Beyond Good Small-Group Meetings

Beyond Good Small-Group Meetings

A review of M. Scott Boren's 'Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus'

I felt lost. I was standing in front of our congregation as our pastor introduced new small-group leaders to the church. My wife and I, with a few friends, were taking on the responsibility of leading a midweek group. We had vision. We had passion. We had training, space to meet, and even a good e-mail system for consistent communication. But every so often, an unwelcome feeling would nip at the back of my brain. What are we doing? Who do we think we are to lead a group?

It wasn't that I didn't feel up to it. I did. But that feeling, lost, never did quite go away.

It might well be that each of us tasked with leading and being led in the way of Jesus could look at life as a labyrinth—full of turns and seeming dead ends, blind corners and the occasional long hallway that promises a destination. I'm inspired to think of the possibilities of walking that maze with others. And you know the thing about a labyrinth? You feel lost even when you're right where you should be, even in the passages closest to your destination.

Boren's new book, Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, is aimed at a wide spectrum of church leaders. Small-group pastors and other pastoral staff can use Boren's wisdom to reconsider and evaluate the strategy of an entire group structure or ministry. "Green" leaders eager for advice (Please. ANY advice!) will find basic guidance for leading healthy groups. Veteran group leaders will find strengthened perspectives, great reminders, and a few new practical strategies.

The text is structured around eight key practices (Hear the rhythms of the Jesus way, Gather in the presence, Lead collaboratively, Be yourself, Hang out, Make a difference, Fight well, and Point the way to the cross) that anchor groups in the teachings, practices, and leadership style of Christ.

Just a skim of those practices highlights that this is not a quick-fix book. Readers looking for the "next big thing" or drag-and-drop curriculum and group training should go elsewhere. This is a book that will raise more (good) questions than it answers. Group leaders, while growing in their skills and language for recognizing and fostering true group health, will long to process the themes here over many, many cups of coffee with friends and mentors. I recommend this book for personal reading, group leaders' discussion, or for mining and integrating key principles and practices into small-group ministries and discipleship ministries.

Timeless themes, to be sure, but it's still a timely, trending title. Last year's (2014) standout ministry books highlighted themes overlooked for too long in modern ministry conversation. Books like Slow Church, The New Parish, and others advocating the central nature of patient, quiet, faithful localized ministry offered a pop-level take on rediscovering many of the perennial hallmarks of Christian ministry. Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus is, from my perspective, firmly in that "slow" tradition. For instance, Boren advocates the importance of neighborhood and local networks. It's focused more on building depth than breadth, cultivating rooted leaders rather than flashy programs, and building groups that are resilient, collaboratively-led, and with the ability to persist, rather than elevating the wisdom of a single man or woman to dominate growth or group life.

While most small-group leaders will nod their heads eagerly at these ideas, the reality is that they run contrary to many small-group trends and institutional strategies. They run contrary to many cultural and consumeristic values. They run contrary to the inclinations of our own hearts, bent as we are away from the way of Jesus—toward power and immediately visible results.

Just a quick read of Boren's deep commitment to collaborative ministry will make many of us squirm, especially if we're in organizations committed to advancing top-down leadership vision at the expense of collaboration. But if we're willing to listen, it, like many of the other principles in the book, translates immediately into practice, with recommendations for co-leadership models. I'm thankful for my own experiences with co-leading groups. It's the one thing that kept me from truly getting lost.

"[W]e cannot improve on the small group as a fundamental form around which church life operates," Boren writes in the book's introduction. "At the same time not all groups are created equal." Indeed. And what can move your group to a new stage of development and fruitfulness? Honest examination, followed by cultivating practices of life and leadership based on the way of Jesus.

For all of us wanderers in that labyrinth, M. Scott Boren has crafted a well-written, practical guide to the journey that will offer pastors and lay leaders alike if not a map, then at least a travel guide, full of encouragement and seasoned advice.

This is not a book of quick fixes. It is a book that can spark contemplation, renewal, and new life in you and your group. It may not be a checklist for immediate growth or multiplication, but it might be a map toward maturity.

But who can tell? Like the best teachings of Jesus, some truths must be walked in for a lifetime to see where they take you. But if, even in the least, you find yourself feeling lost as a group leader—well, this sure seems like a good companion for the journey.

—Paul J. Pastor is a writer, editor, and grassroots pastor living in the woods near Portland, Oregon.

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