Why are some small groups so beneficial while others feel like a waste of time? Why do some small groups multiply while others devolve into social clubs? Are there things that you can do as a small group leader to help keep your small group aimed at “the right things?”
Before you lead a small group, there are a number of important questions you will need to answer: What will you do when your group meets? What should you study? How long should you meet? How many and what kinds of people should be invited? Trying to answer those questions can almost make you want to quit before you get started, but the reason that answering these questions can seem so difficult is that there is an underlying question that must be answered first: What is a small group for?
At the end of Colossians 1, Paul describes his ministry to the church, declaring that it is his ambition to “make the word of God fully known” (1:26) and to “present everyone mature in Christ” (1:27). Paul’s ministry vision aligns perfectly with Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Small groups exist as a part of the disciple-making process. They are a place where believers strive to know God’s Word, are called to bring their lives into conformity with it, and from which they are sent back into the world as Christ’s ambassadors. So, again, what are small groups for? Ultimately, small groups exist to make disciples who will grow in maturity and go and make disciples.
With that vision in mind, here are five suggestions that can help you lead your group effectively:
1. Establish clear expectations.
It is incredibly helpful to come in with a plan and then to communicate your expectations from the beginning. People need to know what is expected of them before they arrive and what they will do while they are with you, and they need to be able to trust that you will start and end on time.
When asking someone to join a small group, set the bar high, but give people an out: “If this is something you can’t do right now, that’s great, but this group is going to be committed to these things. In my experience, a group is only as beneficial as everyone is committed to the group’s goals. I’d love for you to take some time to pray about it before you commit.”
Not only will asking people to pray before they commit create greater buy-in, but also it will give you an opportunity to have a conversation with someone who stops making the small group a priority: “Earlier this Spring, you took time to pray about committing to this group, and you felt the Lord was leading you to join us. Has something changed? Is there something I need to repent of or is there anything else we need to talk about?” I’ve seen many people brought back into the fold through these conversations.
2. Let God’s Word do God’s work.
D.T. Niles once said that evangelism is “one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.” Likewise, leading a small group isn’t like lecturing a class or parenting children. You don’t lead as someone who has “arrived.” You lead as someone who needs the gospel just as desperately as those in your group. Your call is to wrestle with and submit to God’s Word, just as you call others to do the same.
Unfortunately, many believers have shied away from discipling others because they were afraid that they didn’t know enough. But such a fear belies a faulty understanding of what it means to lead and what people actually need.
Let me explain what I mean: If we are praying that the Lord would use us to make mature disciples who will make mature disciples, then more important than being a “knowledgeable” leader is being a leader who points people to the Bible as the source of our knowledge. More important than knowing the right answers to people’s questions is having the humility to say, “I’d love to investigate that with you. Let’s look together at what God’s Word has to say.”
One of the primary tasks of a small group leader is to help those in our small groups learn to feed themselves from the Bible. If you first focus on helping your members learn how and why they should study God’s Word for themselves, then they will be equipped to learn for a lifetime and they will develop discernment. We want the members of our small groups not to simply “take our word for it,” but to learn to be like the Bereans, who examined the Scriptures daily “to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Help the members of your small group look at a passage and ask, “What does this teach me about God? What does this teach me about myself or sin? How does this point me to the gospel and Jesus? What can we all take and apply to our lives?” It shouldn’t be our aim as small group leaders to blow someone away with what we know but to help people understand God’s Word for themselves, and to let God’s Word do God’s work.
3. Start with prayer, end with prayer, and pray in between.
If you do not intentionally carve out time to pray often in your small group, then you may find yourself asking a painfully familiar question: “Oh, we’ve only got 3 minutes left. Would anyone like to pray to close us out?”
As a part of our call to help these believers grow towards maturity in prayer, we must prayerfully and thoughtfully plan how our time in small group can deepen their prayer lives. This means that we will probably be planning more times of prayer than might feel comfortable for most. When someone shares a burden or boldly confesses sin, stop and take time to pray for them. Ask others in your group to pray. Change your schedule one week and simply have an extended time of prayer together. Remember: People in your group are learning how to pray from hearing others pray, and they are learning how important prayer is in a believer’s life from seeing how important prayer is to your small group.
4. To accomplish the goals of your small group, you can’t just “do small group.”
When Jesus called his disciples, He did not simply invite them to join him to study the Bible once a week over some coffee. He said, “Come and follow me.” When Jesus called His disciples, He invited them into His whole life. As Mark 3:14, says, “He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach” (emphasis added).
The disciples ate with Jesus. They traveled with Him. They saw Him interact with His family. They saw Him interact with strangers. They saw Him serve the poor, rebuke the self-righteous, and share the gospel.
Most of the Christian life is spent in “informal settings,” where the truths we learn from Scripture are truly lived out and applied. If you want to truly disciple those in your small group, you will have to be willing to say like Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Model for them what it looks like to be a Christian husband or wife, or how to honor the Lord with your singleness. Model for them how to parent your kids or how to care for someone else’s. Invite them along as you hang out with your neighbors or serve at the homeless shelter. Take them shopping with you so that they can see what you value. Not only will it be of great benefit to you, but inviting other believers into your life can lead you into deeper holiness.
5. Be found at the feet of Jesus.
In Luke 10, Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha. Mary sits at Jesus’s feet, listening to his teaching, but Martha is distracted:
Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:38–42)
I’ve always been fascinated with this passage. What is Martha doing? She’s serving! She’s trying with all of her might to be helpful to others! Yet, what does Jesus say? Mary has chosen the one thing necessary. What is Mary doing? She’s drawing as near to Jesus as she possibly can; she’s humbly learning from Him at His feet.
Is Martha doing something evil? Of course not! But what Jesus says to Martha is that, in her desire to serve, she is missing the most important thing. Your most important job as a small group leader is to be found at the feet of Jesus. The very best thing that you can do for those under your care is to spend time with Christ, to fall deeper in love with Him, to commit to follow Him, and to invite others to come alongside you as you do.