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.