Imagine we are sitting in Starbucks. You are about to enter a new small group, and you have asked my advice on how to be an effective small-group member. Here's what I would say.
Be a Good Listener
Go into your small group committed to listening. Try to understand rather than be understood. There are a lot of hurting people who come to small groups to unload. They need your compassion and empathy. The first place to start is to listen intently.
Don't be so quick to share your story. Listen to the stories of others. In one sense, when you listen to others, you are earning your right to be heard. Granted, at times this can be hard and painful. You will have to listen to poor decisions, bad habits, and people who grate on your sensibilities. Yet, listening is one of the chief characteristics of love, and Jesus told us to love one another and be patient with one another.
After you have thoroughly listened, be ready to contribute. Some people in the group may talk too much, but the other extreme is not talking at all. As a small-group leader, I rejoice when a proactive listener also contributes to the discussion. When I ask people to share their thoughts, I often hope that so-and-so won't blurt out an immediate answer because I know he already talks too much. I'm hoping that other members will share their reflections, but far too often the quieter ones hesitate.
Don't allow one or two people to dominate the entire meeting. Be a contributor. You have something important to say. Even if someone else has given the right answer, there's always more than one way to apply the answer. Other people in the group want to hear what you think.
Share with Transparency
Tell the group how you really feel. Open up the windows of your heart and let people see the real you. I've noticed that the best small-group members share their joys and struggles. They respond to the lesson questions based on how God is working in their lives. They speak in the first person, rather than the third person.
Some group members always give impersonal answers about what the Bible says, what others should do, or how people in general should live. Their answers might be correct, but they don't go deep enough. They don't zero in on how God's Word has touched their own lives.
Take advantage of the intimate, family atmosphere of the small group by sharing what's really happening in your life—and allowing others to hold you accountable. One of the key differences between a small group and the Sunday celebration is the chance to share personally, receive prayer, and get to know others more deeply.
Be a Responsible Member
Responsibility means the leader can count on you. The best small-group members make a commitment to be there for each gathering. They also let the leader know in advance when they can't make it. Granted, life presents unforeseen obstacles. But if you can't make it to the group, call or text the leader that you won't be there.
Responsible membership also involves arriving on time to the group. I remember one couple who was consistently 30 minutes late. I know they didn't behave this way for doctor's appointments or for scheduled client sessions (he was a lawyer). Yet, with their actions, they were saying to everyone else that the small group wasn't really a priority. Their late arrival was also a distraction because we were often praying or worshipping when they entered. Someone had to answer the door and their arrival normally disrupted what we were doing. Make it a point to arrive on time.
Finally, responsible members maintain confidentiality. They realize that what is shared in the group stays in the group. You might be tempted to share a juicy detail about a group member's life with someone you know well. Refuse to do so.
Discover Your Spiritual Gifts
Attempt to discover your spiritual gifts within the group—and then use it. The small-group atmosphere is the best place to discover and use your spiritual gifts. All of the spiritual gift passages (1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12, Ephesians 4) were written to house churches. The first church building was discovered in the third century, so for the first couple hundred years, the church met in the home and occasionally came together in larger celebrations.
As you discover and use your spiritual gift in the small-group atmosphere, God will use you to build up other members in the group. For example, if your spiritual gift is counseling (i.e., exhortation), look for opportunities for one-on-one conversations after or before the group. If you have the gift of helps or service, discover ways to use it. You might volunteer to bring the refreshments, open your home, or pick up someone who needs a ride. If you have the gift of teaching, look for opportunities to shed light on the biblical passage the group is discussing.
New people give new life and meaning to the group. The best small-group members invite others to join the group. So, who can you befriend and eventually invite to the group? Is there someone at work who is experiencing a divorce, a job loss, or some other need? Let him or her know what your small group means to you and how he or she could also benefit.
Look for new people in church on Sunday. Often new people are hungry to build relationships, and an invitation to your home group will help them get connected.
Pray for One Another
Paul said to the Colossians, "For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is" (Colossians 2:5). Paul was not physically present in Colossae when he wrote his letter to the church, but he was with them in spirit through prayer.
Praying regularly for others helps you to enter into their problems and lives apart from being physically present. After praying regularly for group members, you will have increased awareness to build them up when you personally see them. Make it a habit to pray regularly for those in the group.
Take the Next Step
After learning how to become an excellent small-group member, God might ask you to take the next step and join the leadership team. The Christian life is a series of new steps and challenges, and God regularly asks each of us to take the next step. For some, the next step is joining a group. Other people need to enter the church's training to grow in knowledge and eventually join the leadership team or even lead a new group.
You will learn more as you give and become responsible for others. You'll learn to depend on God in a deeper way and your faith will grow to new heights. You will also help fulfill the pray of Jesus when he said, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field" (Matthew 9:37-38).