I have been asked a few times over the past few years, “Why small groups?” I always respond with “Why not?” I believe small groups are a vital part of the Christian walk. They are effective tools for discipleship and fellowship because they equip people for evangelism, worship and service. Small groups, like anything else, depend on the foundation on which they are built. Consider Paul’s words in Colossians 2:6-7: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, being rooted and built up in him, established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.”
If your small group is meeting together solely because you are a church and there needs to be a small group, it will fail every time. You must know the who, what, when, where, why and how before the first meeting ever takes place. But instead, ask those questions in this order:
Why – Why are we meeting? Is it to fill a time slot, to address a specific need, to connect certain people, to study a specific scripture or topic or to advance a certain agenda? While none of these are bad reasons, they are insufficient on their own. We must address the needs of the individuals, the group, the church, and the community—all up for the glory of God. Small groups can be either “open” or “closed” groups. An open group is one where people can join at any time. A closed group is one where the group gets too involved in the subject right off the bat for others to catch up. Neither open nor closed are bad, but if a group isn’t clearly defined as to which kind it is, the ambiguity can hurt everyone involved.
How – How are we going to structure this group? The ideal size of a small group is six to eight people. Too few, people feel awkward and pressured to perform. Too many, people can become part of the wallpaper and miss out on what God could do in their lives. Is there homework? Work outside of the group can be extremely helpful to the discussion, but not everyone is up for such a commitment, so it needs to be explained before starting. Discussion or lecture? Too many times people come into a discussion group and it becomes a weekly lecture. Or a planned lecture series gets continually redirected by well-meaning people who are looking for something different.
What – What are we going to study? This seems too far in to start this part of the discussion, but the topic is defined by the type of group as much as the group is defined by the topic. Is it a topical study or an exegetical verse-by-verse pursuit? Neither is a problem; it just needs to be clear before starting.
Who – Groups have the potential to address many dynamics in our community. Gender specific groups can address gender specific needs. Age limits can allow the group to address similar life stages. Intergenerational groups can create some amazing mentoring opportunities. They can also be detrimental for the same reasons, so be sure to define the group dynamic out front.
When – Timing is everything. A group at night will limit senior adults. A group before the sun comes up will limit the younger generation. Sundays and Wednesdays can help get more there but may not be best for a particular group. Evaluation is key.
Where – Meeting at the church, a house, a coffee shop, an office, a park . . . it does matter. It affects who is willing to show up and how open people will be to discussion.
The key point is to consider everything. Don’t just start a group and ‘figure it out as you go.’ To clearly define the purpose and plan of a small group from the beginning is a foundation for success. Will the group change? Absolutely. Builders change the plans some as the building goes up. Flexibility is important, but a foundation is paramount.