Note: This article is excerpted from our resource Minister to Multiple Spiritual Maturity Levels.
Small groups can be dynamic gatherings of people growing closer to God and one another as small-group leaders guide group members toward their next spiritual steps. Yet when a small group includes everything from lifelong believers to faith newbies, helping group members grow in spiritual maturity can feel like an insurmountable task. Consider these four opportunities for maximizing growth when leading a multi-stage group.
Multiple stages in small groups offer people the opportunity to model, practice, and receive grace. When there's a mixture of on-the-fence believers, faithful believers, and former believers, your group represents a variety of perspectives present in the world. You have the opportunity to help group members develop relationships with people that may be very different from them. This will equip them to give and receive grace outside your group.
Dedicate time to small talk and casual conversation. As counterintuitive as that sounds, people need to get to know each other socially so they can come to understand each other spiritually. One great idea is to build a meal into your small-group time or dedicate a portion of your meeting to coffee and refreshments. The casual conversation over food will help build trust and deepen relationships within the group.
Incorporate icebreakers at the beginning of your study time. While icebreakers may not seem to have much lasting value, they actually go a long way in setting up a healthy environment that will help group members develop authentic relationships. Icebreakers give group members a chance to interact in both a personal and social way, setting the stage for grace to flow more freely in spiritually challenging conversations.
One icebreaker idea is to ask group members to identify both their favorite and most-hated childhood foods. It will get everyone talking and sharing, and probably provide a few laughs. It can also launch into a discussion on Daniel, the Jewish Feasts, or Romans 14. For great icebreaker ideas, view the ideas at SmallGroups.com.
Use prayer time to help group members know one another at a deeper level. Not everyone is comfortable sharing personal prayer requests simply because you ask for them. If you sense that group members aren't sharing authentically during your prayer request time, try something new. One idea is to create a handout featuring a variety of emoticons. Pass them out at prayer time and ask each person to circle two emoticons that sum up their feelings during the past week. Then have them gather in groups of two or three and share why they picked those two emoticons. Members of the smaller groups can then pray for one another. Or simply divide up into groups of two or three before asking for prayer requests. The smaller group may be enough to draw quieter members out.
See with Fresh Eyes
When multiple stages of spiritual maturity are represented in a small group, group members are able to see God's Word with fresh eyes. When a lifelong believer—who knows the Word by heart—and a new believer—who is not sure where to start reading—come together for study, both learn new insights.
Read Scripture from multiple translations during your study. Use both a more traditional translation and a modern translation. Consider the differences in how the words are translated and the changes in language over the years.
Research the historical context or commentary for passages that will be studied. When you share the background information, you'll give all group members, regardless of level of maturity, a common place to start. Even better, have some of the more mature believers volunteer to do this research and present it at the meeting. Tap into their knowledge.
Make it clear that all questions are welcome. Whether they're questions of clarification or deeper analysis, members should feel safe asking what's on their mind. Deeper questions may push the new believers to take the next step in their relationship with God; questions from new believers may prompt seasoned believers to take a second look at a very familiar passage.
Individualize the Education Plan
God's Word is alive and relevant to our lives, just as it was thousands of years ago. But God's people experience and live out that Word in personal ways. Intentionally planning a discussion that appeals to everyone from new to lifelong believers can encourage spiritual growth at all levels.
Look for opportunities to break into smaller groups according to levels of spiritual maturity. Sometimes we do need to be with others in a similar stage. Just use discretion as you form these groups so that newer believers don't feel judged for lack of experience. On the flip side, look for opportunities to pair up your spiritually wise members with your spiritually young ones. This diversity can maximize growth for both individuals as they mentor and learn from one another. They may pair up in smaller groups during your meeting for discussion, or they might meet outside of group for a focused prayer time. Instead of trying to get everyone to the same place spiritually, focus on having everyone take his or her next step—whatever the appropriate step is.
Empower those further along by asking them to help you in some way. Allow them to organize aspects of the meeting, present background information on a passage, lead a discussion from time to time, or facilitate the group prayer.
If your group requires homework, offer multiple possibilities. For instance, if you're studying Ephesians 1, allow younger believers to simply read the chapter. More mature believers might read that chapter as well as the rest of Ephesians for context. They could also read the first chapter each day for one week, asking God to speak to them. They could also incorporate journaling into their reading. Stretch group members with homework that fits their stage, allowing them to choose which level is appropriate for themselves.
Expect the Unexpected
When you invite the Holy Spirit to be at work in your group, you should expect the unexpected. Spiritual growth doesn't usually happen in the ways we expect it, and your newest believer today may become one of your most mature members tomorrow. Spiritual maturity can happen in the most unlikely places and at the most unlikely times, so watch for it, encourage it, and help it unfold.
Recognize that you are not in control—God is. Follow God's lead in bringing people closer to him, regardless of where they're starting. There is nothing more humbling than watching one of your spiritually mature members break down and share transparently about a struggle while a newer believer offers a hug and reminders of God's love and grace.
With multiple stages of spiritual maturity in a group, there are certainly times when members will drive each other crazy. More mature believers may have blinders that younger believers don't understand. Newer believers may lack confidence in God that spiritually mature believers rest in. Despite their differences, though, the Holy Spirit can and will work to help them learn from each other.
—Rachel Gilmore is author of The Complete Leader's Guide to Christian Retreats and Church Programs and Celebrations for All Generations; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.
- Which of these four categories—model grace, see with fresh eyes, individualize the education plan, and expect the unexpected—seem most difficult? Why?
- How can you empower more mature believers to help and engage newer believers?
- What one or two steps can you take this week to make your group a safer place for people of all levels of spiritual maturity?