By Marc Cortez
I started leading small groups when I was 16. There I was, barely old enough to drive a car, and I was supposed to lead my group of thirteen-year-old boys on some kind of spiritual journey. Right. I felt good if we got through the meeting without someone making a fart joke.
Since that time, I’ve led small groups for people aged 10 to 40. (High school small groups are my favorite. It’s not even close.) Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. Not as many as I’d like. There’s still a lot about leading small groups well that remains a complete mystery to me. But I have learned. And, reflecting back across the years, here are some things that I really wish I had known when I first started.
1. Ground it in the gospel
For a long time, my small groups were like 12-step programs for believers. Want to grow mature Christians? It’s simple: meet regularly, read the Bible, pray, laugh, eat lots of food, and make sure that you hold each other “accountable” so that you all keep working at it. Do that long enough and something is bound to happen.
What I was missing was any meaningful understanding of how the gospel relates to discipleship. None of these are bad things in themselves. But, if they’re not grounded in grace and empowered by the spirit, then it isn’t discipleship. I’d love to go back and help my younger self catch a vision for a small group of Christians as God’s image bearers in the world, redeemed through Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, and commissioned as ambassadors of the Kingdom. I’d love to see me helping others understand God’s grace and the transforming power of the gospel. In short, I’d love to convince myself that a small group should be so much more than a support group.
2. Have a clear mission
This flows from the first. Why does my small group exist? What should it accomplish? What is its purpose? These are pretty basic questions. Yet I never asked them. I think I just thought I knew the answers. I didn’t.
Without a clear purpose, your small group will flounder. I promise. The group will naturally gravitate toward what people do best – nothing. Small groups are great at treading water. They’ll meet every week, eat the same snacks, share the same stories, and ask the same questions, never going anywhere.
Small groups don’t all need to have the same purpose, but they do need one. And it should be communicated clearly and often.
3. Be a pastor
I often hear churches downplaying the role of the small group leader. You’re not really responsible for people’s spiritual growth. You don’t have to be able to answer their questions or know how to deal with their difficult life issues. We just need someone to “host” the group. Tidy the house, put some snacks on the table, run them through the discussion guide, and you’re all set. Nothing more is required.
The church doesn’t need more facilitators; it needs more disciplers. And many churches are in trouble precisely because they have too few of the latter. I think it’s terrifying that many churches now rely almost entirely on small groups for discipling their people (no more Sunday school classes or mid-week services), yet their small groups are led by “facilitators” with little to no training (or vision) for discipleship. I realize it’s intimidating to think that you’re responsible for the spiritual growth of other people. But if you’re leading a small group, you already are. So rise to the challenge and be the best pastor (minister, discipler, whatever) you can.
4. Learn some theology
Small groups are great at two things that we often fail to prepare people for: brutally difficult questions and terrifyingly wrong answers. I’ve heard both.
I remember in one group, a 12-year-old girl asked me if Jesus could truly identify with her weaknesses because Jesus was a boy and never had to go through his first period. What do you say to that? I certainly didn’t know. And that was only one of many. Other times I’ve heard people express opinions in groups that were flat out heretical. And interestingly, no one in the group even noticed. Difficult questions and terrible answers are real challenges for a small group leader.
I think that’s why all small group leaders should strive continually to learn more theology. This won’t mean that you’ll ever reach the point where you know all the answers (a good small group leader should always be willing to say “I don’t know”). But you will have more resources for responding well to difficult questions. And, even more importantly, you’ll be better prepared to recognize when something gets shared in the group that is so wrong it absolutely must be addressed.
5. Plan to multiply
Some will disagree with me here. But I think a purposeful small group should prepare from the very beginning to grow and multiply. It should be a part of the group’s DNA.
Most of my small groups have failed badly here. It’s not that we were against multiplying, we just weren’t intentional about it. So one of two things happened: either we failed to grow or we grew and didn’t know what to do about it. Some groups failed to grow because we never cast a vision for including new people. Instead, we became in-grown and comfortable. Eventually, such groups stagnate and/or die. But other groups grew and still ran into problems. We hadn’t built multiplication into the group’s DNA, so we resisted the idea of starting new ones. No one wanted to break up the family. And such groups usually end up ceasing to exist as “small” groups, or they begin losing people until they’ve shrunk back down to size.
Plan for growth from the beginning. Make it one of the group’s core values. Then people will be excited when it happens, rather than seeing it as something to be mourned.
6. Force authenticity
To be honest, this one falls in the category of things I still don’t do well. For me authenticity is critical, but often elusive. And I think I’ve had a hard time with authenticity for two reasons.
First, I don’t like it. I’m a private person, and I’m perfecting happy keeping my issues to myself. I’m also a proud person, and I don’t like exposing my weaknesses. So I constantly struggle with the temptation to let a small group skim along the surface of artificial engagement. It’s more comfortable for me that way.
Second, I don’t expect it. I tend to think that authenticity must be spontaneous. So we should just hang out together until authenticity happens. That’s bunk. Authenticity doesn’t just “happen.” There’s nothing spontaneous about letting people see who you really are. That takes hard work and commitment. So a group that values authenticity will make it clear from the beginning that it expects authenticity. This isn’t a place to come and hide. This is a place to reveal our weaknesses so we can walk together in the strength that only the gospel provides. That will be awkward, difficult, and painful for many (myself included), but growth usually is.
I would love to go back in time and have a little talk with my younger self. But I’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that time travel never works out well. I’d probably end up being my own grandfather or something. So I think I’ll skip the time travel, and just try to build more of this into my current and future small groups.
[This post was cross-published at Transformed]
Marc Cortez is a Theology Professor and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. Marc blogs regularly at Transformed and scientia et sapientia.