Whenever I work through the discipleship strategy at our church, I'm reminded of how essential communication can be in a small-groups ministry. And one of the first big questions many leaders agonize over and bring to me is: What should my group study?
I keep coming back to this question as a small-group leader myself. Even if I set up a six-month plan for my group's material, I'm always watching out for other resources that would be "cool to try."
As a group leader, you have a serious responsibility in this arena. What you study will define a good portion of the discipleship experience your group members have. So you better get this one right! Below is a strategy for doing just that.
Evaluate Your Situation
The first thing you need to do is answer the following questions:
- What is happening church-wide? What series is the pastor teaching through right now? Are there any major initiatives being emphasized, such as expansion projects, service opportunities, and so on?
- What is happening in our small-groups ministry? Ideally the small-groups ministry will be emphasizing the same things as the church-wide vision, but there may be some nuances or other things the small group team is putting out there to help you make disciples. For example, is there certain material the leadership team is offering or encouraging you to use? Is there a certain emphasis for the year or semester the leadership team has put out there at leadership gatherings?
- What is happening in your small group? Spiritually, where are the people in your group? Are there new Christians and/or non-Christians? Is there a certain life stage that many of your group members fit into? How long has your group been meeting together? Is there a situation that one or more of your group members are in (or have been through) that requires more attention?
Mars Hill Church in Seattle describes the role of their small-group leaders in this way: "To know each member of the group well enough to articulate a vision for his/her spiritual growth, citing specifics about how my group as a whole or individual members of the group nurture his/her growth." I think that kind of analysis is necessary in order to answer this third question well.
Pick a Direction
If there something big going on church-wide, direct your material search based on what God is doing in your congregation. If your small-groups ministry is emphasizing a topic or idea, consult them about materials that will help your group "get it." (I promise they have thought about it.) What about your group? If there is an issue that needs addressing, seek counsel on material that will help you cover it.
Here are some things to remember if you move in this third direction:
- Remember the calendar. You may be thinking, "My church is in a major campaign, my coach is emphasizing tithing, and my group members are having marriage problems. How do I address all of these?"
You don't. Get the dates of major church campaigns from your pastor. Schedule around those pushes so that your group will be "with" your church during those important seasons. Major pushes usually occur at the beginning of the fall and the start of spring. Be prepared to get on board so your group members feel connected to what's happening. You then become a momentum catalyst for your church instead of a momentum killer.
- Consult the group. Of course, the group isn't "your" group in the sense that all of your group members need to have ownership with you. And a great way for others in the group to accept that responsibility is for you to consult them in this process. If nothing else, your group will know that they are community members, not audience members.
- Consult your coach and/or pastor. Even if you aren't doing something church-wide, you must reject the feeling that you're on an island. Seek the counsel of those in your support line. For example, here at the Summit I am a small-groups pastor. That means I spend a full workweek in the small groups world. Most of our group leaders have busy lives and do not have time to look into the endless sea of materials out there right now. And believe it or not, Google may not yield the most profitable search results on this one. So I love it when group leaders come to me for help.
Know Your Limits
The best small-group leaders don't need a Ph.D. in systematic theology. They care for the people in their groups and know their limits when it comes to available prep time, small-group experience, Bible teaching skills, and group dynamics.
If you are like me and have an infant, a pregnant wife, and a full time job, you probably don't have 8 hours a week to devote to creating a study guide for Romans 6. Or maybe this is your first time leading a small group and you've never prepared a discussion before. Maybe your group is full of new Christians or non-Christians.
The point is that limitations are your friend as long as you acknowledge them. The bad group leader is the one who cannot see his limits and winds up over- or under-preparing on a regular basis. Not sure what your limits are? Ask for some honest feedback from your coach/pastor or a trusted member in your group.
Hopefully, you'll begin to think strategically as you decide the set of Bible-study materials for your group.
—Spence Shelton is the Small-Groups Pastor at the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina. Copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.