small group dynamics

For or against: should you invite non-Christians to your small group?

Small groups are something that you are likely to be encouraged to get involved with as a regular church-goer. Hopefully, if run well, they offer a safe space for Christians to grow together and they help to deepen both friendships and understanding of God. But what if you are not a regular church-goer? What if you don’t call yourself a Christian? Is a small group the ideal space for people to be introduced to God, perhaps for the first time?

FOR:

1. The most obvious argument, and potentially the trump card, is that Jesus told us to go out and make disciples, to share the gospel with those who don’t yet know Him. We should use our small groups as places to connect not yet Christians with Jesus:

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ Matthew 28:19

2. A small group is a safe and potentially less intimidating space for people to ask questions than a church environment. People who are not familiar or comfortable with the format of a church will feel more at home with a smaller group of people and are therefore more likely to ask questions, get involved and be open to prayer.

3. The Christians in the group will learn more. Someone who doesn’t yet know much about God approaches faith with a freshness and innocence that others can learn from. Doubts provide questions for Christians to explore and answer.

AGAINST:

1. A small group is for teaching and building up Christians, for fellowship with like-minded people who can encourage each other and pray together. If you invite non-Christians into the group, they could feel left out and not fully benefit from being surrounded by Christians.

2. People could feel held back and frustrated by having to go over the basics of their faith if they had to teach people who might not know anything about the Christian faith. What about people who are in the group because they want to study the difficult passages and topics in the Bible that don’t often get discussed in church – wouldn’t that just put non-Christian people off?

3. Inviting people who are not yet Christians to your group would change the dynamic so much that it might not be the comfortable, friendly, supportive place you’ve created with friends.

CONCLUSION:

I’m not going to give you a conclusion, that’s for you to decide. Every group is different and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all rule as to who should or shouldn’t be in your small group…

But I hope this ‘for and against’ exercise has got you thinking. Are you getting too comfortable in your small group? Do you have room in your small group to invite non-Christians to join with you? Either way, we need to make sure we are constantly seeking Jesus and asking Him what’s the point of our small groups and what should we be doing within them.

 

About Emily Owen

Emily dreams of travelling the world and writing about the great things she sees God doing along the way. Whilst waiting for dreams to come true she happily works for CWR, plays a lot of netball and is trying to learn Spanish.

 

Honesty in small groups

A challenge that most small groups face is how to create a genuine atmosphere – one where people feel that they can be honest and will be supported and listened to rather than embarrassed or judged. A place where you can discuss the stuff that doesn’t always get talked about in church.

A practical way of moving towards a group that trusts one another is to share personal testimonies. Whist the idea of telling your private story to a room full of (sometimes) strangers is really daunting, it can also be encouraging and affirming as it gives people confidence to share their faith with others.

ENCOURAGEMENT – The encouragement is two-fold: both for the person sharing their testimony and also for those receiving it. By telling your God story you remember things that God has done in your life afresh and those hearing how you have come to know, believe and follow Him learn new things about His character and love for them too.

‘Come and hear, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me’ (Psalm 66:16)

AFFIRMATION – Testimonies remind us what we believe. They show that we all have different walks with God and confirm that it’s okay to be different. Some people have dramatic testimonies of God intervening into desperate situations in their lives and changing everything in an instant, whilst others have gradually come to know God slowly, little by little. By sharing your story and listening to others you learn just how amazingly different people’s relationships with God are. The individuality of each testimony isn’t a competition to see whose story is more ‘impressive’, as the more testimonies you hear the more you’ll realise the best bits aren’t when people are talking about themselves, but rather the truths they have learnt about God.

‘And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’ (1 John 5:11)

CONFIDENCE – The more testimonies we hear the more amazing truths about God we have to share with others. If you hear great stories of God acting in people’s lives, you want to share them. By practicing telling your testimony in the safe environment of your small group you’ll be more prepared to share your story with others who don’t yet have a relationship with God. Your story doesn’t have to polished and perfect, just real and honest.

‘“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him’ (Luke 8:39)

 

About Emily Owen

Emily dreams of travelling the world and writing about the great things she sees God doing along the way. Whilst waiting for dreams to come true, she happily works for CWR, plays a lot of netball and is trying to learn Spanish.

‘Would you mind taking someone new?’

You receive a phone call from your Small Group Co-ordinator. Someone is new to the church and wants to join your group. Will you take them?

