Why Small Groups?/Take This Group and Own It!
From Gospel Translations
We begin with a tale of two cars: an aging Plymouth Voyager and a sleek new Lincoln Continental. I had the opportunity to drive them both last year, but I treated them quite differently.
The Plymouth minivan looked as if it had been owned and operated by a second-rate day care center. There were footprints on the vinyl and nose prints on the windows. Cracker crumbs littered the floor. Acorns, rocks, chewing-gum wrappers, and other collector’s items filled the cup holders. In the cracks between the seats I found a wide assortment of archeological remains. And judging by the smell, the windows had been left down during a series of heavy thunderstorms.
It was a well-used vehicle.
The Lincoln, on the other hand, appeared to have rolled off the assembly line moments before I got behind the wheel. The floor mats were not sticky with spilled soda. The rearview mirror had not been knocked off and reattached three times. The carpet didn’t ooze with some unidentifiable engine fluid. The odometer had not broken a thousand, much less a hundred thousand. And the smell—is it only guys who notice?—the smell of that new leather interior, untainted by rotten bananas and car sick-ness and all the other fragrances of a family van.
It was a beautiful car...but it was a rental car, and I treated it that way. I filled it up with low-grade gas. I accelerated fast and braked hard. I didn’t wash it, vacuum it, or change the oil. And by the time I returned it to the rental lot, those pristine floor mats were thick with dirt and sand.My Plymouth Voyager isn’t much to look at, but it’s mine. (And it’s paid for!) I wash it, change the oil, check the tire pressure, and vacuum it out when the cracker crumbs get too deep. This morning I dropped it off at the body shop, hoping the skilled staff at Paintmasters can unbend a fender that just got smashed. My vehicle looks worse than ever, but it’s mine. The rental car wasn’t. And that explains why I treat an aging minivan better than I treated that mint-condition Lincoln Continental.
The issue is ownership. Not only does ownership affect the way we care for our cars and homes and lawns, but it determines how much—or how little—we invest in our small groups.
Do you think of your group as your group?
Do you own your group and its vision?
Or do you simply rent a chair on Thursday evenings?
As a group leader, I usually don’t have to think about these questions. Of course I’m an owner. I’m supposed to lead by example in worship, in prayer, in discussion, and in fellowship. If I simply show up and smile, there’s a good chance the meeting will be a flop. (Though God is gracious enough to spare even the most incompetent leader!)
Recently, though, my friend Jim has been leading our discussions. This has given him a great opportunity to grow in leadership...and given me a great opportunity to fine-tune my laziness. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so essential that I study the book in advance. The pressure isn’t on me to think up questions that will help others apply what we are learning. During this season, Jim is the one having to discern where the Spirit is leading our discussion—not I. So guess who has tried skimming the material 30 minutes before the meeting? That’s right. As a result, I not only neglect to feed my own soul, but I lower the quality of my contributions to group discussion.If you see yourself as an owner of your group, you will take the assignments seriously. You will show up on time. You will work to make the group a success. But if you’re only renting space you won’t be motivated to invest yourself. You may go along for the ride, but when the group hits a pothole or some maintenance is required, you may choose to look for a new group rather than get under the hood and help make repairs.
Your group may not be a new Lincoln Continental. It may be an ’86 Ford Escort with bald tires and a leaky radiator. But it’s yours! And you’re responsible for taking care of it. Look closely at Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus: “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” (Eph 4:16).
A small group doesn’t belong to the leader. It belongs to God—and to each member. Each member is an owner. Each member is equally responsible for insuring that the group glorifies God. And unless God calls you to a different group, you have the privilege of making this one run as well as it can.
Everybody Has a Job
My next-door neighbor has the nicest lawn on our street. He has owned his property for over 30 years, and now that he’s retired, he spends a lot of his time making it beautiful. The guy who lives across the street, however, is a different story. When his wife’s car is blocking the driveway, he simply drives his truck across the yard. The big ruts in the lawn don’t bother him. Why? Because he’s a renter and knows he’ll eventually be moving out. Someone else will have the responsibility of re-seeding the lawn. It’s not his job.In a small group, everybody has a job. That’s why the pastors in my church have written a “Small-Group Member Job Description” (see page 37). It explains what is expected of each member. As you read, notice that it assumes a high degree of ownership.
Did you realize your job was so big? It’s critical! “No member of the church should be isolated or uninvolved,” writes Brent Detwiler. “Only through your enthusiastic involvement will the church be able to do everything God has called you to.”
What Makes a Group Successful?Suppose R.C. Sproul taught your small group, Larnelle Harris led worship, Billy Graham oversaw evangelistic out- reach, and Mother Teresa coordinated your service projects. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Can you imagine the potential your group would have?
