Steve Gladen is Pastor of the Small Group Network at Saddleback Church. He will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Saddleback Small Group Conferences. Click here for more information.
Today, all around the world, people will join with other people in homes or restaurants or workplaces to study God's Word and grow in Christ together as a small group. In many cases, however, the results may be less than what Jesus desires. Jesus said, "Go into all of the world and make disciples." But as Dallas Willard's book The Great Omissionpoints out, the Church doesn't always have a plan for doing that. It's as if the Great Commission reads, "Go into all of the world and make church members." That's certainly a worthy goal, but it stops far short of what our Savior commanded.
Community is belonging together—joining as part of the body of Christ for the biblical purposes that Jesus charged us with keeping. And since small groups are also chartered with keeping the purposes, how do we turn them into small groups centered around God's purposes? And as a part of that, how do we ensure that the members involved with those groups are growing as disciples of Jesus?
Clearly, there are some things to be mindful of.
Don't Let Groups Become "Fellowship Only"
This can be tough, because fellowship is often cited as the single greatest benefit that entices people to join a small group. "I want to have friends." "I want to make close friends." "I'd like to be able to count on people, just like family." Almost everyone wants these things.
But when a group is left only to fellowship, people will just hang out together. And while fellowship is critical for true discipleship to happen, it's not the only critical factor. When we just eat and fellowship together, the only growth we get is in our waist. Bringing in active discipleship while maintaining fellowship is all part of balancing the purposes in small-group life.
Help Groups Receive Regular Spiritual Checkups
Unlike physical checkups that are done by medical professionals, each member of your group can check his or her own spiritual vital signs with a quick assessment. In fact, there are a variety of tools for your group members to use to see how they are doing in trying to live a purpose-driven life.
You can also access several SmallGroups.com assessments by clicking here.
Make Sure Your Groups Have Something to Chew On
If your ministry doesn't have a suggested small-group curriculum pathway, your groups could wander away from their discipleship purpose. Help them know what to study next based on where they are now spiritually.
A great help to help your groups is to review the different curriculum-study resources that are available, or that your church has access to, and then make a list. Put the studies in the order you think will work best for continued growth.
A Little Structure Goes a Long Way
Shape your groups' expectations for not only the length of group meetings, but also for how to set up discipleship properly. Just like a worship service, great small group meetings have a certain rhythm.
They start with fellowship to bond people together. Then, there is a time to focus hearts and minds on God. Next, there might be a time to get into discipleship, now that people are settled down and ready for the Word. Then, wrap up with praise and petitions in prayer, which reminds all in attendance of our daily, minute-by-minute dependence on God. The order can change somewhat, and groups can add in other things, but you can see how this meeting flow naturally sets up discipleship.
Keep It Interesting
Jesus certainly wasn't boring, and your small-group discipleship elements shouldn't induce sleep, either. Regularly check with your groups to see which studies they're enjoying, growing with, and excited by. A simple small-group evaluation is what our groups do to track what's working, what's not, and what's next.
Help Groups Understand Their Role in Discipleship
Train your hosts and leaders to remember that their small groups are the best place for discipleship. Remind them that members of their groups are able to apply what they're learning to real-life situations immediately as they discuss what they're learning in the group.
As group members begin to see the applications of the studies to their lives, the lessons take on greater value, and thus are even more memorable. And being with real people who live real lives that model how to live the Christian life further embeds these lessons. Of course, there are occasional groups that are filled with dysfunctional people and don't have good models in them, but that's the subject of a different article.
Avoid Lopsided Leadership
Without a system and a structure to balance the five purposes (holistic discipleship), your small group will overemphasize the purpose that expresses the gifts and passions of its host or leader. So what do you do?
What you don't do is make the leader change his or her giftedness. What you do is play to the strengths of the leader and develop the other purposes that aren't the strengths of the leader by getting the other members of the group involved. This way, intentional discipleship won't be left out.
—Steve Gladen; copyright 2007 by the author and Saddleback Church. Used with permission.