Lecture 01: Introduction to Small Groups | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 01: Introduction to Small Groups

Course: Small Group Dynamics

Lecture: Introduction to Small Groups



Introduction to Small Groups

I have the privilege of teaching at Whitworth University in the departments of communication and theology. One of the courses I teach is called “Small Group Ministry.” That exciting topic is what we are going to take up together today. 

A. Theology of Small/House Groups

The Scripture says in Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to draw together in unity.” Any conversation that we will have about small group life has to start with a theology of small groups. To do a theology of something is made up of two roots. The first, theos, is about God and theology is about words. So to do a “theology” is to use words to talk about God. To do a theology of small group life is to ask, what does God have to do with this venture of community in small groups? So we are going to begin with a theology of small group life.

A theological basis for community has to take into account the entire Biblical story. What we call salvation history is in essence a history of God’s communal activity with humankind. It begins with creation. Before anything was, God existed in community. God is the author of community. Humankind, made in God’s image, male and female, are made with the capacity for community. This is part of the reflection of God’s image in us. Sadly, from the beginning, humans have decided to rebel and resist intimacy with God and with each other. When we break those bonds of community, dysfunction, and death result. In God’s grace, God attempted to restore relationship with God’s community through creating Israel. Later, God redefined the community in Jesus Christ to accept the entire world and all people. In Jesus, God makes the ultimate move of reconciliation of community. If we choose to embrace God’s invitation to communal intimacy, we can live into some measure of God’s created order. God will someday bring together God’s entire community, which spans both distance and time. God will establish a new Jerusalem and his people will dwell in it in community with one another and with God. So in essence, God is the Author and Perfecter of community. God establishes its boundaries, its identity, its membership, and its future. In this respect, we don’t create community in small group or house group life, we reflect it. We live into the created order by which God made us in his image. 

So, why have small groups or house groups? The first and most sufficient answer is because God, the Creator of community, calls us to participate in the community that God has already begun. The Scripture promises in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” Our participation in God’s communal life is not simply for our own blessing. Ultimately, smaller groups are called out from the larger church to be a blessing to the church. We exist not for ourselves alone. So, why have small groups? First, because it reflects part of the communal nature of God. In addition to the foundational theological reasons to have groups, there are other practical reasons to engage in groups also. 

Small groups or house groups meet social needs such as the need for belonging and inclusion. We all have the need to feel like we fit somewhere, like someone knows us, like we are included in something larger than ourselves. Smaller house groups also help us meet psychological need. Our need for self-understanding, for example, is partially addressed at least in small group life. I understand myself better when I am in community with other people helping me have a perspective. There is new and interesting research that even suggests there are physical benefits to small and house group life. Recent research shows us that relational health is related in some very important ways to physical health. For example, people with healthy social relationships tend to have a lower incidence of hypertension, stroke and heart attack. So, small group life is good for you physically. 

Small group life also has an impact on extending ministry. Small or house groups provide a wonderful way to have flexible, mobile, lay-led opportunity for ministry. They are flexible. They can meet at any time of the week, any time of the day. They are mobile, they aren’t tied to any particular location. And they are lay-led. One of the blessings of small or house groups is that they are often led by lay people. God designed from the beginning for ministry to belong to the saints. Small group life is a way of fulfilling that design. 

B. What is a small/house group?

So there are many reasons to engage in small group or house group life. It might be appropriate at this point to offer a definition of what we mean by a small group or a house group. Neil McBride in his book, “Real Small Groups Don’t Just Happen,” offers the following definition. He says: “A small group within the church is a voluntary, intentional gathering of three to 12 people regularly meeting together with a shared goal of mutual Christian edification and fellowship.” What we will do next is to walk through some important aspects of that definition. 

First, it specifies a small group within the church. “Within the church” tells us that there is a larger Christian entity than ourselves in the small or house group. We are part of a community larger than ourselves, called out from that larger community for a purpose. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit and embracing Biblical standards and values, we have a purpose that is larger than our individual gathering and we are part of a family much larger than the house or small group of which we are a part. The definition also specifies that such life is voluntary. People can’t be forced to join. Their decision to be part of the group is one freely made by them. The definition says, “A small group is an intentional gathering.” To have a healthy small group, that group must have a clear purpose and clear design. Groups become groups by an intentional process.