Actually, by my definition, the group would almost certainly fail. For in the shadow of such gifted leaders, you would be tempted to leave ministry to the “experts” and neglect your own responsibility. And small groups don’t succeed unless the entire group is working together.
It doesn’t take a highly gifted leader to build a great group. But it does take men and women who are devoted to applying Scripture, to practicing fellowship, to serving their church, and to sharing the Gospel.
Peter expresses the essence of Christian community— and of small groups—in these compelling verses:
The end of all things is near. Therefore be clearminded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1Pe 4:7-10)
For more than seven years I’ve enjoyed the privilege of leading a group who live by the principles in this passage. These men and women discipline themselves to pray. They love each other deeply. They freely extend hospitality. Best of all, they serve each other with the gifts and grace God has given them. Not perfectly, of course—we all have plenty of room to grow. But through their faithful and creative service in the church and community, they are bringing much praise to God.
Your small-group leader may never teach at the seminary level. Your worship leader probably won’t release his own CD anytime soon. But in God’s eyes, your group can be a total success...here’s how.
Hunger to know God. The single greatest contribution you can make to a group is your own passionate pursuit of God. This is true for two reasons.
As you diligently study God's Word, pray, worship, confess sin, witness to non-Christians, and cultivate the various expressions of a healthy Christian faith, your zeal will influence the entire group. Your passion will spur others on "toward love and good dees" (Heb. 10:24). Do you realize that your example can accomplish more than a month's worth of teaching and exhortations from the leader? You are the proof that a passionate life is possible...and not just for leaders.
Secondly, as you press in to a deeper knowledge of God, he will reveal himself to you. He will give you fresh insights about his fatherly love, or understanding of his holiness. But these aren’t just for your benefit. They are also for the group. As you mine the riches of God’s grace and kindness and share your discoveries with the group, you’ll find they are enriched as well.
Love the church. Sooner or later, your group leader (or another member) will do something you don’t like. Probably it will be minor—an unpleasant assignment or inconvenient request. But if it’s major, what’s going to keep you from seeking “greener pastures”?
Suppose your leader asks you to reach out to a new member of the group-someone from another culture with a thick accent and different customs. Suppose he challenges you to fast for a couple of days, or participate in a pro-life march, or spend a Saturday helping with a church service project. What if another member of the group confronts you (and not very tactfully) about that way your children behaved at the group picnic?
You will find it easier to respond if you genuinely love the church, its leaders, and the priority they place on small groups. Jesus gladly laid down his life for the church. To make your group a success, be prepared to lay down some things as well. It may be uncomfortable; it may force you to do something you've never done. But for the sake of Christ and his church, give it your best.
Understand your "job description." I think it's safe to speculate that most small-group members have clear expectations of their leader but vague (or nonexistent) expectations of themselves. They have never understood, or embraced, their role as co-owners in the group. As a result, the group never comes near its potential-even if it as an outstanding leader.
The sidebar on the next page lists the expectations my church has of small-group members. As you can see, it's quite specific-and quite challenging! Your church may not define small-group membership the way my church has, but this kind of “job description” is invaluable. Find out what your pastor expects of group members in your church, and then begin doing your job!
Assume your leader is not Sherlock Holmes. How I wish I had this venerable detective’s gift! It would serve me (and the group) so well if I could take one look at a couple and say, “Ah, yes...Marital Conflict #174—He thought he was serving the family by bringing home pizza (observe the sliver of pepperoni under his left thumbnail), and she broke down sobbing. Why? Note the calculator sticking out of her purse—she’s convinced he is wasting the family’s money and leading them straight into bankruptcy. Elementary, my dear Watson. Here’s all you need to do....”
Your leader would like this type of discernment, too, but I doubt he has it. Don’t make him guess how you’re doing, what you’re feeling, when you’re struggling. Please don’t doubt his concern just because he can’t read your mind. He wants to be involved, but he needs you to tell him when and how.
Sometimes you have to tell a leader twice...or more. If I kicked myself for every time I’ve failed to follow up when a group member asked for my input, I would be black and blue. When you’ve shared a need,and the leader has apparently forgotten all about it, don't retreat into a sinful shell of self-pity. Share it again. Muster up the courage to be vulnerable. God will give you grace as you humble yourself.
Share the bad stuff, too. One of the best ways to make your group successful is to confess your own sins. Just last week, two women in my group shared specific details about sins they were battling. What an impact it made! Long after we have forgotten the material we studied that night (which was about overcoming sin), our group will remember the confessions these ladies gave. They demonstrated what we were discussing. They brought the lesson to life.
