faithful, available, and teachable. These are the essential qualities for any type of Christian leadership. For small group leaders in particular, look as for people who are emotionally and relationally mature. Then provide training that is 1) experiential, 2) about asking good questions and listening, and 3) bolstered by coaching support. This is the most important “curriculum” for small group leadership training. New leaders have to experience what you want them to reproduce. So that informs the type of training: on the job and experiential. Do it, debrief it.
If you’re looking for a group leader training that is ready-to-go and at the same time readily adaptable to your ministry context, check out Finding the Flow small group leader training. It includes a PowerPoint presentation, a facilitator guide, and participant guiders for you to use with your own people.