Next comes the issue of size. The definition says, “from three to 12 people.” If you have fewer than three, you don’t really have a group, you have a pair; and the number 12 is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s a rough estimate of the upper limit of what a healthy small group will involve. If you have more than 12 or perhaps a maximum of 15 people, some aspects of the interpersonal relationship will be difficult. For example, if small group life involves some sharing of what has gone on in that week and you have 15 people as part of the group, you will use 45 minutes of your group time just hearing from 15 people, even if they speak for a very short amount of time each. The definition goes on to say, “These groups have regular meetings.” Some groups exist on paper only. They say they are an entity, but in practical life they aren’t. To be an actual group, there must be some sort of regular meeting. That regular meeting will express a shared goal. The group’s purpose has to be clearly stated and mutually shared. Later in this first session, we are going to talk about how you create a sense of sharedness in the goal. 

The definition continues to talk about mutuality. Here we mean that every member assumes responsibility for group functioning and is accountable to the relationships with the other members. In this respect, the group doesn’t belong to the leader, it belongs to the group itself and their mutual support. The definition says: “These groups exist for the purpose of Christian edification.” The notion “to edify” means to build up, so what happens in small group life is, we build up the members of the house or small group of which we are a part. We also build up the larger church as we encourage one another, admonish, pray for, support one another, we build up the church. And we experience fellowship, sharing things in common based on mutual relationship through Jesus Christ. So here is our privileged task, to consider how small groups, house groups, function  most effectively. 

At this point, I want to give those of you listening a task. I want you to meet in smaller groups of two or three if you are processing this tape in a group, to describe characteristics of a group experience that went well. Think about a time when your group experience produced a good outcome. I want you to name the characteristics of that group. Take a moment now to do that. 

C. Seven Keys to Healthy Small Groups (from Roberta Hestenes)

Welcome back. I hope your group meeting was helpful. The next piece I want to do with you is to talk about what Roberta Hestenes describes as “Seven Keys to Healthy Small Groups.” These will be a description of characteristics that tend to accompany healthy small group life. I will be interested to see the extent to which the characteristics that Hestenes talks about are mirrored in your experience. 

The first of the seven keys that Hestenes describes is covenant. A covenant in this context is a shared understanding of the group’s purpose and the means used to achieve that purpose. Covenant is one of the most important moves that happen in small group life. Later in this series we are going to talk at some length about how you establish a covenant and some questions that ought to be addressed. But for now, just know that covenant is a shared understanding of what the group’s purpose is and how the group will attempt to achieve that purpose.

A second key to healthy small group life is helpful leadership. Later in this teaching we are going to talk about the nature of leadership and some of the characteristics of helpful leaders. But healthy small groups have a helpful leader. 

A third characteristic is caring. This is the quality of life in which group members learn to love one another. This is God’s command to us, “that we love another.” In small groups or house groups we have the privilege of sharing life in Christ.

A fourth characteristic of healthy small groups is meaningful content. Groups will meet typically to study and reflect, usually on a passage of Scripture, in order to know God, know ourselves and know one another better. The quality of that content invites people to be engaged in the group. 

A fifth characteristic of healthy small groups is healthy communication. Communication is how we create and share meaning together. Communication is the thread that binds all relationships together. Healthy communication in a small group will involve issues of clarity, understanding and expression, both using words and without words. 

A sixth characteristic of healthy groups is healthy management of conflict. Conflicts involve the authentic expression and management of thoughts and feelings. Whenever human beings come together, there will by nature be times that conflicts arise. In the final teaching of the teaching I will be involved in, we’re going to talk about the nature of conflict in group life and how one manages it. So healthy management of conflict is the sixth key. 

The seventh key to healthy small groups is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the center of community. Without Jesus, a meeting can be held, but no Godly transformation will occur. The group life that we are talking about is rooted, located, focused and for the purpose of building up the body in Jesus Christ. 

