If you’re a Jesus follower, you need to have some other Jesus followers in your life for mutual encouragement and accountability. It’s one of the habits of spiritual maturity – gathering with the church as a body for worship and scattering with small groups to do life together.
No one can deny the popularity of social networking. It’s everywhere. It’s the cloud we breathe all the time without even thinking about it. If you’re like most people, you get anxious when you’re more than eight steps from your phone, and you think you feel it buzzing in your pocket even when it’s quietly lying on the table. But is social media useful for small groups?
I believe you can’t have a healthy small group without being about social media. Apps, gadgets, and social networking websites are optional, but social media is a phrase that captures the very reason why small-group ministry exists. Let me explain.
Media simply means information or data. Media is content—the message. Social is merely a word we use to describe the way media travels: from person to person, relationally. Small groups are all about people getting together in relationships around a message. So social media is the very DNA of small-group ministry, with or without the Internet.
If you believe that both content and relationships are at the core of any great small-group ministry, you’re already well on your way to using social media more effectively for ministry. We just need to establish a good philosophy of how technology relates to ministry.
I believe that modern social networking tools have the power to unite us around causes, connect us with new people, and extend the reach of important messages people need to hear—including the gospel. And I’m convinced that social media has tremendous potential to improve group life and small-group ministry. Here’s how:
With whom are you doing life? What I mean is, with whom do you spend time hanging out and talking about the deepest things of life? Whom do you sharpen, and who sharpens you?
Jesus lived toward the cross and the resurrection, and his singular focus on his end game motivated him to live very intentionally. He depended on God for constant guidance and made choices rather strategically. For example…
One day soon afterward, Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles.
– Luke 6:12-13 NLT
Jesus had thousands of followers.
He had dozens of disciples.
He picked twelve to train more deeply and send out.
And he had three that were with him even more often.
I think there’s a pattern there for us to follow when it comes to the goal of our lives as Christians. Whether you want to call it discipleship, leadership development, or just plain friendship, I’m convinced we need to intentionally develop relationships with these circles of people in our lives. We need to pour ourselves into others, and we need to be poured into ourselves by others.
We need to gather with our “thousands.” I don’t think this is about the number, I think it’s about the environment. To put it more simply, we need to be part of a weekly gathering with other followers of Jesus, some of whom we might know personally, but many of whom simply share our common bond of being part of God’s forever family together. We can sing together, be taught and equipped together, and serve together, but we can’t go deep together. Therefore…
We need to have a network of “dozens.” Beyond attending a weekly worship service with a large group of friends and acquaintances, we need to get to know people by name. This is our network. Whether you attend a church of 100 or 100,000, you’ll never go deeper with the entire body. But you can go deeper with a network of people with whom you intentionally stay in touch. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that the average human cannot cognitively maintain friendship with more than approximately 150 people. I think he was onto something. We may have thousands of “friends” via social networks, but we probably only maintain actual friendship with a small percentage of those.
We need a small group. There isn’t anything magical about the number twelve, but there does seem to be an interesting correlation to the average small group that gathers for a weekly time of Bible study and prayer. This is the circle of people with whom we will pray together, talk about life on a personal level, and mutually encourage one another. It’s where accountability begins in an informal sense. People who tend to “stick” to a church are usually those who have tied themselves to a small group.
We need a handful of close friends. Jesus spent more time with Peter, James, and John than the rest of the disciples, and this was intentional on Jesus’ part. He wasn’t showing favoritism. Rather, Jesus knew that there needed to be a tightly knit core of friends in his life. This is the circle of people with whom we hang out to talk about our spiritual growth and development on the deepest levels. We pour wisdom into them, and they pour it right back into us.
If you want to grow in any sense – spiritually, intellectually, professionally, etc. – you’re going to need to intentionally develop and foster a close relationship with a few grace-oriented truth-tellers. Who are your handful?
If you can’t spit the names of your few or your dozen out pretty quickly, start working today on developing relationships. How? Well, not by passively waiting for friendship to happen. Reach out. Encourage. Invest. Give. And BE a friend, a mentor, and a leader.
And if you want to read the best book ever written on this subject, check out Robert The Master Plan of Evangelism.
