Churches have long touted small groups, and for good reason: according to research by LifeWay, people who are actively involved in small groups read the Bible more, pray more, give more, and serve more than people who aren't.
Whether they're called life groups, neighborhood groups, or community groups, the messaging has remained the same: join a small group to belong, be cared for, and grow in your faith. The goal is often simply to get people together, trusting that the belonging and growth will happen naturally. The main measure of success then, has been calculating the percentage of weekend attenders who attend a small group.
In recent years, however, small-group pastors and directors have started to wonder what small groups are actually accomplishing. Even if you have 100 percent of your congregants in small groups, are they experiencing belonging and life change? In a nutshell, are they being discipled?
Unfortunately, many pastors' experiences don't line up with the research. One pastor shared with me that a woman who had been attending small groups for 10 years revealed she had never understood the Easter story. Another man, after attending groups for years, still didn't feel he knew how to pray, and he certainly didn’t feel comfortable praying aloud.
In response to stories like these, many small-group ministries have shifted, adopting a renewed focus on discipleship. This has created several trends.
Trend 1: New Measurements
Small-group pastors have tried to find ways to measure more than attendance. Will Johnston, Director of Build Community at Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, California, suggests measuring how well groups are accomplishing your vision. For example, if your vision is for group members to take the next step for spiritual growth, you might routinely ask leaders the next step each group member is working on. If you have missional groups, ask leaders how their group is serving, whom they've added to their group, and what missional challenges they've faced. These kinds of questions get at the purpose of your groups, and, with answers measured over time, provide real insight into how small-group members are growing.
Trend 2: New Group Models
In an effort to disciple more effectively, churches have created several new group models that move away from the classic prayer-care-share model:
Many leaders believe that in order to get everyone in our congregations to participate in small groups, we need to make the structure simpler.
- Discovery Group Format is a great example of this trend. It provides a four-step method for any study: (1) opening or icebreaker questions, (2) accountability questions, (3) Bible discovery questions, and (4) outreach questions. "Through this simple method, the lost are being won, disciples are being mobilized, and churches are multiplying," explains Jim Egli, Leadership Pastor at the Vineyard Church in Urbana, Illinois.
- IF: Table. Another simple structure working well is IF:Table, part of the women's movement known as IF. IF:Table encourages women to gather once a month with six people to discuss four simple questions about the intersection of faith and life. The questions change each month and vary widely in topic, including joy, prayer, mentoring, and busyness. "We try to keep questions very simple so that anyone can relate," explains Jennie Allen, founder of IF. The questions encourage group members to share their stories, and this creates a level of vulnerability and community that doesn't often happen in small groups. With personal stories, everyone feels invited to join the conversation—even if they've never been part of a group before.
On the other end of the spectrum, some churches have moved toward groups that require high commitment. This is the kind of deep life lived in community that Ruth Haley Barton writes of in Life Together in Christ. For those disillusioned with shallow small groups, high-commitment groups focused on intentional spiritual growth are a welcome change. Though not attractive to all in our small-group ministries, these groups attract people who have the time, energy, and drive to invest in their spiritual growth. Curricula like Life Together in Christ and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality require participants to invest long-term in relationships, share vulnerably about their pains, and ask others to hold them accountable.
Ruth Haley Barton notes, "A transforming community is made up of people who are interested in being transformed by Christ's presence, who have a desire to be transformed." But transformation requires more than attaining knowledge, Barton asserts. Study may be a necessary foundation to growth, but it's only the starting point. As group members experience meaningful growth together, deep relational bonds are forged, and the group begins to operate as a true community.
Along these lines, Mariners Church in Irvine, California, now offers Rooted Groups. These 10-week discipleship-focused small groups were developed in direct response to a frustrating dynamic in their small-group ministry. The church's smallgroup ministry had promised that group members would be cared for, loved, and nurtured, and they were reaping the benefits: people felt incredibly cared for. But those people seemed stuck spiritually. Partnering with a church in Africa, Mariners created an experiential program that involves serving together, a prayer experience, a devotional, and more. Group discussions include confession and accountability, and the 10 weeks end with a baptism celebration. While the focus isn't directly on building relationships, Rooted participants come away with deep friendships.
As churches across the country grapple with how to promote peace in the midst of racial turmoil, several have started offering small groups focused on racial reconciliation. NewStory Church in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood has offered specific small groups for this purpose for years. Rich Gorman, who co-pastors the church with his wife, Dori, shared that these groups provide a safe place to gain understanding and perspective. "When you start to hear people's stories and their burdens, that's where compassion is birthed," Gorman says.
Aaron Cho, Associate Pastor at Quest Church in Seattle, agrees that sharing stories is important to racial reconciliation. He explains, "I tell leaders that early on, it's more important to spend the time listening to each other's stories than it is to discuss the study. We have to set a good foundation where we feel valued, known, and heard. From that place of trust and authenticity we can move into engaging Scripture and prayer." Quest intentionally pairs co-leaders who have different backgrounds; leaders can then represent different sides of the conversation and model racial reconciliation for the group.
Despite good intentions, group members have certainly felt hurt or offended by some of what they've learned in racial reconciliation groups. But the long-term good outweighs the temporary discomfort of working through conflict. "We can see differences in how we're resolving conflict and seeking to understand one another," says Gorman. "When people have parties and invite people over for dinner, we're starting to see those tables become more diverse. People don't want to be part of the problem—they want to be part of the solution."
Trend 3: New Emphasis on Coaching Leaders
With these new group formats, small-group pastors and directors have discovered a need to intentionally develop leaders who can disciple group members. This has led to a rising desire for effective models of coaching and training leaders. A recent conference I attended had to offer multiple breakout sessions on coaching simply to accommodate the high interest in the topic. While there are many ways to effectively coach smallgroup leaders—small groups of leaders led by a coach, one-on-one coaching, and even peer (leader-to-leader) coaching—the goal is always the same: to walk alongside leaders as they face unique group issues.
Even churches that offer robust training programs to prepare new group leaders simply can't prepare them for everything they might face. Rather, there's a need for ongoing training that addresses specific needs as they arise. Imagine, for instance, the issues that might arise in a racial reconciliation small group. The leader may need coaching on how to walk the group through a sticky conflict, or how to have a one-on-one talk with a group member who doesn't realize how offensive his statements are. On the other hand, someone leading a simple-structure small group may need strategies to drive the conversation back to Scripture, or how to help the conversation take on a more optimistic tone when one group member complains about her job at every meeting.
The more variety we offer with our small groups, the more varied the issues will be. And while most can be overcome, leaders do need specific coaching as they walk through the more difficult parts of group life. And, as small groups foster real relationships and life change, we're bound to see a variety of issues come up—because real relationships and real life change aren't easy. If we see leaders in need of help as their group members grapple with living out their faith, we should wear it as a badge of honor. This seems to be a sure measurement that small groups are beginning to accomplish their mission.
Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com. She has served as a small-group minister, community outreach coordinator, and small-group leader.