Of all aspects of group life in this session that I will be involved, we are looking at three overarching areas. The first area is about how one starts groups, what the first meetings should accomplish and the important issue of covenanting. In the second main session that we will have together, we are going to discuss leadership. I will offer a definition of group leadership, talk about the realities that leaders face, some obstacles that leaders face, how leadership emerges, the tasks and responsibilities of leaders and how one goes about leading discussion. In the final major section that we will have together, we are going to talk about how we manage conflict in small or house groups. I will offer a definition of what conflict in church is. We will talk about some types of conflict. We will talk about what makes conflict in ministry settings so difficult. We will talk about how power is defined and managed in conflict situations and I will provide you with some conflict management skills. 

So there is an overview of what we are doing. Before we launch into the rest of it, I would like to bring this session and you before God in prayer. Let’s pray: “Our Lord, thank you for the gift of community. Thank you for the blessing of being made in your image. Thank you for the dignity that you provide us, of being involved in your way, in your will for community. God, will you give us grace, I pray, to learn well, to communicate with clarity and to encourage one another in these sessions. Thank you for the privilege of joining you in a ministry that you can accomplish. Be glorified, I pray, in this instruction and in the living of group life. Thank you. We pray in the Name and for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.” 

D. A general sequence for starting small groups

As you think about how to begin small groups, here is a general sequence for starting small groups. First, you pray. That prayer is not simply a formality. It is an opportunity for you to seek the heart of God and for you to check your own heart and motives. There are lots of reasons for starting small groups that don’t honor God: My need to be important, my desire to develop some kind of following for myself, for example, are not godly or adequate reasons to begin small groups. So, first we pray. Check your heart, check your motive. Is there a calling prompting you to be part of developing a smaller group within the church? Meet with others to develop spiritual community. Before you set out any plans, you experience fellowship and communal life with others. Only after that do you pray and establish possible group purposes. This is an important step because there are many different purposes for which a group might exist. It is very helpful if you have some clarity about what this group is designed to do. 

Next, you consult with church leaders for ideas and resources. If you are part of a house church, you would do well to be connected to the larger body of Christ somehow; so seek the wisdom of other people who are following Christ for ideas and resources. 

Then you pray and plan and sharpen and redefine the group’s purpose. Next, you pray to create a potential list of members. Is there some sense of what is drawing people together and what might be the basis of a communal fellowship. Next, you decide on a time and place for the first meeting. Here is a helpful rule. Allow at least two weeks for inviting people to a gathering. Choose a place that is familiar and comfortable for the people who you expect to be there. Finally, you provide a warm, positive, and enthusiastic personal invitation. People will tend to risk attending a group when there has been a personal invitation for them to do so, rather than a notice being posted at church, for example. 

E. The First Few Meetings

Once people being attending the group, here are some guidelines for the first few meetings. First of all, you pray. You probably noticed at this point how frequently that word comes up. Again, that prayer isn’t a formality, it is a desire to get in touch with the heart of God. In the first few meetings, you consider the physical and social environment that people will enter. The physical environment should be as comfortable and welcoming as possible. Do not wait, for example, for people to come to the door and make their way inside the room. As people arrive, you go outside to meet them. You provide a warm, genuine greeting for them. Create a physical space that is inviting. It is preferable if people can be seated all on the same level, so they can see one another well. And think about the social environment. For some people, coming to a group the first time will involve risk and the perception of some uncomfortability. Our goal is to make the social environment as welcoming as possible. 

In the first few meetings, you want to build relationships among the members somehow. This can take place through shared disclosure, through the expression of common purposes for coming, common desires for what group life might mean; that you do something to help build the relationships. 

Next, in the first few meetings, you should begin to address the important issue of covenanting. Again, we will talk at length about that in just a moment. 

In the first few meetings, one of the cardinal rules that you will want to attend to is to set productive patterns of behavior during the first meetings. What tends to happen in group life is, people will reproduce the behaviors that they produce initially. For example, if you want everyone in the group to have some voice in each session, figure out a way to hear the voices of each person during those first few meetings. Set patterns that you want to become ongoing patterns. Finally, in those first meetings, you will pray for group members -  those who are present, those who were not able to attend. Pray for the people who are there. 

