As I read Transformational Groups, it was clear that the authors, Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, are passionate about small groups. They share their personal stories of group experiences and proclaim that groups truly matter. They believe that groups—in various forms—are essential to the Christian life. They write,
Do you think it's possible for a Christian to grow apart from community? We don't. Disciples can't be fully formed apart from community. Community is sanctifying. Blind spots will remain in our lives unless we allow those we trust to look closely at us and tell us exactly what they are seeing. Unfortunately, these people cannot look closely unless they are spending considerable time with us—like in a smaller group of some kind.
People who love small groups will certainly find this book encouraging. More than simply anecdotes, though, Stetzer and Geiger share research conducted by LifeWay that supports the need for small groups. In this informational and practical book, they share research that supports the "why" of small groups, steps for choosing the right group strategy for your church culture, the importance of leadership development and multiplication, and tips for application questions any group can use.
They also share helpful insights into those who don't attend groups—including those who have never attended and those who once attended, but have stopped. You'll learn practical tips to reach out to the nonattenders in your church, community, and neighborhood.
The Good News
The exciting news from this book is that even if groups aren't accomplishing all we'd hoped, they're certainly accomplishing a lot. In fact, the research reports that people "who attend a group at least four times a month show a significantly higher score in every area of discipleship compared with those who do not attend." In fact, "people in groups are more likely to share their faith, repent of sins regularly, give sacrificially, serve faithfully, and read their Bibles." That's incredible! While we may still hope to see more in our group members, we can celebrate the fact that God is using groups to create people who look more and more like Christ.
And the group model isn't as important as you might think. While many in the small-group world get caught up talking about which model for groups is best, Stetzer and Geiger share what's really important is that groups are gathering together to do a few key things: practice spiritual disciplines, care for one another during life transitions, connect between meetings, have fun together, serve together, eat together, invite unchurched friends, and meet weekly. Outside of these practices, the right group model for your church is the one that best matches your context.
It's encouraging to take a new look at the way Jesus led his small group of disciples. So often we focus on all the amazing things they did together—things we feel we could never accomplish with our groups. But Stetzer and Geiger paint a fuller picture:
Transformation is a communal experience, not an individual exercise. Jesus, God on earth, understood this fact. His model of disciple making must be ours. Jesus chose twelve, a small group. The synergy that occurred in that group of twelve aided greatly in the process of making these men mature disciples. The conversations they engaged in, the time they served Rabbi Jesus together, the processing of Jesus' teachings around a campfire, even the missteps these men shared were all in Jesus' plan for making them into the mature disciples He needed them to be. Doing life together is an unquestionable essential in the disciple-making process.
Rather than do extraordinary things together, the key element was simply doing life together, day in and day out.
Stetzer and Geiger also do a great job of laying out a plan for finding the right leaders and developing those leaders. Their research revealed that the number one attribute group members looked for in their leaders was the ability to help people feel comfortable sharing in the group. Rather than looking for leaders who know it all or can teach especially well, Stetzer and Geiger suggest looking for people who love people and groups. When leaders have personally experienced the blessing of community, they're able to draw others into community.
The Bad News
While the book is encouraging overall, it also points out some scary statistics. While most pastors believe transformation happens best in groups—a fact that the research proves—less than half of pastors have a visible strategy for groups. Think about that: Though groups should be our number one strategy for discipleship, most churches don't have a groups strategy.
On top of that, most group members act like consumers. Rather than seeing group as a place to care for others, serve, and learn together, most group members see the group's primary function as serving their needs. While groups certainly do meet the needs of group members, they only do so by each group member serving the others. A consumeristic mindset is dangerous in group life. Even scarier: small-group pastors and leaders may be the reason group members approach groups this way. The way we communicate about the purpose of groups directly impacts what group members expect when they join.
Perhaps most convicting is the call for small-group ministry leaders to empower others to lead. The reason they express this? Many ministry leaders want to do it all themselves, so they control the ministry by refusing to empower more leaders to lead. Yikes! If we truly want to experience an overflow of mature disciples in our churches, we have to empower capable people to lead and multiply even more leaders. Without this vision for multiplication, we'll miss out. More than that, our people will miss out on the transformational work God does through groups.
I'm thankful for the research that went into writing this book. There is little research done specifically on small groups, and these kinds of facts and figures can help us create transformational groups in our contexts.
Transformational Groups is a great read for small-group pastors, directors, and coordinators who want to be encouraged with what small groups can accomplish, and to put together a plan for groups that will fit their contexts. The authors do a great job of helping readers imagine the amazing possibilities for small-group ministry.
This would also be a helpful book for small-group coaches who are directly investing in group leaders. Chapter 5: The Right Leaders is a helpful read for coaches. On top of that, Chapter 6: Group Practices can help coaches train leaders in the elements of healthy and growing small groups.
Transformational Small Groups (B&H Publishing Group, 2014) is available in paperback and ebook.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.