Note: This article is excerpted from our training tool Unlock Spiritual Gifts.
During my first few years as a small-group leader, I became very interested in the spiritual growth of my group members. I learned early on that a group needs to be more than social interactions and intellectual stimulation, otherwise it becomes a country club or a Bible class—neither of which is a pathway to Christian community.
I wanted deeply for my group members to experience spiritual transformation. I wanted them to be changed through our experiences together. I wanted them to be better people and better disciples of Jesus. I wanted that for myself, as well.
Become a Spiritual Leader
Unfortunately, no sooner had I developed these goals than I ran into a pretty big problem: I didn't want to take any direct initiative in encouraging my group members to grow. In other words, I wanted my group members to experience spiritual change, but I found myself unable to push them toward that change in any direct way.
Part of my hesitation came from my philosophy of ministry. I believed then (and still believe now) that the Holy Spirit is responsible for spiritual transformation in the lives of people. I knew I couldn't push people to grow, nor could I "trick" them into spiritual growth using clever questions or innovative techniques.
However, the main factor in my hesitation was a lack of confidence in myself as a spiritual leader. I've never been a pastor, which meant I didn't feel qualified to speak directly to my group members about their spiritual lives. I also dislike confrontation, so I didn't want to imply that anyone in my group was struggling in a certain area or needed to get better.
In short, I decided to lead the group in a passive way and wait for the Holy Spirit to "do his work." The results were mixed. I know I grew spiritually in those years, and I believe some of my group members did indeed respond to the Spirit's work in their lives. But I can't say so with any kind of certainty because I never got directly involved.
Recently I've learned to take a more active role in the spiritual lives of my group members. I still believe that the Holy Spirit is the only source of transformation, but I also believe I have a role to play in helping my group members respond to what the Spirit is already doing in their lives.
After all, the apostle Paul wrote these words to the members of the churches in Thessalonica, not just to the leaders of those churches:
Now we ask you, brothers, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you, and to regard them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brothers: warn those who are irresponsible, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15).
Help Group Members Identify Their Gifts
One of my favorite ways to encourage growth within my group is to help my group members understand and use their spiritual gifts. Here are some suggestions for how you can do the same.
The Direct Approach
Take it from me: it's okay to take a direct approach when it comes to the spiritual gifts of your group members. Even if you're not a pastor, even if you don't consider yourself a spiritual leader, and even if you've never done it before—you can still make a positive impact in your group members' lives by directly and specifically encouraging them to identify and use their spiritual gifts.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make that happen:
Study the gifts. Because many people who join a small group are already Christians, group leaders often assume their members already have a strong knowledge of their own spiritual gifts. In reality, many Christians have only a vague knowledge of what their spiritual gifts are and how they influence our lives as Christians. It's very possible that the majority of your group members are unaware of their spiritual gifts.
For that reason, consider studying the spiritual gifts as a group. There are a number of published curriculum options (including Use Your Spiritual Gifts and Spiritual Gifts) that are helpful in identifying the different gifts and highlighting their application. There are also many "gift inventories" available that will allow your group members to determine some of their specific gifts.
If you choose to lead your group in a study of the spiritual gifts, be honest and up-front about your motivations. Encourage everyone to engage the study with the goal of identifying their gifts and discussing ways to use those gifts for God's kingdom.
- Initiate a spiritual conversation. When you feel like one or more group members could use some encouragement or affirmation regarding their spiritual gifts, invite them to talk about it. If appropriate, ask them to join you for a meal or for coffee. Don't ambush your group members by suddenly turning a normal conversation into a spiritual discussion. Instead, be direct about your goals when you initiate the meeting: "I'd like to talk about some of the ways I've seen God at work in your life."
Use "I see" language. Some group members may feel a bit put off if you make definitive statements about their character and personality. For example, telling someone "You have the gift of service, and you need to use it in our group" may not be the best approach during your conversation. While such a statement may be accurate, it can come across as invasive or overly personal.
Using "I see" or "I hear" language allows you to be direct in your observations without crossing a line. For example: "I see how your eyes light up when we talk about serving our community. What would you think about leading the group in a service project?" Or: "I've heard you talk about the different conversations you've had with your neighbors. Would you be willing to lead some evangelism training for our group?"
Taking this approach has the side benefit of letting your group members know that you've noticed God working in their lives, and that you care about their spiritual health.
- Keep an open mind. You may come into the conversation with several ideas for how your group member might use his or her spiritual gifts to benefit your community. However, don't hold on too tightly to your own plans. Your group members will find more success using their gifts if they're spurred on by their own passions and motivations. Be open to group members applying their gifts in ways you hadn't considered.
The Indirect Approach
While it's appropriate for you as a small-group leader to be direct in initiating spiritual conversations, there may also be times when it's best to be more subtle. Perhaps you initiated a conversation with a group member, but he or she is hesitant to move forward immediately. Or, you may know based on someone's personality that a direct conversation would be more frightening than encouraging.
For these situations, there are also indirect ways for calling out the spiritual gifts of your group members. Most of these methods involve positive reinforcement.
For example, you have a number of chances to highlight and affirm the giftings of your group members during each group meeting. You don't have to make these affirmations obvious or startling, but you can be intentional about speaking the truth in an encouraging way. "That's a great point, Lisa; you really have a gift for explaining Scripture in a way people can understand." "Thanks for making everyone so comfortable, Roger. We appreciate you sharing your gift of hospitality with us each week!"
You can also offer positive reinforcement outside of the group setting by sending notes, cards, texts, tweets, e-mails, and more. These don't have to be long or especially profound, nor do they need to be sappy or jam-packed with emotion. Rather, you can take a few minutes to communicate an "I see" statement to group members in a way that highlights their gifting and encourages them to continue contributing to God's work in your community. Indeed, in a culture where communication typically stays at the surface, you may be surprised at how meaningful a kind and encouraging note can be when someone receives it out of the blue.
Finally, you can encourage group members to own their spiritual gifts by giving them resources that point them in the right direction. If a group member has the gift of evangelism, for example, you could give them a book like The Master Plan of Evangelism, by Robert Coleman. Coupled with a note of encouragement, such a gift will both affirm your belief in your group member's gift and offer a way to learn more.
Such gifts don't have to be expensive, either. You could text someone a link to an article explaining a specific gift, or tell someone about a podcast that you feel would be helpful to a person of their gifting.
In the end, you have a responsibility to help your group members move toward spiritual transformation. And working to highlight their spiritual gifts—whether directly or indirectly—is a great place to start.
—Sam O'Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small-Group Leaders and an Editorial Advisor for SmallGroups.com; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.
Note: This article is excerpted from our training tool Unlock Spiritual Gifts.
- What role do you have in the spiritual growth of your group members? Are you doing too little or trying to do too much?
- How might you use "I see" language this week to talk with a group member about his or her spiritual gifts?
- When might an indirect approach to spiritual gifts be more appropriate?