Our goal in the first meetings is to establish both relationship and purpose in a way that invites connection, that is the reflection of the communal God.

F. Covenanting

That brings us to the topic of covenanting. From the human point of view, it may be the most important issue in establishing groups in the first place. Covenanting is a process of establishing a set of mutually understood purposes and means for achieving those purposes. What I will do in the next few minutes is walk you through some of the issues that you should address when undertaking this process of covenanting. 

In the first meetings you will want to discuss the issue of time, how frequently will this group meet? For many groups, there is a weekly meeting, but for some groups, they meet every other week; or some groups might meet more frequently. You will want to address the issue of how long each meeting is. My advice about the length of a given meeting is, you should plan on somewhere around one-and-a-half to two hours for each session. The reason for that is, because if you desire to have some kind of relational component, some kind of content – Biblical study content – and some time for prayer for one another, you are probably going to need an hour-and-a-half to two hours. Also in terms of time, you will want to consider how long this group is meeting. Here is a helpful guide for you. Begin your group with the end in mind. What you do in the process of covenanting is, end up asking people for a commitment for a finite amount of time. So you say something like, “If you want to be part of this group, we are going to meet together from September until Christmas. At that point, we will decide how the group is working for us and whether we want to continue.” It is important that you begin with the end in mind, so that people don’t harbor undue guilt or ill feelings of abandonment if they decide not to be part of the group on an ongoing basis. In my cultural context, I call this “the grocery store principle.” The grocery store principle is, “I want to conduct group life in such a way that I can see somebody in the grocery store and they don’t want to run the other way when they see me.” If you begin with the end in mind, it creates a clear avenue of either exit for them or recommitment for them. Both are healthy. So you are dealing with the issue of time. 

The second issue you are going to talk about in covenanting is, what type of group we are going to have. Not all groups are the same. Some groups are primarily relationship groups. These exist to develop spiritual and social relations, to support one another, to encourage one another, to be known and know one another. For heavily oriented relationship groups, content is not the point. Bible study may or may not even be done. So, we have relationship groups. 

Another type of group is the content group. In our settings, this will be usually a Bible study. In a content-oriented group, the Bible study portion of group life dominates. Other issues, like relationship support, might be present, but take very clearly a secondary role. 

A third type of group is a task group. These groups exist for the purpose of doing something, of accomplishing a task beyond themselves. I recently returned from a week in Mexico where we built houses for some of the brothers and sisters in Mexico. Prior to going on that trip, I was part of a task group whose purpose it was to organize this task of building the houses. We existed for the purpose of fulfilling that task. Now that task is completed and the group does not exist anymore. That was our purpose. 

A fourth kind of group is called a need group. Need groups exist because of a common need or interest. In some bodies of Christ there are groups that gather for the purpose of supporting one another as they recover from alcohol dependency or drug dependency; or in other instances there are divorce care, divorce support groups. Those would be examples of need groups. 

Many groups are a combination. One of the most common combinations that we see is the relationship/content group, where some proportion of relationship and some proportion of Bible study content are both undertaken in the group life. 

It is critical in the process of covenanting that you get clear with your group about what type of group you propose to have. If you simply invite people to a group, saying, “We are developing a small group, would you like to come?” a hundred people will have a hundred different ideas about what it means to have a group. Some people will come expecting content, what they expect is Bible study. “Nobody told me I was going to be sharing with anybody about my life.” Some people will come expecting relationship and be surprised when you pull out a Bible. So, early in group life it will be very helpful for you to have a common understanding of what this group is fundamentally about. 

So we have addressed time and we have addressed the type of group. The next issue to address is the membership. One of your critical issues in membership is whether membership in this group is open; that is to say, newcomers are invited at any stage of our group life; or closed, which is, we may invite new people initially and then after two or three weeks we will close membership, new people will not be invited until perhaps later in the year. If your group decides in mid-year, for example, to expand the membership, then new people might be added. One of the important questions your group will face is whether we are going to be open or closed. There are benefits to both. Open groups have the benefit of inviting Christian community as people are ready and God prompts. Closed groups have the advantage of developing deeper relational ties. For this reason, you will want to connect the membership principles with the type of group. If your group, for example, is a content group, it’s much easier to have an open group. If your group is a heavily relational group, probably you would want to think about having more of a closed group. 

