Intentional Spiritual Growth in Small Groups

Intentional Spiritual Growth in Small Groups

Understanding how we grow and change

Note: This article is excerpted from our Training Tool Theological Discussions for Everyone.

As small-group leaders, we want to help the people in our groups grow and mature in their faith. We want them to experience life change and walk away from our groups different from when they came in. And so we discuss the Bible or the sermon from Sunday or some theology we want our group members to understand.

Although we have good intentions, we may not see the change we're hoping for, and that's because so few of us have considered what it takes to really grow. James C. Wilhoit writes in Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered, "Christian spiritual formation: (1) is intentional; (2) is communal; (3) requires our engagement; (4) is accomplished by the Holy Spirit; (5) is for the glory of God and the service of others; and (6) has as its means and end the imitation of Christ." A lot goes into spiritual formation—the process of becoming more like Christ—and yet we often enter into it with little to no thought. And then we wonder why we're not seeing results.

To get the results we desire, we must take a step back and ask, How do we grow? If we're to be intentional in our formation, we must understand the process. Essentially, all growth begins with a desire, a yearning for a change. We must decide that we want to grow. This desire may come as we read about the way things should be or we see a godly attribute in another. It may come when we've been humbled and shown a side of our self that we tend to ignore.

But the desire is simply not enough. If it were, we wouldn't struggle to keep our New Year's resolutions each year. Instead, we must allow our desire to propel us to gain knowledge that will help us see things differently. This knowledge will turn into changed behavior and a new way of life. As we experience this new way of life, we develop new desires for change and growth, and the cycle starts over again.

To flesh out this cycle, imagine that Sara has the desire to make a difference in the world, to have a life of meaning. It's a good desire, but without adding knowledge, Sara has no idea how to make a difference. Then, Sara's small group works through a Bible study on spiritual gifts. As she learns what spiritual gifts are, takes an inventory of her own gifts, and talks with others about how she might be gifted, she learns that there's a good chance she has the spiritual gift of encouragement. Understanding that spiritual gifts are to be used to build up the church, Sara feels compelled to serve somewhere using her gift of encouragement. She becomes a small-group coach to encourage and empower other small-group leaders in their role. Her desire to make a difference plus learning about spiritual gifts has led to change in her life. Now she knows she's making a difference in her church and in the lives of the leaders in her care. As she gets more comfortable in her new role, she begins to desire deeper relationships with her leaders so she can better encourage them. And so the cycle starts over again.

As we lead groups of 6-12, it seems much more daunting to cater to this spiritual formation cycle in each of our group members, but it is possible. First, we must work to create the right environment for this to happen.

Safe to Share
Without safety and openness in your group, members won't ever get close to sharing their heart's true desires and needs. What worries them? What do they hope for in life? What's one thing they wish they could change? What sin or issue keeps them in a downward spiral? What unhealthy patterns do they have?

Share your own desires and struggles to model healthy disclosure. Listen between the lines when group members share stories or prayer requests. Consider the events of group members' lives that repeat or keep them in a negative cycle. Listen for phrases that stand out to group members as you read through the Bible. Above all, show that you genuinely care about your group members, share from your heart, and keep judgments outside your discussion. If you're new to each other or haven't gotten to a level of sharing authentically yet, invest time in getting to know one another, sharing testimonies and favorite verses, and praying for one another.

Cater the Curriculum to Group Members' Needs
Once you know the desires and felt needs of the group—whether or not they've been explicitly stated—you can begin helping your group members gain the knowledge they need to see life change. So, for instance, if several group members have expressed a desire for healthier spending habits, you may want to work through a specific money management curriculum, look through passages in the Gospels about money and wealth, or hear firsthand from someone in your church who has turned their finances around. You'll want your group members to hear God's Word on the subject, but how you get that message could vary, and it's okay to use different means.

Realistically, it's unlikely that your entire group will have the same specific desire like this at the same time. So instead of making the curriculum as specific as a financial curriculum, consider the underlying desires—the real needs—that several group members are experiencing. The person desiring healthier spending habits may have the underlying desire to depend on God more. That more general desire will also line up with the group member who is struggling with worry, the single women who wonders if she'll ever get married, and the overachieving workaholic. Focusing on the desire to depend on God more will appeal to many, if not most, of your group members. Additionally, it's a topic that regularly comes up in the Christian life, so even if someone doesn't currently feel this desire, he or she probably has or will sometime soon.

When you introduce your study or discussion, make sure to tie it back to this desire. Before you even dive in, let people know how it intersects with life. In other words, identify the issue that your discussion will seek to resolve. If your group members know the discussion relates to them in some way, they'll be more likely to engage and take the new information to heart.

Remain Open to the Spirit's Movement
The best leaders make plans but stay open to what the Spirit may want to do in the meeting. For most, this doesn't come naturally, but over time, you can get better at it. Our goal should be to work alongside the Spirit, allowing him to do the work of transformation. The leader's responsibility is to help create an environment where the Spirit can work.

Carol Lackey Hess explains the Spirit is "simultaneously expressed as the Presence of God which confronts us with our creaturely finitude and limit and the Presence of God which makes possible the opening up of our disruptive limits." So, the Spirit both "cuts us to the heart" and opens up our heart so transformation can take place. As Christians, we recognize that true change never occurs by our own hand. Yes, we must engage in the process, but in the end, someone totally other must do the work because we simply aren't capable of it on our own. The Spirit does this work, and even simply acknowledging this fact can have a huge impact on our growth. At the same time, this knowledge can't release us from this transformation dance with the Spirit that requires our engagement. We are never off the hook in the process. We must work alongside the Spirit to experience this change.

Move from Knowledge to Application
As we gain knowledge and the Spirit transforms our minds, we'll begin to see behavioral changes that reflect our new way of life. Our changed thinking will prompt us to apply these new thoughts and attitudes to our lives. Don't allow group members to simply participate in the discussion without seeking to apply the new knowledge to their lives. There should always be a focus on answering the question, Now what? Over time, group members will naturally end your discussion time with ways they will apply the new knowledge gained, and you'll begin to see change in their lives—and your own.

This kind of life change, however, can quickly slip away if we don't have a community to support and encourage us. Otherwise our will gives out, our knowledge grows fuzzy, and we begin to slip back into old patterns. Accountability may be highly structured and involve checking in with one another on goals, or it may be more general and consist of the group members continually reminding one another of their identity in Christ and all that the Spirit has been doing in them. Regardless, there must be an emphasis on recognizing and celebrating change.

Then take inventory. What new desires does this change stir up in your group members? These new desires will help guide you to your next discussion focus.

—Amy Jackson is managing editor of and holds an M.A. in Christian Formation and Ministry; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.


  1. How well do you know the desires and needs of your group members? What overlap is there among group members?
  2. What discussion topics, Bible passages, or other learning experiences might work well to move the desires of your group members into action?
  3. How well do you lead your group from knowledge to application? What might you do to ensure this movement always happens in your meetings?

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