Does your heart leap with joy at welcoming someone new to enjoy the delights of your group? Or are you thinking, ‘Oh no! We like it the way it is!’? Be honest. (Of course, you may be thinking, ‘Great! Our group is lousy. Maybe they can improve it.’ – but that’s another story …)

It is an issue that faces small groups in every church and it is not easily solved in the short term if your groups have been structured in such a way that welcoming a newcomer is unexpected. I am here assuming a classic structure of small groups that meet for Bible study, prayer and fellowship, made up of Christians at different levels of maturity. In such groups one aim is to build deep and close relationships in which our honest journey with God can be shared. If you have been set up as a group and have been merrily working to build trust and intimacy, you can understandably feel that a newbie would spoil the dynamic. Many groups do resist newcomers for that reason (and occasionally because of space considerations) – I get that. It would be like a family being asked to have someone live with them long term. That family will never be the same.

But all that said, if groups can be set up for growth from the very start, with the assumption that people may join, you start off on a very different footing. That phone call becomes a sign of God’s work and potential blessing for you and the newcomer(s).

It doesn’t mean that groups shouldn’t develop appropriate levels of connection, just that you have to be deliberate about how the newcomer is helped to feel at home. For a start it helps if the small group co-ordinator who allocates people to groups knows a little about the person and can make a judgment about the best group that might suit them. At the first meeting invite the person (or couple) to share a little of who they are, or meet up with them beforehand for a brief chat. This will depend on their temperament and maturity, of course, but can give the rest of the group a head start on how to best connect. You can also spend time helping them to know how people contribute in this group, what the aims are, brief them on any stuff that might assist them (Bob is hard of hearing, Alice has just lost her husband, Mary has an autistic son …)

If the groups are set up for growth, the group’s DNA includes that expectation that the group will grow and will multiply.

This whole issue of welcoming newcomers is not unimportant, for the very attitude that is nervous about welcoming a newcomer to a small group could be embedded within the church, preventing growth. We may think our church is friendly, which is code for ‘my church is friendly towards me’. Outsiders can have an altogether different experience. Church services full of in-jokes and references to people the outsider has never heard of are subtly saying, ‘We are family; you are not.’ At least not yet.

So I sympathise with groups that want to remain as they are, and would not force them to take newcomers – they are adults after all, and there’s no statutory obligation! But the ideal is that the small groups set up mirrors a healthy whole church mentality of being keen to welcome people to grow and flourish within the small group set up. It will be a challenge, but you can be sure that God will be right there with you.

About Andy Peck
Andy is a writer and Bible teacher who has served as a tutor with CWR since 2006. He is the author of Coached by Christ, A Life to Die For and co-author of Unlocking the Bible. He worked as an editor with Christianity magazine and hosts the Leadership File on Premier Christian Radio.

What are small groups?

Small groups can represent different things to different people. Each group, and each church, will do things in slightly (or very) different ways, and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ cookie-cutter approach. What works well for one group might not work for another. What works well at this point in time might not even be what God wants to be doing with that same group in the future.

Some groups have a structured plan for their meetings, others will be a bit more open to improvisation. Some groups will always have the same leader, others take turns to lead. Some groups are made up of an eclectic mix of people, others will have a lot in common with each other.

So to define what a small group actually is can be a pretty tricky task. But there are some truths, some cornerstones of group life, which will most likely ring true for the vast majority of Christian small groups.

So, what are they?

Small groups are ordinary, broken people trying to figure out life together with Jesus at the centre. They are a group of people who want to find out more about God and His love for the Church and the world. To not only know about God, but really get to know Him personally. A group of people who want to pray, to learn, to worship, to grow, to have fun, to be there for each other, to make mistakes and get back up again. A group who admit they can’t do it alone, but with God’s help and with others around them, they can do far more than they ever imagined. They’re one part among many making up God’s global Church, and they are a gift God has given us to help bring people to Him.

They are you and me and some people we know who want to live the kind of life God intends for us, building each other up and walking with Jesus one step at a time.

Small groups are part of God’s masterplan for saving the lost, bringing light to the darkness and hope to the hopeless. Why? Because you are part of God’s masterplan for saving the lost, bringing light to the darkness and hope to the hopeless, and so is everyone else in your group!

