Three big questions for your small groups

In recent months, Col Marshall and I have been running some workshops based on The Trellis and the Vine, and during the workshops we spent a bit of time talking about small groups—about why we have them (or don’t), the part they normally play in church life, how we train our leaders (or don’t as the case may be), and so on.

As pastors talked about the groups in their churches, two common themes emerged. One was that a surprisingly large percentage of small Bible study groups don’t actually study the Bible. They do Bible-related things: they read the passage in preparation for the following week’s sermon, for example; or review and discuss the sermon just passed; or have topical discussions based on material prepared by the pastor or purchased off the shelf; or simply eat and share and pray together about their Christian lives. But actually digging into the text of Scripture, wrestling with it, humbly listening to it, praying in response to it—in many groups, this doesn’t happen.

The other thing that many pastors freely confessed was that they struggled to provide adequate training and ongoing support for their small group leaders.

It’s not very difficult to see a connection between these two observations. Many groups don’t dig very deeply or fruitfully into Scripture because their leaders don’t have the vision or the necessary skills to lead them in doing so. And this is not the leader’s fault. It’s a demanding task to lead a good quality Bible discussion—one which has direction and an end point, but which allows the group to explore and discover the truth for themselves (rather than simply being told the answers). It takes maturity, training, mentoring and practice.

There is no avoiding the uncomfortable truth that providing this sort of training and support is costly—especially in time and energy for the pastoral staff and leaders of the congregation. It is also slow, unspectacular and largely hidden work. No-one really sees the hours put in with a small bunch of prospective Bible study leaders—teaching them the Bible, carefully training them how to prepare and lead a Bible study, talking through the pastoral issues involved in caring for a small group, praying together. There is no big event or activity involved, nothing to advertise, and little sense of having achieved something and ticked it off your list—because the investment doesn’t stop with the initial training of leaders. We need to keep meeting with our leaders once they are on the job: to talk through how their groups are going, to grow in understanding and skills, to solve problems together, to pray.

Now, as you are reading this, the new ministry year will be getting under way, and small groups forming. Isn’t it a bit late to be thinking about training small group leaders? Well, in one sense, yes! But if you are a pastor, now is precisely the time to be thinking about three very important questions:

  1. Who are the people I want to recruit and train this year in order to be small group leaders next year, and how will I train them?
  2. How can I do a better job of training and supporting my current small group leaders during this year?
  3. Given that my leaders mightn’t be as well trained as I would like, how can I help them get more into the Bible in their groups (while I work out how to train them better)?

For questions 1 and 2, the best and most utterly brilliant resource in the world bar none is Col Marshall’s Growth Groups (slight publisher’s hyperbole there, but only slight). There is simply nothing else like Growth Groups—that thinks out from the Bible what the real purpose of small groups is, how leaders should be trained, and then provides a framework for doing that training, along with resources, study papers and exercises. If you haven’t ever read or used Growth Groups, don’t put it off any longer. Try it, and work out how you can put its wisdom to use.

For question 3, one of the best ways forward is to encourage your groups to use good quality off-the-shelf resources that really focus on the text of the Bible.

This has always been one of the strengths of Matthias Media’s range of small group Bible studies: the simpler, more straightforward Pathway Bible Guide series, and the more stretching Interactive Bible Study series (which has a new set of studies on Proverbs due out on March 1). Both series help small groups to discover the riches of the Bible for themselves, while providing enough background and guidance to keep the discussion on track.

I would also warmly commend the Good Book Guide series published by The Good Book Company. These studies are pitched roughly halfway between Matthias Media’s Pathway and Interactive series (in terms of level), and also make a point of helping small groups dig into the actual text of the Bible and work out its meaning for their lives.

Whatever framework or resource you end up using, why not make 2011 the year to re-think how the small groups in your congregation might drink more deeply from the life-changing word of God?

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