An honest confession can break a superficial meeting wide open. Be humble. Be honest. On the other hand, be wise—certain confessions should be shared privately, or in single-sex groups.
“Confession begins in sorrow,” writes Richard Foster, “but it ends in joy. There is celebration in the forgiveness of sins because it results in a genuinely changed life.” Not only will you receive God’s grace as you confess sin, but the whole group will be provoked.
Have realistic expectations. One of these days you are going to realize that your group leader has problems, just like you. Maybe he’s not as knowledgeable about the Bible as you are. He may not appear especially passionate or gifted. As a result, you may find it difficult to follow or respect his leadership. But ultimately the problem stems from your expectations, not his qualifications.Your group leader isn’t your pastor. No one expects him to be. His main purpose is to create a context where group members can apply God’s Word and care for each other. Understand his role and you will find it easier to accept his limitations.
Meet outside the meeting. A few members of my small group have had the audacity to get together outside our meetings. Apparently they think they can grow relationally apart from my leadership. I plan to squelch this practice, of course, as soon as I find out who is doing it. But the group is getting so tightly knit together that I’m not sure anyone will confess!
Open your home. You may not have the biggest or nicest home in the group, but offer to host meetings, outreaches, or times of hospitality. By opening your home, you open yourself…and you drive another nail into pride’s coffin. If your home is the nicest in the group, you may face other temptations to avoid hospitality—especially if the group includes dozens of kids! Remember that the early Christians “had everything in common” (Ac 2:44)—even if that meant the first-century equivalent of ice cream spills on the rug or kids’ fingerprints on the walls.Open your mouth! Some need little encouragement here. They should probably skip this suggestion. But in the group I lead, people are so polite and humble and selfcontrolled… it can be very quiet at times. Sometimes wisdom keeps us quiet (Pr 17:28). More often than not, pride (disguised as fear or shyness) is the real culprit. It is pride that tells us we should only speak when we have a profound insight or wonderful testimony. Yet often the Holy Spirit will use your simple, honest comment to speak directly to someone’s heart. Don’t let pride deprive the whole group of your valuable contributions.
Be constructive, not destructive. Weeks before I went off to college, I learned I would be rooming with that year’s national debate champion. I quickly resolved that I would do my best to avoid getting into arguments with this guy. And it paid off.Most groups include at least one member who has a knack for twisting discussions into debates. In his letter to Titus, Paul warns against those who engage in “unprofitable and useless” controversies and arguments (Tit 3:9). You may be the type who enjoys a good debate, and that’s great—at the right time. But when small-group discussions heat up, use your gift of communication to help the leader resolve the issues. Look for ways to help others recognize and apply biblical truth.
Laugh at the leader’s jokes. This is absolutely essential. However, it may not be easy. Your leader’s timing, delivery, and sense of humor may be so poor that laughing would violate your sense of integrity. In that case, I recommend that you invest in a laughtrack tape. Hiding a cassette player under a couch generally works well. Just make sure you don’t turn it on by accident while someone is weeping in response to conviction of sin….
Serve on the “advisory committee.” Every member has the responsibility to give the leader feedback and suggestions. Remember: this is your group, not just his. What are its strengths? How could it improve? Do you know of a book or tape series that might benefit the whole group? Is the leader giving enough direction? Too much? Does it seem a bit excessive to have the group meet seven nights a week? Share your thoughts with the leader, then trust his decisions. He may not do cartwheels over your first idea, but don’t give up. Keep bringing suggestions. He will appreciate it.Pray on the way. As you drive to the meeting, instead of doing what you typically do on the way to your small group—argue with your spouse, or think about unresolved problems at work, or try to guess what weird questions the Dorkenschmidts will ask tonight—why not pray? Ask God to send his Holy Spirit in power. Ask him to direct your leader. Ask him to bless the other members. And ask him to help you participate enthusiastically in worship. I can almost guarantee that a few minutes of prayer on the way will revolutionize your gatherings. Once you have that mastered, consider praying for the group on a more regular basis. I try to pray for each member of my group several times a week. Do you know what happens when I do that? I get insights on how I can serve or encourage them. Best of all, my affection for them deepens as I labor with them in prayer. It may not seem like much, but your intercession for the group will produce great results.