Small groups are not

On the other hand, there are some things that healthy, Christ-centred small groups shouldn’t be:

  • A replacement for regular church gatherings or services
  • The way to salvation in and of themselves (only Jesus can do that!)
  • An exclusive club serving only its own members
  • A way to show off how ‘good’ a Christian you are
  • A place to moan about how ‘bad’ a Christian you (or other people) are
  • A place to gossip behind people’s backs
  • The be-all and end-all of discipleship
  • The only time your Bible gets read outside of church
  • The only time you pray outside of church
  • A place to be in a Christian bubble, away from the ‘real world’
  • A qualified psychologist or counsellor (though journeying alongside each other is vital)
  • A dating or social club
  • Free babysitters every week
  • A place to switch off and let other people do all the work
  • A place to do all the work to feel like a ‘better Christian’
  • ‘Better’ or ‘worse’ than the small groups from the church down the road
  • A one-way flow of information from leader to members

And one more thing that groups definitely are not… perfect! As individuals we are still works in progress, and so are our groups. Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go as smoothly as you would hope (we live in a fallen world – it happens!). Stand up, brush yourself off, and carry on journeying together, having learnt something new.

 

About Mark Baker

Mark is an Editor at CWR. He’s passionate about how small groups fit into God’s masterplan. He’s also passionate about pizza. There’s no reason pizza and small groups should be mutually exclusive – each one enhances the other! Mark still finds talking about himself in third person a bit weird…

Different opinions in small groups

‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘Every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.’

Romans 14:5–13

To those of us who know that each greasy morsel will add to the tyre around our waist, the fat laden feast is something to be renounced. But having paid for the bed how can we refuse the breakfast – especially as the mingling aroma of coffee and succulent bacon drifts up the stairs at the very time when our moral energy is sapped by holiday rest and recreation.

So I confess that at least once during a holiday break I avoid the reproachful eye of the kipper, and go instead for the summit of all holiday luxuries – the full English breakfast.

The trouble with theological books and commentaries is that they don’t tell you the really useful things, like whether Paul would have been offered eggs and bacon for breakfast.

But there must certainly have been a day when for the first time he held a sizzling portion of pork upon the tip of his knife. It must have been a real spiritual battle for this man who had been a supreme ‘Pharisee of the Pharisees’ to put food into his mouth that he had always regarded as disgusting. His throat would have closed against it. His stomach would have revolted at the idea encountering it.

Romans 14 is by any standards an amazingly tolerant chapter, it is all the more astounding when you realize who wrote it. Paul broke completely free from his own prejudices.

There are still many secondary issues where Christians disagree. One day we will stand before Jesus and look into His face. His eyes will search not only what we did but why we did it.

If you want to please Him, bring your own life to the tests of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit now while you still have the opportunity. Don’t spend your life going round in grim disapproval, sniffing out the shortcomings of other people.
Put it to yourself in very simple terms. Ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if Jesus were to return while I was watching this, reading this, saying this, doing this?’ Can you sincerely thank God for the thing that you are enjoying? We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

Are you afraid of what verdict He will pass on your life? Cheer up. He died instead of you. He will receive you, but He wants to reward you as well. It’s time to clean up your life, not because you fear Him, but because He loves you so much and you love Him in return.

About Norman and Margaret Moss

Normanandmargsm Norman and Margaret Moss commenced ministry together in 1957. After 9 years in Chiswick, they pastored a church in Wimbledon for 31 years, and since then have been widely engaged in travelling ministry.

Margaret contributed to the Dictionary of Christian Ethics (IVP) and Norman has written several children’s books. Both have wide experience with small groups.

How small groups can help people to change their thinking

In my most recent blog I stressed how important relationships in small groups can be. This time we look at the role long-term Christian small groups can play in helping people to re-align their thinking more with biblical perspectives.

Each Christian small group is made up of people from all walks of life. Each small group member has a unique history. Sadly, many members come to the group with the scars of life either deeply hidden or obviously on the surface. Small groups that enjoy rich and deep relationships among the members can help individuals to address some of these issues.

Congregation meetings, at their best, can be very good at imparting information and maybe enthusing people into action, but congregations are not the ideal context for helping people grow individually and deal with the personal history and emotional scars. I believe this can be and should be the role of Christian small groups. Let me explain.

The familiar words from the apostle Paul in Romans 12:2 stress that we all need the renewing of our minds. How can this be? How does this renewing occur?

