A clear, well-articulated purpose provides both fuel and focus for a small group. But too often, too many people are confused about why they’re actually gathering in their small group. And because of that, their groups fail to gain the momentum they need to actually foster spiritual growth.
When we did our research for our new book Leading Small Groups That Thrive (Zondervan, August 2020), we found that many group members were confused about the real reason their group was together.
Beyond that, when one church’s staff and small group leaders were asked this question, their responses held almost no consistency. Some talked about building relationships, while others focused on living out key values or being irresistible witnesses to the community. Certainly all of those couldn’t be the purpose. And because of that confusion, their groups failed to launch.
Purpose is crucial. Here’s why:
1. Purpose Personalizes Your Ministry’s Focus
If your group operates within a larger church or ministry, your purpose will be influenced by your organizational mission and its discipleship and connection strategy. As a leader, you must translate and contextualize the broader purpose of groups into a specific purpose for your particular group. Every group within a larger ministry should have its own unique purpose that falls within the broader mission of the small groups program. For example, if your group consists of families, then alongside the church’s groups’ purpose of growing together and with Jesus, you might decide that your specific small group will also intentionally serve other families in need.
Purpose is important because it specifies the mission of the church to enhance the growth of the group.
2. Purpose Provides Structure
Many problems groups experience are, at the core, problems of purpose. In groups, purpose problems are like structural and foundational issues in homes. If you suffer from structural problems, you won’t ever be able to move beyond them. Eventually, your group will crumble like a house built on sand, just as Jesus warned in Matthew 7. Just like a child who thrives most under boundaries and predictable interactions, a small group can flourish when there is a solid, predictable structure.
Purpose is important because it lays a firm foundation for the group.
3. Good Purpose Lays the Groundwork for Growth
Small group leaders often think that creating groups with the dual purposes of discipleship and fellowship is enough to lay a firm foundation. Those foci of small group ministry are certainly important—and even necessary—but they should not be the sole elements of purpose. In our research, groups that focused on purposes besides discipleship and fellowship (such as ministry, worship, and evangelism) demonstrated a greater contribution to members’ spiritual growth.
Interestingly, it seems as though groups that gather for the primary goals of building intentional relationships and growing in the Lord show smaller contributions to individuals’ spiritual health. Perhaps this is because they generally require less effort. Groups that prioritize fellowship and discipleship may take the form of a book discussion, a shared meal, or simply rubbing shoulders with one another—all of which require minimal focus and preparation. On the other hand, groups that prioritize discovering and using God-given gifts and talents (ministry) or surrendering one’s heart and life to Christ on an ongoing basis (worship) often require much more of group leaders and group members. The groups that prioritized something other than building relationships and growing spiritually actually showed the greatest spiritual and relational growth.
Purpose is important because it naturally creates fellowship and makes disciples as the group focuses on other goals.
4. Purpose Guides Your Strategy
For the staff and leaders at that church mentioned above, purpose was unclear and inconsistent. Each response focused on a meaningful element of small groups ministry, but not all of them can be the ministry’s purpose. Here’s why: each core purpose requires a different focus and a different strategy to accomplish it. Once purpose was clearly articulated, groups began to focus on what really mattered to them; spiritual growth. The ministry team was able to define real outcomes which then lead to distinct strategies to accomplish those outcomes.
When a small groups ministry knows its purpose, the ministry will know better what to do and what not to do. When a small group knows its purpose, its leaders will more readily identify the strategies that will facilitate achieving that purpose. For example, when a group knows it exists in order to grow biblical literacy, it will more likely steer away from recruiting members through social events and more likely structure the group’s time with that purpose in mind. It might be less likely to take prayer requests and more likely to study the Word of God both in and outside of group gatherings.
Purpose is important because it determines leaders’ ministry strategies.
5. Purpose Gives Life
For all these reasons, you should regularly revisit your group’s purpose. Talk about your group’s purpose openly and often. Make changes as your group itself changes. Remind members why you have chosen and committed to grow alongside one another.
When purpose is stated and restated (and restated some more), it should excite, invigorate, and inspire participation. This can only happen when you get purpose right.
Here are a few tips for how to craft a purpose that will fuel and focus your group:
Be focused. Get crystal-clear about and laser-focused on your purpose.
Meet real needs. Craft purpose in a way that connects with people’s needs and greatest desires.
Look beyond the boundaries of the group. Pursue a purpose that’s about more than just the group itself.
If purpose is properly personalized, has good structure, and meets the needs of its members and the community, revisiting it will give joy and life to all participants.
Purpose is important because it gives life to the group.
Now, with this understanding in your back pocket, decide: What is your primary purpose of your small group?
*Adapted from Leading Small Groups That Thrive, Zondervan, August 2020