The relationship between spiritual growth and small groups is a bit tricky. Ask a small-group leader, “Is spiritual growth important to our groups?” and you’ll hear an enthusiastic, “Absolutely!” But follow that with this risky query: “Okay, but is it actually possible for real change to happen in our groups?” Many would force the reply, “Of course, it’s possible.” But a hint of doubt would betray their real feelings. Even if it is possible, how do we as leaders work alongside the Holy Spirit to foster that growth?
It’s like asking Cubs fans whether it’s possible for the North siders to win the World Series. The required answer is, “Sure. Next year is going to be the Cubs’ year!” But deep down, they may wonder.
Press further, though, and you’ll reach the question that gnaws at the soul of every small-group leader: “Is spiritual growth actually happening in our small groups?” Don’t be surprised if people respond with silence, confusion, shame, or doubt—or all four.
Spiritual Growth Is Communal
It’s hard to foster growth, but the Bible exhorts us in Colossians 1:28 to admonish and teach everyone with all wisdom, “so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” The Bible is clear on this, giving us over 25 “one another” statements exhorting us to pray for, serve, love, encourage, and comfort one another—just to name a few.
Church leaders remain convinced that people find hope and strength for their journey when they gather regularly with a small community for mutual support and wisdom. Among the many passages that connect spiritual maturity with community life, Ephesians 4:14–16 is exemplary:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Spiritual growth assessments also confirm what the Bible teaches. The popular REVEAL survey, used by thousands of churches, confirms the essential role of community in spiritual development. Those most committed to Christ (“Christ-centered” in REVEAL terminology) had the highest participation rates in groups and in other forms of community such as spiritual friendships, serving teams, and spiritual mentors. Many said that the small group was still the core component of community life for them, even though they voluntarily participated in other expressions of community.
Even when churches no longer offer official groups or require participation in a group for membership, people “group” anyway, even creating their own. No one committed to walking with Jesus wants to do the Christian life alone.
Yes, intentional community is essential for life change, and it’s clearly taught in the Bible and confirmed with data. But privately we may fearfully wonder, “Can our groups actually produce disciples? Can we become radically transformed human beings who are nuts about Jesus, instead of just nuts?”
Spiritual Growth Is for Everyone
Admittedly, we expect spiritual formation success from people like Pastor John Ortberg—certainly his group can change. Or if we’d had intensive mentoring from Dallas Willard, it surely would have carried us to the threshold of heaven itself! And is there really any doubt that if Richard Foster and the Renovare team led our group ministry, we’d experience non-stop spiritual growth, 24/7, every week of every year?