SmallGroups.com recently caught up with Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, authors of Transformational Groups to learn what small groups are accomplishing and how small-group ministries can improve.
SmallGroups.com: Small-group ministry leaders often talk about the connection between relationships and spiritual growth. How does your research support or disprove that?
Stetzer and Geiger: Our research certainly agrees with this, especially with regards to one of the clearest markers of spiritual growth: spiritual disciplines. Specifically, people who are involved in a spiritual community exhibit a much higher commitment to practicing spiritual disciplines than those who are not.
A person actively involved in a group or spiritual community is 2.5 times more likely to read the Bible versus someone who isn’t, and more than 4 times more likely to study Scripture than someone who is not in a group. And it’s not just reading and studying the Bible. Our research also shows that those in groups pray, give, serve, and fellowship more than people who are not.
In short, the connection between meaningful relationships and spiritual growth is clear. We think this is so clear, and so vital, that we launched an initiative called Groups Matter.
A huge goal of small-group ministries is to connect people—to successfully integrate people into groups where they can form relationships. Is it enough to simply connect people into relationships, though? Is that enough to lead to discipleship?
Forming relationships is a great first step on the path of discipleship, but it’s not enough. True discipleship involves a process of spiritual maturation that simply cannot take place without the Word and other spiritual disciplines like prayer, confession, and encouragement.
One of the best ways to encourage spiritual growth in the context of relationships is to empower leadership within those groups. Having men and/or women within the community called and committed to guiding discussion, encouraging people biblically, and showing sensitivity to needs in the group goes a long way to helping people move beyond forming relationships to true discipleship.
How can small groups develop mature disciples?
This is a big question, but it begins simply through our relationships. One of the primary reasons Christians and even non-Christians find small groups to be inviting and safe is because they are relational in a way that larger church activities cannot be. And because discipleship is inherently relational, small groups provide a natural environment for discipleship. As I mentioned earlier, our research backs this up, showing that people who are actively involved in a small group exhibit the markers of discipleship and spiritual growth.
That being said, there are some specific things group leaders can do to encourage deeper levels of discipleship:
First, be attentive. Actively work to identify the natural and spiritual gifts of other people in the group. Maybe a person is a prayer warrior, or has the gift of hospitality. Maybe you have someone whose communication skills indicate he or she would make a great second teacher in the group. Encourage these people to take on responsibility and walk with them to answer their questions and lovingly critique and support their growth.
Second, small-group leaders should encourage gatherings of smaller groups within the larger group. Depending on group size and make-up, the leader could split men and women or divide people up into groupings of four or so. These smaller groups can meet at the end of group time or at a different time during the week to provide specific accountability, encouragement, and support on a deeper level than what is possible during regular group time.