Depending on who you ask, small groups are the greatest gift to churches or the cause of much irritation. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve had the honor of hosting many small groups. Yet, if I’m honest, I’ve found myself conflicted as well. I have loved coming together with fellow believers and despised the cliques within the church that seemed impenetrable. Whether the small group was based on a book of the Bible, a video study, topical message, or targeted to a specific demographic, I have seen over and over again that there is a right way and wrong way to lead a group. Ultimately, small groups should provide an opportunity for members to come together in an intimate setting. For those in a larger church, attending these groups could be the difference between them feeling a sense of belonging or feeling isolated.
The small group concept is not a new one. We see the idea of gathering outside of regular service times throughout history. Whether your church calls them small groups, life groups, cell groups, or community groups, meeting together outside of Sunday morning is an intentional way to build authentic life-giving relationships. From the book of ‘Acts, believers made learning the Word together as a community a top priority.
“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 2:46-47
In the same way, we can gladly come together and see small groups as a chance to go deeper in the Word and learn more about those we attend church with. When done well, a small group is a place of fun, support, prayer, and discipleship. If you’re planning to host a small group, there are four important boxes you should check off:
1. Be Christ-centered
The foundation of every small group should be the Bible. A small group without Christ-centered conversation is just a social gathering. Although there is nothing wrong with hanging out with church members just for fun, this is not what makes small groups impactful. According to Lifeway.com, the goal of these meetups is to help us “Do the Christian life together deeply.” Thus, each meeting is an opportunity to learn about Christ and evaluate how our story coincides with His values.
Over the years, I have seen small groups stray away from this. I have been a part of churches that say small groups should just offer a “sprinkle of Jesus.” Chances are those willing to meet outside of a Sunday morning aren’t looking for a group that leaves Jesus as an afterthought. In fact, I have found that small groups tend to attract those who are hungry for the meat of the Word. They want to build their relationship with Christ and go deeper than the Sunday morning experience. We do these church members a great disservice when small groups don’t utilize the Bible or have any aspect of Bible study. In the same way, if the goal is to target new believers or unchurched members, what a great opportunity to share the Word with them. We shouldn’t neglect an opportunity to help others encounter Christ.
Small group leaders hold the role of a shepherd for those who attend their groups. As they have been entrusted with God’s children for a season, they must seek to take it seriously. Even if they are asked to do a topical study or a more informal small group (a dinner meetup group, running group, etc.), the leader can seek to make an overwhelming effort to share scriptures that relate to and present the Word. This can be done by starting off with a devotional or giving outside reading for the group to discuss when they come together. Whatever the case may be, when it comes to a small group, let us remember that God must be the center of it all.
“Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly–not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God.” 1 Peter 5:2
2. Be Interactive
Let’s be honest, listening to one person talk for an hour can be rather boring. One thing that makes for a great small group is having interactive elements. At the base level, small groups should give participants an opportunity to speak. Chances are the way one church member answers a question could provide the answer to another person’s current woes. With that said, there should be a balance between allowing people to share and the small group becoming a counseling session. Although the group should be interactive, it shouldn’t always become one person’s opportunity to speak the entire time. This is a quick way to have others not return. Remember, a small group is about growing together and learning the Word. When we give the participants permission to speak and be vulnerable, we increase the chances of relationships being formed.
An element of interaction should be included in every small group. This can go beyond answering generic questions. Whether you are leading a youth small group or older adults, having something fun inserted helps to pass the time and keeps the group from being predictable/boring. In an ideal world, small group members should be excited and look forward to attending. Here are some ways my husband and I have made small groups interactive in the past:
Always starting with an icebreaker- Could be a simple question such as, “How did you apply last week’s topic?”.
Bible trivia game- This can be based on previous small groups or random.
Using competition- Any game that is competitive will get people excited.
Using games that force togetherness- Having to work together to build a puzzle, complete a task, etc.
A few more ideas we’ve implemented include:
Affirming activities- Having each person write nice words on a sticky note and place it on the back of the other participants’ chairs.
Having each person read the Scripture and share what they believe it means.
A shortened version of a game that relates- Playing charades for a few moments to discuss the importance of paying attention to what God may be trying to communicate.
Putting participants in groups of 2-3 people to pray for one another.
Whatever you choose to do, be sure that it aligns with God’s Word. Your interactive aspect isn’t to take the place of the lesson but to add to it or to help build community. As long as the interactive element is appropriate, you can find something interactive that relates to the message or be creative.
3. Be inviting
Small groups must be inviting. Whenever we are gathering in the name of Jesus, we should have our arms open. Our groups should be so welcoming that people could come off the street and feel loved. The leader and participants can work together in this by sharing with others about the group. They can do so on their social media, through an invite card, or through everyday communication. In the same way, as people start to attend, regular participants can be intentional about getting to know them.
Simple things such as exchanging phone numbers or asking to meet up for coffee outside of the group makes people feel like they belong. I have seen firsthand that people will show up to a place where they feel like they belong. During our last small group session (which focused on marriage), we had an eighteen-year-old who attended every session. He was embraced with such open arms that he was eager to participate, even though some of the material wasn’t relevant. This is the power of showing God’s love! Jesus says it best, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35
Your group should never become so “tight-knit” that others feel out of place when they attend. If you really want your small group to be a place of discipleship, it must show true hospitality and kindness to anyone who attends. Here are some easy ways to ensure your group is inviting:
Have an element of food.
Encourage others to attend. Then invite the new participants to sit with you.
Be time-sensitive. (Groups that last for hours are hard to recruit people to join.)
Follow up with visitors through text, email, or a meet-up.
4. Have a Committed Leader
Leading a small group or Bible study is an honor! If ever it becomes drudgery or burdensome, the leader may want to consider another way to serve the local church. One who leads a group holds the role of pastoral ministry for a short time span. This means the participants will often look to them for spiritual advice and call them when times are tough. These same participants will also look to you as an example of Christian faith.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James 3:1
Those who want to lead a small group should ask themselves a few questions:
Do I have time to pray over the participants?
Do I have time to adequately prepare for each lesson?
Is creating authentic community important to me?
Do I have the time and energy to meet with other people in need?
Are there any sins in my life that I am unrepentant about?
Do I actively read the Bible?
The answers to these questions are important and remind us that spreading the Gospel is the goal. As a small group leader, being a person of good character and faith helps groups to be led well.
May your small groups be fruitful and remind everyone of how loving our God is!
“Not abandoning our own meeting together, as is the habit of some people, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Victoria Riollano is an author, blogger, and speaker. As a mother of six, military spouse, Psychology professor and minister’s wife, Victoria has learned the art of balancing family and accomplishing God’s ultimate purpose for her life. Recently, Victoria released her book, The Victory Walk: A 21 Day Devotional on Living A Victorious Life. Her ultimate desire is to empower women to live a life of victory, hope, and love. She believes that with Christ we can live a life that is ALWAYS winning. You can learn more about her ministry at victoryspeaks.org.