I’m sold on small groups. There are very few ways to create an atmosphere conducive to building strong relationships than studying the Bible in the living room of a friend. I also agree with Rick Howerton about the need to consider a more organic pathway to healthy groups.
I was recently in a conversation with my coach, Danny Kirk, about what small groups look like at Grace Hills, and how we know when a group is healthy. By the end of our conversation, I had seven clearly articulated signs of group health and the kind of metric to apply to each. (And that’s the benefit of coaching!)
So here are my seven signs of a healthy small group:
1. There is a consistency in meeting and a desire to meet.
When a group is healthy, there is a desire and a delight in getting together. It doesn’t feel like “one more thing” but rather “when can we meet next?” And healthy groups are intentional about meeting if at all possible. Illness, travel, weather, and other events can get in the way, obviously, but for the most part, healthy groups get together regularly because they want to do so.
The metric: Does the small group consistently meet several times per month?
2. There is genuine authenticity and transparent sharing.
The beauty of small groups is that it’s a place to be real. When I was part of a healthy small group for the first time, it took about four weeks for me and my wife to start opening up and actually sharing more than “we’re doing fine” when others would ask how our lives were. I’ve seen that pattern repeatedly. After three or four weeks of meeting together, a healthy group will be a place where people open up and start sharing their pain.
The metric: Do group members know more about each other on a personal level than a month ago?
3. People are growing in knowledge, but they are also growing in grace.
This is the difference between a traditional classroom setting for Bible study and a living room setting. We need to grow in knowledge, but knowledge does nothing but puff us up unless we’re applying what we’re hearing and becoming more like Jesus.
The metric: Do people in proximity to group members report a more gracious attitude and response to others in everyday life?
4. Real community and friendship is increasing.
A small group might start out as a Bible study group, but if people respond by opening up, it usually doesn’t take long for group members to start understanding the spiritual, family relationship of each member to the other members. This is where real koinonia takes place – a kind of eternal bonding called fellowship.
The metric: Do people get together outside of Bible study times and show up in crisis moments for each other?
5. There is an intentionality about serving together and developing as leaders.
Bonding can happen watching football, but it usually happens more effectively in moments of serving others as part of the same team. There is a reason why groups that go on mission trips together know each other so much more intimately afterward.
The metric: Are needs within the group being met? Is the group meeting needs in the community together? Are leaders stepping forward out of the group for other areas of serving?
6. There is a culture of inclusion and inviting.
I’m a big believer in allowing people to belong before they believe. To put it another way, people need a family to adopt them before they “fit in” or look like everyone else. And a living room is an excellent place for this belonging to happen. Healthy small groups have an excitement about welcoming newcomers and they rejoice together to see a friend make a spiritual step forward.
The metric: Is anyone in the group inviting someone or sharing their faith?
7. New hosts are stepping forward.
This is where multiplication happens. Out of the atmosphere of a church with healthy small groups, the inevitable outflow is a stream of new people willing to host groups and set the table for life change to happen for others. We embrace a “host” model of small group ministry where the emphasis is far more on hospitality than on teaching. And when it’s time to begin a new sermon series and launch new groups, we always want to see new hosts coming forward. It’s always a big win when an existing group “loses” someone by sending them out on the mission of hosting a new group.
The metric: Is anyone praying about stepping out to host a group of their own?
I’m sure there are other ways to gauge the effectiveness of small groups, but these are the signs I seek when I want to know that a group is healthy. And if we work toward creating these strengths in our groups, growth is practically inevitable.
Some churches raise the bar when it comes to recruiting small group leaders. You need to be a member for X amount of time, well versed in the church’s doctrinal statement, agree to a lifestyle covenant, etc. The more qualified the leader, the stronger the group will be… or so goes conventional wisdom. But is that really true?
My friend Ron Wilbur, one of Saddleback’s Small Groups Pastors, once told me I’d probably make a terrible small group leader. It wasn’t that he was trying to discourage me. Ron taught me something valuable when he said, “your tendency will be to teach and answer all the questions, and you’ll kill the discussion and short-circuit the relationship-building process.” Now that I lead a small group in my home, I have to agree with Ron. If I’m not careful and intentional, I’ll be the bottleneck that holds my group back from being a healthy micro-community.