Give your gifts. Let’s look again at that passage from Peter’s first epistle:
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. (1Pe 4:10-11)
Whether you realize it or not, God has given you at least one spiritual gift. Maybe you have a gift of giving, or faith, or mercy. Your talents may lie in the area of music or administration. (The New Testament gives lists of spiritual gifts in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4.) Regardless of the gift, it comes from God, and it’s been given to you for a purpose—to serve others and glorify God. Here are a few guidelines for using these gifts in a way that pleases the Giver:Be humble. We need to avoid the twin pitfalls of pride: self-consciousness and self-exaltation. Recently, a woman in my group shared a beautiful prophecy urging us to embrace God’s purpose during the “rain” of life’s hardships. It affected everyone present. But as she confessed later, she almost didn’t share it with the group because she was afraid of what others might think. What a loss that would have been! Three years from now, if she keeps exercising and refining this gift, she could possibly slide to the other end of the spectrum and assume that her gift gives her higher spiritual status. That form of pride would also grieve the Spirit. To administer God’s grace faithfully through spiritual gifts, we need a special blend of boldness and humility. Be faithful. If you practice using your gift, it will increase and grow stronger. If you stop using a gift, it tends to shrivel up. This principle is clearly taught in Matthew 25. Remember the story of the servants and the talents? Jesus praised the two servants who doubled their money through faithful investing, but he strongly rebuked the servant who buried his money in the ground. That story should sober us all. We must invest God’s gifts with care.
Be dependent. To serve God and others effectively with these gifts, we must “do it with the strength God provides.” You may not feel you have much to offer the group…and you’re absolutely right! But God does, and he wants to do it through you. Not only do the gifts come from him, but so do the strength and skill to administer those gifts “so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph 4:12).
Your small group provides the ideal context for you to practice using your God-given gifts. Think about specific ways you can invest and increase them. Get suggestions from your group leader. Ask God to give you more so that you can, in turn, give more to the group. Whether he has called you to prophecy or hospitality or exhortation or serving, begin utilizing your gifts here.
Volunteer to serve. Who is in charge of refreshments? Who keeps track of birthdays? Who makes phone calls to announce a change in the meeting schedule? Who administrates the outreaches? Who relays information to the members who missed the meeting? The leader who has to do all these things himself won’t have time to lead. Help him—and the whole group—by taking some of these tasks yourself.One small-group leader in my church developed a list of service opportunities within the group, complete with job descriptions for each. You may want to set aside a meeting to talk about ways to divide up the “chores.” As the group becomes more and more fruitful, you’ll have the joy of knowing that you helped make it happen.
Expect “awe-full” meetings. In the fourth chapter of Acts, we read of a rather significant small-group meeting. Peter and John had just been interrogated by the Jewish leaders, who commanded them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. After boldly dismissing their threats, Peter and John returned to where the other disciples were meeting in an upper room. They gave a full report and then the believers prayed. Did they ask God to protect them, to shield them from persecution? No—they prayed that God would make them even bolder! And Scripture tells us the results: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Ac 4:31).
I am not suggesting that every successful small-group meeting has to end with an earthquake. But we must realize the potential that exists when we gather. The same Lord who shook that upper room and shook off the chains of death is in our midst!
If you’re more excited about the coffee and brownies than about being with God, something is very wrong. Raise your expectations! Stir up your spirit in anticipation of God’s powerful presence. Expect to see the Holy Spirit working actively in your midst.
Keep the mission in mind. I find it sobering that my small group is the size of most church-planting teams… or bigger. When I hear of a church-planting team being sent out, I fully expect it to multiply until it has made a lasting impact on the city it has targeted. Do I have similar expectations of my small group? The gifting may not be as great, but we should be able to make a mark on our neighborhoods for Jesus Christ.
God is responsible for building his church, and he is using small groups effectively for that purpose. He could have chosen to do all the work himself. But instead he has created a structure in which you play a pivotal role.
It doesn’t take a highly gifted leader to build a great group. It takes you. You must own it. You must pray for it and invest in it. Whether you feel qualified or not, you and every other group member must “use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1Pe 4:10). As you humble yourself, apply yourself, and give yourself to God and those he has placed around you, you will have the joy of making your small group a success.
1. If your group were an automobile, what kind would it be? A new Porsche? A 12-year old minivan? A Humvee? Something else?
2. A home owner is expected to do things like mow the lawn and trim the hedges. What types of responsibilities do you think a small-group owner should have?
3. Before reading this chapter, did you think the group leader was responsible for the group’s success?
4. Read 1 Peter 4:7-10. What might happen if you tried to serve your group without the strength God provides?
5. Did any items in the job description on page 37 surprise you?
6. The greatest contribution you can make to your group, says the author, is your own pursuit of God. How would you rate your passion for God at this time? (1=ice cold, 10=red hot)
7. Would you be willing to confess a sin in the context of this group? If not, why?
8. Name one thing this group does really well.
9. Do you expect God to participate powerfully in group meetings?
10. In what ways do you think the group could improve?
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1954)
The Mark of the Christian by Francis Schaeffer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970)