Also in the area of membership, you will want to decide whether this is a mixed-sex group or a single-sex group. Will men and women be meeting together in this group, or will men have a separate group and women have a separate group? Will this be a group for married couples, as over against including singles also? Those are all issues that you will need to resolve as you covenant. 

The next issue in covenanting is relationships. The key question here is, how will the group build relationships among its members? Do we expect, for example, to have significant personal disclosure? Will we have prayer partners? Will we expect to be engaged in shared activities? Will we expect to share meals together?  Speaking of meals, one of the rules of small group life is, food is almost always a good idea. Keep that in mind. 

The next issue that you will deal with in covenanting is the role of Scripture. How will the Bible be used in the life of this group? Is this principally a Bible study, or is it principally a relationship group? 

Another issue to be discussed in covenanting is prayer. What part will prayer play in the group? Will people be expected to pray out loud? Is it okay with the group that some people not offer audible prayers, but pray silently? How much time will we devote to prayer? One hint for you about the issue of prayer: Many groups say that prayer will be an important part of the group, and leave prayer for the end of each session. The result tends to be, time gets taken up with everything else and the prayer becomes very quick and very surface. If you decide that prayer will be a central part of your group, I would like to suggest that you opt sometimes to pray first, sometimes to pray in the middle of a group session, but not to always leave it for the end. 

One of the important issues in covenanting is the issue of intensity. What level of commitment and work does this group want to engage? Here is a helpful hint: Early in group life, group members will tend to tell you that they are prepared for a level of intensity that most of the time they are not prepared to follow through with. For example, group members early in group life will tend to say, “Yes, we’d like to have responsibilities for Bible study outside of our group meetings. We will prepare on our own and then come back to the group.” Over time, as commitments get larger in people’s lives, what tends to happen is, they don’t live up to the level of intensity that they claim that they wanted to commit to and that produces guilt that doesn’t serve people much at all. My encouragement when it comes to intimacy is to be modest, at least at first, about what groups commit to. Rather than committing to an hour a day of Bible study, maybe to start they commit to 15 minutes. My encouragement is to be modest about the level of intensity that you invite the group to commit themselves to. 

Finally, in covenanting you will want to address the issue of leadership. What pattern of leadership do we want? Will there be one single leader who will lead each week? Or, on the other hand, will we have a rotating leadership? Will leadership be done on a volunteer basis; we ask people in the group if they are willing to give some leadership and then rotate leadership? Or is it better to have a single leader consistently fulfill that responsibility over time? 

Some of the questions that you may find helpful as you discuss contracting are the following: Why do we want to have a small group? I like to start with that question. People show up on a given night for reasons. The problem is, they often don’t share those reasons with other people. This is an opportunity to do so. Why do we want to have a small group? What do you hope to get out of this group? The way that I will sometimes frame this question is to say, “At the end of this period of our covenant, what will have happened to make this group worth your coming?” You might want to ask a question like, “What goals do we want to adopt as a group?” You will want to ask, “What aspects of group life do you want included: Prayer, Bible study and some of the other issues that we have already talked about?” I have sometimes found it helpful to ask the question, “What don’t you want to do in this group?” Sometimes, because of personality or because of experience, people have very strong feelings about some aspect they don’t want included; and it may be important that you hear about those. 

What I would like to do to invite you to practice the process of covenanting is to invite you now to create a covenant for the setting that you are in right now. If you are listening to this teaching as part of a group of people, I want your group to stop and establish a covenant for its existence. You should ask questions like the ones I mentioned previously: What type of group are we? What time commitments will we have? What about our membership? What about relationships? What about Scripture and prayer? What about intensity and leadership? 

So what I want you to do for the next bit of time is to meet together, to work on initializing, beginning at least, a covenant for your group. 

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