So if we’re not looking for long term members and Bible scholars, who makes the best group hosts? Most commonly, new believers in Christ, but I would expand that criteria to include anyone with these key characteristics.
The Best Hosts Are Facilitators, Not Lecturers
I’m all for one-to-many communication, and I think preaching is getting sidelined a bit too much in our modern obsession with one-on-one discipleship. But a small group isn’t the arena for a lecture, it’s a conversation in a circle of chairs where everyone asks questions and everyone speaks up. Good hosts understand the power of leaving good questions unanswered and throwing them back into the ring.
The Best Hosts Include People Far From God
Rather than seeing a small group as a holy huddle or a gathering of the frozen chosen, great hosts remind themselves and their group that we have a common mission to accomplish – including everyone in God’s family so they can encounter Christ in an atmosphere where they are accepted by friends.
The Best Hosts Are Fellow Students, Not Experts
Small group leaders who facilitate growth in their groups don’t have all the answers, and don’t try to appear to have all the answers. Instead, they are fellow discoverers who participate in the group’s journey into greater knowledge and spiritual depth. How then are we to protect groups from doctrinal errors spread by well-meaning new believers? We trust the pastors, to whom the assignment of guarding the flock was given, to mentor leaders to a more thorough knowledge of biblical truth.
The Best Hosts SPEAK Human
Instead of speaking Christianese, they speak human. My Pastor gave me an acronym to remember a basic approach to human conversation…
S – What’s your story?
P – What’s your passion?
E – How can I encourage you?
A – Ask, what can I do to help you?
K – Who do you know that I should know?
The Best Hosts Don’t Have It All Together
Not only do they not have it all together, but they’re willing to be open and honest about not having it all together. Life change only happens as masks are removed.
The Best Hosts Dream of Multiplying
Great small group hosts realize that group time is not just a social hour or a Bible class. It’s a time when God’s people get together to do life together, and to live missionally together. So the host is always looking around the group and asking, “who can I pour into next so that we can send out a leader to launch another group?”
The world around us is not impressed when we’ve amassed knowledge without living differently as a result. But as long as Christians are impressed with the same, we’ll never create a small group culture conducive to involving the surrounding world in the conversation. The best small group hosts love Jesus and love people, but are also real enough to relate to people and build genuine friendships.
I’m not the best small group host. But perhaps you’ve got what it takes? There’s only one way to know. Go start a group.
Photo by katiew
Traditional small group ministry might seem like a leap ahead of the lecture-based classroom in terms of relationship-building, but the rate of change in our surrounding culture still far outpaces the rate of change within the church. Small group ministry is changing. Again. And Rick Howerton, one of the few guys I read religiously concerning group life has written an excellent guide for embracing this change in his new book, A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic.
In a traditional small group environment, small groups are a new way of organizing the church, assimilating people into the church, and expanding in number outwardly. But Rick challenges our traditional approach, and even our terminology, choosing to term groups “Christian micro-communities.” It’s not that they are entirely Christian – in fact, genuine Christian micro-communities do and should include people still far from God. Though Rick doesn’t use this phrase in the book, I think he echoes what has been weighing on my heart lately – how to include people and help them to belong to a community, even before they believe.
Traditional small groups are often bound by new sets of rules and traditions. They may, perhaps, be more loosely organized than an age-graded Sunday School, but there is still plenty of paperwork, formalized leadership roles, and authority granted to leaders by assumption. But we live in a broken, and therefore untrusting culture. The majority of the people around us have been hurt, absued, and abandoned, and have a hard time granting trust and authority to leaders, which presents an obvious challenge to those who hope to facilitate life change.
One of the most helpful points of the book is the four quadrants of group life. Namely, they are: theological (discovery of biblical truth), familial (formation of friendships), restorational (healing from hurts), and missional (living adjoined to the mission of God in the world). Groups may need to be stronger in one quadrant or another at different times and for different reasons, but every group needs a balance of these four components.
I love Rick’s challenge to draw people into the group through recreation and missional ministry, rather than simply plugging church attenders into the group through traditional means. In other words, the focus is making followers of Jesus, not members of the church. This is tough for group leaders who have seen good success doing it the old way, but knowing our culture’s history of exponential rates of change, we need to constantly have our eyes open to coming shifts.
