Note: This article has been excerpted from Small Groups Big Impact, written by Jim Egli and Dwight Marable. The book outlines the results of the authors' large-scale statistical research among churches and small groups.
Just because a group attracts visitors to its meetings and brings new persons to faith in Christ does not necessarily mean that the group will succeed in enfolding those new persons into the life of the group. Our research revealed that the groups most successful in assimilating the new people it attracts are those with a high level of loving relationships—what we call Care.
The growth difference between groups strong in Care and groups scoring weak in Care is pronounced. Of all the groups surveyed, 44 percent of the groups strong in Care report adding 4 or more members since their group started, but less than half that number, only 18 percent, of those weak in the Care factor report the same.
Groups that score high on Care are groups that feel "like a family to one another." Members in these groups pray for each other and support one another in times of need. Joy and laughter flow in their small-group meetings, and the members spend time with one another outside of their group meetings. They share meals with each other. The research revealed that, when possible, members of these groups even try to sit together at their church's worship services.
Can Outreach and Loving Relationships Go Together?
Our research reveals that outreach to new people (Reach) and loving relationships (Care) should and must go together. An outward focus does not diminish the atmosphere of care and support in a group—it increases it. And a strong outward focus is also incomplete in and of itself. Groups that focus on reaching others for Christ must also nurture caring relationships in order to draw new people into the life of the group.
Repeatedly in the New Testament outreach and loving community are held together. Both display that God's Spirit is at work (Acts 2:41-47; 4:31-32). Perhaps 1 John 1:3 expresses the unity of outreach and Christian community most powerfully: "We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."
When there is genuine care in a group, members usually feel free to share even if someone new is present. And a high level of openness and caring can draw newcomers into a deeper experience of God's love. When a group is both actively seeking new people and nurturing caring relationships, Jesus' love can draw newcomers into belonging and growth in Christ.
Discouraged or Encouraged?
The level of Care in a group impacts the encouragement felt by the small-group leader. One survey statement reads, "I feel discouraged as a small-group leader," to which respondents can answer: rarely, seldom, sometimes, often, or very often.
Their answers reveal one factor that impacts leader discouragement more than any other: the leaders most likely to be discouraged are those whose groups are experiencing very little Care between their members. On the other hand, groups experiencing high levels of Care tend to have leaders who are encouraged about their group and themselves as leaders.
Understand the Stages of Small-Group Life
The research of Bruce Tuckman has identified five stages that small groups typically go through: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. Understanding these stages helps small-group leaders and members deepen the level of community in their groups.
The Forming stage is sometimes called the "honeymoon" stage because members tend to be very positive about the group and one another, even though they don't yet know each other well. Yet in the Forming stage members also experience uncertainty. They wonder: What is the purpose of this group? How can I fit in and contribute to the group's aims? Some people will test limits and others might try to impose their own objectives.
Conflict emerges in the next phase of group life—the Storming stage. Different expectations and personal conflicts create turbulence. Members become disillusioned with the group, its members, or its leaders. The Storming phase is a positive and welcome development, however. It means that group members are really getting to know one another and learning to work through their conflicting personalities and expectations.
Next groups enter a Norming stage as members work through their differences and take ownership in the group. Commitment and unity grow. Now people understand the mission of the group and are growing in care for one another.
This leads to the Performing stage. In this stage, members work together toward the group's goals. Each member understands how to contribute her own effort and abilities. The group now works together as a healthy team. There is still conflict as people rub against each other and offer differing ideas, but the conflict can now be resolved more positively.
Tuckman labeled the fifth and final stage, when a group fulfills its goal and disbands, as Adjourning. In small groups of Christ-followers this stage would better be called Reforming as groups multiply and launch new groups. When members "regroup" into new configurations, the stages of community begin again.
Tuckman's stages are a helpful explanation and simplification of small-group interaction. Of course, different people go through the stages at different rates, especially those entering a group midcourse.
Grow in Care through the Stages of Group Life
Here are some practical suggestions to help group leaders and members grow in Care through the stages of small group life.
Forming. In the forming stage, people want to grow in relationship with each other and they want to know what a group's purpose is. In this initial stage, provide fun relationship building activities like parties or cookouts. Allow extra time within the group meeting itself for relational interaction. It's helpful in this stage to allow more time for icebreakers and to make study questions more personal.
In this stage the leader should also clearly and repeatedly state the group's mission. This mission should be shaped by the church's small-group philosophy and the passion that God is giving the leader or the group's leadership team. Explain the five stages of group life. That way people can welcome the storming phase as a positive opportunity instead of being taken off guard.
Storming. Storming is the most challenging stage for group leaders and members. The people that seemed so wonderful last month have somehow become irritating. In this stage it is helpful to study the rich "one another" passages of the New Testament. People need to hear again God's invitation to "love one another deeply" (1 Peter 1:22), to "share each other's troubles and problems" (Galatians 6:2), to "honor each other" (Romans 12:10), and to "be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32).
Perhaps some members compare the group to previous groups that they were in and conclude that this group does not measure up. Group leaders should patiently listen to people's concerns in this stage, while clearly restating their own goals and vision for the group. People should understand that each group has its own strengths and weaknesses. This group may not match a previous group in some aspects, but it will have unique strengths to offer as members open themselves to the new ways God wants to work in their lives.
"High need" people in the group should be referred to special ministries of the church or local Christian community. Although the small group can help meet some of their needs, they likely have needs that require special help.
Norming. In the Norming stage, the leaders should keep sharing the vision for group growth and multiplication. At this point people have truly bought in, so involve them in as much ministry as possible. Notice what people are good at and what they are drawn to, then invite them to lead and contribute to the group. Send and take members to leadership and other training events that your church is offering. Have members plan fun events that both members and unreached friends would enjoy coming to.
Performing. In the Performing stage, the group leader or leaders should be doing almost nothing themselves. Others should be hosting, leading worship, guiding the Bible discussion, leading the prayer and ministry time, and so on. If the leaders have given ministry away, as recommended, they can relax and enjoy the group more as a member. Their time is now spent more with emerging leaders evaluating how things are going and encouraging them in their development, rather than doing things themselves. It is pivotal, however, to continue to communicate the mission of the group to reach out and launch new groups so that people are ready for the next stage.
Reforming. Reforming means sending out new leaders and giving birth to a new group or groups. Like human birth, however, this stage also involves pain and adjustments.
—Jim Egli and Dwight Marable; excerpted with permission from Small Groups Big Impact (ChurchSmart Resources, 2011).