When I talk with small-group leaders—both from my church and other churches—they ask me what they can and can't do in small groups. I believe you can choose to lead small groups just about any way you want. There is no "one right way." The important thing to understand, though, is that every choice you make has advantages and disadvantages.
So, I try to help people weigh the pros and cons of the various questions they ask. Here are some typical questions I hear:
Can we meet every other week instead of weekly?
Can we meet in a classroom instead of in a home?
Can we have our leaders teach instead of following the message series?
Can we meet until midnight instead of staying within the two-hour timeframe?
All of these methods have pros and cons, and leaders need to feel the freedom to explore them and make decisions on their own. Of course, I want our leaders to choose options that have the most advantages, but I also want to give them freedom within our structure. I also stress the value of doing things that others can replicate or reproduce. That way, no group is overly dependent on the leader.
In order to allow for some differences between groups, we provide a flexible system that provides some guidance and allows them to modify it for their group. (We tell them it's important to follow the system because it stands for "Save Yourself Some Time, Energy, and Meltdown.") Our structure has two main parts: the five W's of meetings and discussion questions based on the weekend sermon.
Follow the Five W's
Welcome (10 minutes)
There are a couple of church-wide announcements and a simple icebreaker to help build relationships.
Worship (10 minutes)
We generally sing a song or two and have a time of prayer in order to focus on Jesus.
Win (15 minutes)
We keep a short list of unsaved friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers that we're reaching out to. During this time we pray for them and plan social activities we can invite them to.
Word (30 minutes)
We study and discuss God's Word. Many groups focus this time on the sermon topic of the week.
Works (25 minutes)
We break into groups of two or three and pray for each other. We lift up needs, praises, and ask that God will use us.
The majority of our groups use questions from the weekend's sermon for their study ("Word") time. I believe sermon-based groups help us live out James 1:22—we spend time trying to be doers of the Word we heard over the weekend. So I prepare three or four major questions based on the weekend sermon and e-mail them to the leaders. I encourage the leaders to cut these questions up and hand them to different people as they arrive. This allows multiple people the opportunity to ask a question, and we hope everyone in the group will answer the questions. The leader then is able to facilitate the discussion, drawing out thoughts and moving the group from question to question.
Our system provides leaders the tools they need to prepare fairly quickly for group meetings. It also allows them to be flexible and to modify the structure for their group's needs. With this structure, no one asks if they can do something anymore. Instead, they ask what the advantages and disadvantages are of a modification.
—Jay Firebaugh is the Director of Small Groups at New Life Church in Gahanna, Ohio. You can check out practical tools for pastors and small-group leaders on his All About Small Groups Facebook page. Used with permission from the author.