Rick Howerton is happy to help you prepare. Just read his book.
We haven’t officially launched our small group ministry at Grace Hills yet. I’ve done plenty of reading, researching, and consulting the minds of some of the nation’s foremost small groups thinkers.
What I’ve discovered is that there is a broad variety of approaches to small group ministry, many tempered by the experiences of individual churches. I’m sure the same will be true of us. We will adapt our approach over time as we learn what works and what doesn’t. I do know, however, at least six key foundational principles that we will live by as we craft the DNA of our church’s community life…
We will grow larger (in our corporate worship) and smaller (through small groups) at the same time.
You may have heard this statement before. I first heard it from Pastor Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church. The reason I re-state it here is that it not only speaks to the different nature of our two primary gathering-types – it also suggests a very simple church structure. We aren’t going to try to make disciples using Sunday night discipleship ministries, Wednesday night prayer meetings, and Sunday School. We’re keeping it simple. We grow larger as we gather corporately and smaller as we gather in small communities.
We will balance the five purposes in group and individual life (worship, evangelism, ministry, fellowship, discipleship).
There is a strong trend today toward “missional communities.” I like it. I especially love some of the stories I’ve heard of missional communities (formerly known as small groups) making a huge impact on their surrounding cultures and communities. But if the great commission and the great commandment give us five prime objectives (or purposes) then I want our small groups to be arenas for growth in all five of those purposes.
We want our groups to grow in all five purposes, practicing them weekly. But we also want individuals to be able to gauge their own growth in each of the five areas as well, and to be able to measure that growth in the context of a small group community for the purpose of encouragement and accountability.
We will empower people to lead from their potential before they are trained experts.
We aren’t looking for Bible scholars who have earned seminary doctorates to lead small groups. Instead, we’re looking for people who are faithful, available, and teachable and who want to grow as leaders. In fact, we aren’t looking for small group leaders alone, although we do want to make room for those with the gift of teaching. We also want hosts who simply know how to serve brownies, press the play button on a DVD player, and love on people.
We will align the whole church family with sermon-based small groups.
We will grow deeper in the Word together as a church. We will raise our faith and our generosity together as a church. We will concentrate on particular disciplines, doctrines, and biblical topics together as a church family. How can we do this as we grow larger? By utilizing small groups, through which we’re growing smaller at the same time. We will stay on the same page, initiate campaigns, and stick with one another throughout the church family.
On a practical note, every sermon I preach has been whittled down from an over-abundance of material. As I’m preparing the message for Sunday, I will also be simultaneously preparing a discussion sheet and a short teaching video for distribution over the internet and by DVD to group hosts for the following week’s discussion.
We will grow by creating entry points for new groups, not by disrupting community life.
Yes, I believe in multiplication. But I also see that some leaders will naturally draw a larger number of people to themselves and I don’t want to penalize that kind of leadership by forcing cell division where it doesn’t naturally occur. So our approach will not be to divide existing groups at a certain growth point. Rather we will create a culture of multiplication within the church that constantly challenges people to be receptive to God’s calling to go and host new groups. And we will heavily utilize entry points such as sermon series’, holidays, campaigns, and our life matters classes to continually be birthing new groups.
We will cultivate disciples rather than creating passive spectators.
I want us to communicate, out of the gates, that small groups are more than a Bible study. They are a time for mutual sharpening and challenging. Groups will be challenged, trained, and assisted in moving outside the walls of a single home to love and serve a community. They will also be challenged to do ministry within the group, taking care of needs that often go unmet in the larger gathering.
I don’t know it all. In fact, small groups is probably my weakest area of leadership right now, so I’m going to lean heavily on some leaders whom God will provide us as well as some of the sharpest small groups thinkers I know such as Steve Gladen, Ron Wilbur, Brett Eastman, Mark Howell, Ben Reed, Larry Osborne, and Rick Howerton, all of whom have helped me with advice so far in planting Grace Hills.
I’m open to learning, but as I’ve studied various models and approaches, these six goals align well with the core values from which we are planning on launching a robust small group ministry. What did I miss?