Modern neuroscience is discovering more and more about how our brain works. One of the most relevant discoveries here is how the brain can be changed from very negative thinking to develop positive constructive patterns of thinking that actually reshape the brain itself. Christian neuroscientist Dr Carline Leaf has provided many insights into the process of positive change in our thought life. We all need this change process in some measure. Hurtful experiences, painful emotions and associated negative thought patterns are not conducive to a joyful Christian life. To a greater or lesser degree, we all have negative thought patterns and the way we operate in daily living is influenced strongly by our thought life.

So how can small groups help their members develop a more positive, biblical aligned thought life? To begin, we need to recognise that change takes time. Second, change only happens when a negative way of thinking is replaced by something positive. It will not simply go away.

The Apostle Paul describes the positive change process succinctly:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things.

(Phil. 4:8, NIV)

As group members deepen their relationships with one another the group will come to understand some of the negative experiences, painful emotions and destructive thought patterns that have developed in others within the group. Helpful change will not come about just by speaking platitudes such as: God loves you and we love you too (though of course this is true). People need to see that not only is change desirable, but that is possible for them personally. They need to come to the Bible not just as a source of information but as a living, vital transforming resource that God has given His Church.

Probably, like me, you know people who have a good understanding of Scripture but the information has not taken root and has not been transforming in their lives. They do not live as though God values them and seeks their best. Some may be able to quote the correct verses but there is big gap between the reality of those truths and the working out of them in their lives.

We should take every opportunity to speak truth to each other, Scriptural truth, practical truth – not just occasionally but on many occasions and in the appropriate contexts. Engendering hope and faith is something that Christians in committed relationship can continue to do over time. This is the value of small groups, especially so if group members keep contact between group meetings. If we do keep speaking transforming truth to one another we will gradually begin to believe that not only are these facts Bible truths, but that they can be true for us personally.

In a number of small groups in which I have been involved I have been privileged to see this in operation as members have spoken truth and life to one another consistently. Some of the transformations have been so encouraging, so life-changing. ­­­

Thoughtful group members will be aware of individuals who have been deeply damaged and find it quite difficult to receive positive affirmation or hope. The context of secure Christian love, expressed sincerely and unconditionally, can open these people up to begin to hope, and then to believe, and then to accept a new way of talking to themselves and thinking about themselves. They will begin to see themselves more accurately as God sees them. They will begin to understand that past experiences do not have to define their future, nor do past failures or hurts define their intrinsic value to God.

Remember that this takes time. It won’t happen overnight. It cannot be faked or come from an unfounded enthusiasm of members. It must be real. It must spark hope and then action. Truth changes people. Christian small groups can be excellent catalysts of this change.

For reflection:

1. Are relationships in your group sufficiently developed so that members are able to speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15)?

2. Do you see evidence of members changing, becoming more positive and more hopeful, because of their involvement in the group?

Header image credits: Neural pathways in the brain / NICHD / BY

How small is ‘small’?

By Ron Kallmier

Over the years I have been involved in weekly or fortnightly Christian groups of many different sizes. Sometimes a group has been reduced to three or four people on a particular night because of sickness, work, special occasions and so on. At the other extreme my wife and I belonged to a group that reached 27 people on some nights. Around that time it became two groups but within a year it had grown to around 27 again. Is that really a small group or a small church?

In a previous blog, ‘The most important purpose of a small group‘, I mentioned the importance of building relationships as a foundation for effective small groups. But when does a small group become too big to be truly effective in achieving that or helping people to grow in their faith, or achieving a particular task?

The short answer is … it depends.

It depends on the objectives and type of group

A group designed to understand Bible teaching or a group for new Christians can vary in size because it is often in a speaker-audience format. However, getting together to discuss life over coffee does not work well when it becomes too large. Similarly, purpose focused groups – mission trips, community projects etc tend to work better when the group is not large so that teamwork can develop. This leads into the next point:

It depends on how deeply connected the group members desire to become

If we listen carefully when groups meet we will notice that group communication functions at various levels. The deeper the level the more individuals understand and potentially support one another.

Level 1. Information: The ‘safest’ level of communication is when information or facts are the main emphasis. Members can learn but their own lives can remain hidden from others. In many churches, this is the same level as the Sunday message from the pastor or priest.

Level 2. Ideas: Here individuals express something of themselves: their thoughts, values, beliefs. The group begins to develop ideas about one another.

Level 3. Experiences and challenges – sharing life or working on a common task: Life stories told within the group reveal a canvas where pictures of each person’s life journey and current issues can be painted. This level requires increased trust and some vulnerability.

