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?
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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.