One of the main purposes of small groups is to develop mature people who follow Christ more obediently. But in churches, and especially in small groups, different people may view spiritual maturity in different ways. Some may think of it as having lots of Bible knowledge, for example, or having a great quiet time everyday, or being perfect.
At Community Christian Church, we believe that spiritual maturity is really about speedy obedience. No one says it better than our lead pastor, Dave Ferguson, in The Big Idea: "For a Christ follower, the measure of maturity is determined by the speed of obedience. The most mature Christ follower is not the person who has attended the most church events or accumulated the most information about Jesus, but rather the person whose heart is most transformed. And transformation is seen when a person hears God and responds with swift obedience."
In addition to setting a specific goal for spiritual maturity, small groups also have the incredible privilege and responsibility to set the pace for spiritual growth in the church. But that highlights another misconception that often develops in groups. We think that it's our responsibility as group leaders to take our members from being atheists to missionaries in one year or less. In reality, that's not the case at all. Maturity is about speedy obedience, and the pace for spiritual growth is about moving ahead one obedient baby step at a time.
That's why small-group leaders need to learn the skill of helping their people identify "next steps." Below, I've identified a practical, three-step game plan that will help encourage your group members to move forward in spiritual maturity. I recommend writing this plan down and modifying it to fit your specific group or ministry, because have a written plan will allow you to do four things: assess the need for growth, ensure clarity and direction, create accountability, and measure progress.
Note: The following steps should be applied at both the individual and group levels.
Step 1: Clarify Winning
The first step is to think about where we ultimately want our people to be, spiritually. We must lead with the end in mind. So what would it look like for our members to win in terms of spiritual growth?
For example, at Community Christian, we want to develop 3-C followers of Christ:
- Celebrate God regularly in a corporate setting;
- Connect with others in a small group more genuinely through support, confession, and accountability; and
- Contribute their resources, gifts, and talents regularly and generously.
Whichever goal you have in mind, it's important to remember that your members may not arrive at their destination within your group. In fact, we will never fully "arrive" as Christ followers on Earth. So as a leader, think of yourself more like a contributing author who writes a chapter or two in God's story for each member. Others have "written" before you; others will likely "write" after you. You don't have to write their whole book.
But you'll win in your small group if you can get members to successfully take the next steps towards their end. They don't have to be perfect. You won't make them perfect, but you want to set goals and do things that will keep them moving in step with Christ.
The most effective way for your group to think with an end in mind and clarify wins is to establish a clear group covenant. This allows you to set a reasonable timeline, to encourage reasonable steps, and ultimately to achieve reasonable goals.
Step 2: Where Are We Now?
Next, evaluate the current status of your group, and of each individual in the group. This helps you determine how far you are from where you want to be, and sets you up for the next steps necessary to keep moving in that direction. In other words, step two helps you assess the growth needs of the group.
Here are the kinds of questions you can ask to determine where your people are:
- What knowledge do members need?
- What do they need more practice in?
- What does my group care about?
- Who hasn't been baptized?
- What experiences have our members had?
- How new are members to the group, or to following Christ?
- How long has our group been together?
- Who hasn't taken core courses?
- What challenges do members have?
Step 3: What Is Your Next Step?
The final step is to ask your group members, "What steps will we take to get to where we want to be?" In other words, "What's next for you?" This question helps you keep your group on track toward winning.
You want to set basic steps that will point your group toward achieving its goals. Again, be sure to establish these steps with your group and also one-on-one with each member. Here are some of the most basic next steps that a group or an individual can take:
- Start keeping a spiritual-growth journal
- Take a course or Sunday school class through your church (i.e., financial stewardship, Bible study, evangelism training, etc.)
- Get baptized
- Start contributing time, talents, tithe, etc.
The following tips will make you more successful at the three step process above.
- Less is more. You will be more effective as a small-group leader if you narrow your focus in your covenants and steps. Teach and encourage less so that group members can achieve more. Focus only on what specific wins you want your group to achieve in a given time. Teach and encourage only those steps that will help them achieve their goals.
- Offer a menu. Instead of expecting group members to come up with their own next steps, offer or communicate some of the basic steps to them. For example, alert them to upcoming core courses, serving opportunities, baptisms, etc.
- Next Steps 101. Allow members to develop at the basic levels first, and then guide them toward more advanced steps.
- Peer pressure. Take steps as a group together. Nothing encourages people to action like peer pressure! Because, hey, if everyone else is doing it—why not?
- Celebrate. Catch your members doing something right by celebrating what they have done. Throw parties, bake a cake, get a gift, or just have fun whenever someone takes a positive step. Doing so encourages those who have taken steps, and it encourages others to start taking steps.
- Share stories. People are impacted by stories. Real-life examples of life change will inspire members to want experience the same.
- Invest in relationships. People will do anything for a good friend. And people are more likely to take on a challenge from a good friend. Building relationships and trust with your group members will make your challenges to them more effective. More relationships means more steps taken!
Tony Escobar is the Adult Ministry Director for the Pilsen campus of Community Christian Church.