It may be time for a significant shift in the way you approach small groups. Instead of finding a program or curriculum, why not make your goal to develop your small group leaders to think, decide, and act for themselves. Then you can coach them to lead, care for, engage missionally, multiply disciples, then leaders, and ultimately groups.
5 Principles for Empowered Small Groups
1. Be clear about the mission
The simplified mission is found in the Greatest Commandments and the Great Commission. Love God, love others as you love yourself, and make disciples. This is found in the mission and vision of every Christian church and it applies to every single Christian. The best part about it is that how this mission is accomplished is as varied as the people in your church.
However you want to say it, if you want groups that grow and respond to God, you need to state the mission of the group in simplified terms that leave plenty of room for the personality of the group. They will feel seen, heard, and empowered.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t cast vision and offer guidance to your leaders. For example, when I implemented this approach to small groups, I remember one book I asked our small group leaders and apprentices to read: Coleman’s, Master Plan of Evangelism. This laid a foundation for us to discuss the “why” behind our small groups and sharpen our vision on disciple making–e.g., to keep the main thing the main thing. This book helped us keep the purpose of our small groups clear and in front of us along the way. We had a plethora of groups, but whether it was a softball team or a Bible discussion group, the stated goals of our small groups were with the intent on making disciples.
2. Guard against Mission Drift
It is easy to get distracted and allow mission drift to set in with small groups. Assimilation, personal support, relationships, ministry teams, missional engagement are all good things. However, if any of these become the primary function of the small group, then we risk drifting from the mission to make disciples. Another way of saying this is to substitute the good for the best.
Small groups are likened to the cells of the physical body. The health of the body, or church, is synergistically and independently related to the life of the cells, or small groups. This is supported by the research conducted by Christian Schwarz in Natural Church Development (1996) where he draws the correlation between church health and growth:
“If we were to identify any one principle as the most important… then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups”
Make certain you are clear on the mission of your small groups.
3. Coach to develop the person and leader
This is so important. People matter. The best way to develop leaders is to care for the individual. Coaching the whole person will allow the ministry to be self-sustaining. Imagine two rails of a train track: one rail represents the person and the other rail, the leadership. Both need to grow in order to multiply the group. The tension between these two will cultivate a healthy coaching relationship, grow the individuals and the small group ministry.
Here is a list of questions we often use to help us coach well. (I wish I had had these at New Song Church!)
- What are you excited about?
- What is your greatest challenge?
- What are some practical steps you can take?
- What will you do?
- How can I pray for you?
Support and care for your leaders is essential for cultivating a disciple-focused mission for your small groups! Consistently implementing the questions above can help develop leaders that multiply.
4. Relevant and Effective small groups training
The health of any group is largely determined by the leader: the practices they embody, their EQ, and their competencies. All will deeply affect the group they are leading. So when it comes to training small group leaders, it is important to be clear what the expectation is and repeat it often.
For small groups to become agents of multiplication, your small group leaders need to nurture an apprentice with the aim to start a group of their own. The best way to do this is through modeling or a “Show-How” training process. It centers around a small group leader, coach or trainer modeling behaviors and skills using the following process:
- You lead, the apprentice watches
- You and the apprentice lead together
- The apprentice leads while you watch
- The apprentice leads alone
- The apprentice shows someone else how to lead
“Just in Time” Training
The most desirable time to train a small group leader is on the job. As they lead if they are coached properly, the small group leader will develop their confidence. The benefits of this method are vast; we often learn best in those moments that are timely and important. It pushes the apprentices to jump into the deep end. It is situational, apprentice-focused, and outcome driven.
Conversely, “Just in Case” training is a more classical, structured method. It is comparable to what most seminary students experience. There is a clear beginning and end point. A course to follow. And content is delivered – whether it is applicable to the situation at hand or not.
Ultimately, when training small group leaders, these methods come into play. We have to orient leaders to the philosophy of the small groups, the agenda and tools. But then the best way to empower leaders is through a coaching process.
Here are a few helpful reflection questions to reflect on while planning your training:
- What skills do your small group leader require?
- What resources do leaders have access to?
- Who could small group leaders ask to help them find resources they don’t have?
- How have I used the “Show-How” method in the past?
- How have I used the “Just in Time” method in the past?
- How do I need to adjust my approach?
- What specific ways should I ask God to help me?
5. Regular Assessment
Like reading a good novel, it is easy to get caught up in the best practices of a small group and lose the plot to make disciples, that makes disciples. Scheduled regular check-ins are important to making sure groups are staying on mission.
Signs of a healthy groups
- Growth—the group is growing in numbers and diversity.
- Developing others—the small group leader has identified potential leaders and is actively practicing show-how training.
- Fruit—ministry is happening, lives are being transformed, people are sharing the love of Christ inside the group and into the community.
- Stagnation—the group hasn’t added new members for some time and the members are stuck in a spiritual rut.
- Off-mission—the group focus has become about something wholly unrelated to discipleship.
- Showboating leadership—if the leader of the small group is more interested in being an authority than in the development of others.
During check-ins is an excellent time to use show-how coach training. The goal is to help them reflect on their group dynamics, identify where they are as a group now, clarify goals as a leader and/or for the group, and decide on the best way forward.
Following are some questions you can use to coach a small group leader:.
- What is your vision?
- What progress can you celebrate?
- Where do you need to grow?
- Who are you developing to start their own group?
- What steps can you take to move your group forward?
- How can I pray for you?
- What do you want to leave with from our conversation?