The idea of small groups is not necessarily a novel one. It has been around since creation, conceived from the trinity, which is a triune community in itself, and it can be spotted throughout the Bible. For instance, Daniel and his three friends—Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—who were exiled to Babylon were a small group, just as Jesus and his 12 disciples were.
The perpetual presence of small groups throughout time proves its necessity in the process of discipleship. They provide (or should provide) disciples with theological knowledge, practical guidance, and meet the human need for companionship.
However, there are several elements that must be brought together in order to have a successful small group. Structure and size, leadership roles, and strategies in addressing new and mature believers must be considered carefully.
Structure and size
Small groups are generally, as its name implies, small. But what counts for “small”? Starting from the smallest number, a pair may be considered a small group. Its advantage lies in its one-on-one approach that allows intimacy and depth in knowing each other. In addition, when in a pair, it is easier to keep accountable of each other and be vulnerable. However, it can also easily become a hierarchical relationship as one can become a mentor to the other, exerting pressure on the discipler, who finds him/herself alone in the position of guidance.
Triads and quads are what we call groups of three and four. These small groups are, according to Greg Oden in his book Discipleship Essentials, the ideal number for a small group. It allows depth in the relationship and a variety of perspectives in discussion.
Anything bigger than a quad is considered a large group. Even though it is formed for the sake of inclusiveness, it often ends up excluding people, as it allows less time for each member to participate and share. The number also makes keeping an account of each other harder.
In simple terms, the goal of the small group leader would be to “pass on” the faith to others. For this, the leader must be 5 things.
- A Model: The model inspires behavior. People look up to and follow those who are faithful and genuine in their actions to what they teach. The leader becomes a bridge between the theological knowledge it is sharing and the practical guidance it is offering.Titus 1:7-14 admonishes, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.”
- A Mentor: The leader must fulfill a personal role. It must be ready to commit itself to a relationship where it must support, give counsel, and share its own experiences. According to Working Wisdom: Timeless Skills and Vanguard Strategies for Learning Organizations byBob Aubrey and Paul Cohen, five most commonly used techniques among mentors were: Accompanying (committing oneself), Sowing (being patient and offering guidance that may prove valuable in the mentee’s future), Catalyzing (urging change), showing (making something understandable), and Harvesting (creating awareness of what was learned).
- A Facilitator: This is a group setting role. The leader provides direction and context by directing the small group like a watercourse. It helps the members to understand their goals and assists them in achieving them by spurring discussion. Some characteristics and skills required to be a good facilitator is the ability to make good usage of time, to plan beforehand and follow the plan, and yet know how to adapt and be flexible depending on the flow of conversation. It requires an awareness of individuals and group dynamics.
- A Servant: the leader is selfless and humble. It knows that the small group does not exist for its own gain, to feed its pride, sense of accomplishment, or hunger for popularity. It knows the group exists for others and that God takes the high seat in it. The leader also does not control the group or puts the members down but persuades and values differences in opinions, without becoming itself lesser in value than those it serves.
- Friend: This is the most important role a leader must know to take.Mahatma Gandhi once commented, “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” A leader loves and because of that love is able to become honest, open, and caring.
Generally speaking, there will be two kinds of disciples present in any small group. New believers and mature believers. Naturally, both are subject to the Bible study, the discussions, and the fellowship the small group offers, but because of their differences in the level of their beliefs, they must be attended in different ways.
For new believers, to start, we should really break the image of pushy, condescending Christians that some of them have of us. We must respect and trust them, hold conversations with them and not lectures. Instead of thinking of them as science projects, it is better to be simply a genuine friend to them and invite them for lunch or coffee. According to Swimming Lessons: One-on-one Discipleship by Pastor Grant Edwards, “When people connect in discipling relationships, each new believer has a friend at church—one who’s actively investing in that new believer’s life. Those relationships are like glue; they cause new believers to stick. A Gallup study demonstrated that when someone has a best friend at church, that person is very likely to report high levels of satisfaction with their church. In fact, 87% of church members with a best friend at church gave their church two thumbs up—way up (as reported in the Group/Gallup resource, Creating a Culture of Connectivity In Your Church, 2005).”
For mature believers the focus lies on consistency and challenge. Mature believers are like Olympic athletes who have won a medal once but are looking forward to win more the coming years and better themselves. For this they need from their small group people who can keep them accountable on living as faithful Christians and who can encourage them to question what they already know, go deeper and further the “Jesus” answer to reach a more wholesome one. Finally, mature believers are those who are one step behind from becoming leaders themselves. They must be prepped to answer their callings in the world and to make new disciples by sharing their faith, joy, and love to others.
We have talked about different aspects of a small group, but what unites all of them is the idea of fellowship found in the small group, the idea of sharing beliefs and propping each other up like iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17). For many reasons God made more than one of us. He delights in the act of love which requires at least two people and lets us know even in our loneliness, we have each other and Him. Acts 2:44-47 paints us a blessed picture of what a small group should be like: “44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”