Level 4. Emotions, hurts, desires, doubts, needs:  deep stuff, heart-to-heart, vulnerability: Not every group reaches this level of openness and mutual trust. And it is not always appropriate or necessary, depending on the style of group. When it is desired we discover that there is something very comforting about knowing others and being known ourselves, provided we feel unconditionally accepted.

Thinking back over what is written above, it should be reasonably obvious that some people only feel safe at Level 1 or 2. Others will be hungry for more depth of relationship and so feel comfortable in Levels 3 or even 4. And so we must also be guided by the comfort levels of individuals and what they are seeking from the group.

Food for thought

Think about Christian small groups in which you have participated or one which you are involved in at the moment. Where does it fit within the frameworks above? What are the objectives of the group? And do the two meet?

Ron Kallmier, an experienced teacher, counsellor and pastor who served as CWR’s Director of Training, explores how the size of a small group affects the nature of a relationships within it.

The shape of Christian small groups

By Ron Kallmier

Do small groups simply happen? Of course not, but how many people in small groups actually consider the way their small group functions? Church leaders and group leaders at least need to understand how the groups in their church are shaped, because every shape or group structure has benefits and limitations.

Let’s consider three broad ways that small groups operate – their basic structures.

Leadership Driven

The first is LEADERSHIP DRIVEN. That may sound rather strong but let’s paint the picture a little more. The direction, objectives and form of groups like this may be shaped by the church leadership. In some situations this will mean that all groups must follow the same programme, without regard to the age, spiritual maturity or the needs of the individual members. One shape fits all. Another form is when the group direction is set by the group leader(s).

There are many advantages of a leadership-driven group. The goals and vision for the group come from the leaders and should be filtered down to the group members. The leaders are responsible to facilitate the life and health of the group. Leaders become a focal point that make sure things get done, that objectives are pursued and that information flows within the group. Leadership-driven groups are useful for teaching skills and knowledge such as Bible knowledge, first-aid, photography, and so on. These groups do not demand a strong relationship bond among the group members.

On the downside, small groups who have highly controlling leaders may find it difficult to disagree or to offer alternative views or suggestions of their own. Dominating, inflexible leadership may produce groups that become rigid, predicable, even irrelevant or boring. Not being involved in decision making about group life suits some people, but there are others who will drift away from these groups or perhaps they may continue to attend out of politeness even though they would prefer to be somewhere else.

Democratic

Another basic group structure is what has been called DEMOCRATIC. Participation by members in making decisions is a dominant value of democratic groups. Everyone is encouraged to have a say (at least in theory) about goals, planning and content. If you have ever been part of a group that has a high value on democracy you will have noticed that coming to an agreement and making decisions can be a long process. It is hard to please everyone. You may have observed also that some group members still tend to dominate and manipulate, even in a democratic group.

Laissez-Faire 

The policy of leaving things to take their own course, without interfering (Oxford dictionary)

A group with this way of functioning is the opposite of a leadership driven style. A good example of an extreme laissez-faire style group would be: ‘Let’s simply meet on Fridays at 7:00pm and see what happens. We’ll work out what we will do when arrive.’ There is often a high value on flexibility, spontaneity and simply being together, but possibly a low value is placed on planning, objectives and direction. Laissez-faire style groups are particularly suited for casual events. ‘Let’s meet for coffee next week … or go on a bush walk … or meet for breakfast at the café on Saturday mornings once a month.’These groups have a high relationship-building potential and can be very inclusive of a wide range of people.

On the down side, normally a laissez-faire approach does not work well for church groups that meet regularly. Organisation can be, at best, a little chaotic and people may be left wondering why they are meeting, where the group is heading and who is going to make sure important things are done. Group cohesion is likely to be a challenge. A fundamental problem for long-term groups can be that, unless a sense of purpose and direction arises, people will lose interest and attendance will dwindle.

Food for thought

The three examples above are, of course, the extremes of each of these types of group. In fact, most Christian small groups will use each approach from time to time, yet there is usually one predominant style.

Ultimately, the style of group should fit the objectives for the group to function well.

  • Would you add another style of group functioning to the three above?
  • How would you describe the dominant style of your small group?
  • Is there some flexibility in the way the group functions?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the way your group operates?
  • What would you like to see improved in the format and functioning of your group?
  • Which group style or combination of styles is most likely to build relationships and assist members to grow to be more whole and more like Jesus?

Ron Kallmier, an experienced teacher, counsellor and pastor who served as CWR’s Director of Training, explores how our small groups are shaped.