Note: This article is excerpted from Community Is Messy.
Most of us run our small groups like a classroom. We aren't necessarily lecturing from the front, but our groups tend to focus on content, and our goals revolve around completion of a curriculum. There's a tendency for us to fall into the trap of replacing spiritual workouts with spiritual workbooks. Discipleship is not about having the right answer to write into a blank. It's about allowing our relationship with Christ to change us and the way we relate to others. Why not move your group paradigm from the classroom environment to the lab? Here are just a few ideas for experimenting in your group.
Shake up the Current Components
Change the way you engage your Bible study or the way you pray. It could be as easy as changing the snacks. Forgo the traditional chips and salsa one night and encourage everyone to bring a food or snack that represents their childhood or the place they are from (watch out if you have a lot of internationals in your group—those flavors and aromas don't always mix well). Bring ingredients to make pizzas. Change up the flow of your meeting by moving prayer to the front end. Share leadership by asking each person in the group to facilitate discussion one night.
There's learning that happens face to face, and there's learning that happens shoulder-to-shoulder. Face to face learning happens as we sit around a table and share our thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Shoulder-to-shoulder learning happens when we go on mission together. Find a way to move your group out into the community on mission together, because when you serve together, you grow together. You grow closer in your relationship to one another, and you grow spiritually.
Instead of praying for your community together, why not send your entire group out into the streets and onto the sidewalks to pray on-site, asking a simple question, "How might you want to use us to bless this neighborhood?" Then come back together, talk about the experience, share any impressions you might have received through prayer, and then do it. Meet with your mayor or city council or school board to see if there's a practical way your group can bless the community.
You can often learn more about people by playing with them for a couple of hours than by talking with them for a couple of hours. When my husband, Ryan, and I go to New York City, we always stop by Colony Music to pick up some new karaoke CDs to use with our small group. After one trip when we dropped an absurd and slightly embarrassing amount of cash on them, Ryan said, "Think of all the community it will build." He was right.
We all understand and acknowledge the importance of prayer in our small groups (even if we don't always practice it well). But I don't know that we have a good grasp on the theology of fun. As silly as it sounds, a little karaoke, volleyball, cornhole, tennis, softball, spades, Settlers of Catan, kayaking, Ping-Pong, or soccer can sometimes be the most spiritual thing you can do.
Shared experiences cement relationships, and if the experiences introduce some pressure or friction, they can help us grow. Find a worship gathering that's very different from your own tradition, and go to it as a group. I've taken my small groups to Franciscan monasteries, Greek Orthodox churches, Stations of the Cross services, and Anglican churches. I've introduced them to icons, saints, Pentecostal gifts, and Reformed theology. Watch a movie and discuss the spiritual themes. Find ways to put into practice the things you are learning.
—Taken from Community Is Messy: The Perils and Promise of Small Group Ministry by Heather Zempel. Copyright 2012 by Heather Zempel. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.