Whether you’re a super fan or a sceptic, small groups are essential for your spiritual growth. Here’s how you can get the most out of them


Source: Flix Gillet

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about small groups. Opinions range wildly, from: “It’s the highlight of my week; I grow so much there”, to: “If I’ve run out of excuses, I’ll pop along to keep up appearances…and to assuage my guilt”, to a Joshua Harris-esque: “I kissed small groups goodbye a looong time ago!”

Before we go any further, let me be clear that I am no sideline cynic. Small groups have enormous potential to help us grow and change. I’ve sunk a lot of time and energy into participating in small groups, leading them, creating resources for them and researching the experiences of group leaders and members. 

Often, I come away from a group seeing myself and others enriched, encouraged and equipped by our time together. But the fact that small groups have had more rebrands than a teenage garage band suggests all might not be well in the living room. Home groups, growth groups, connect groups, life groups, study groups, community groups, pods, huddles, clusters, platoons (OK, that last one isn’t real…I hope). People tend not to keep renaming things that are working well. Perhaps the plethora of titles suggests they might not be fulfilling their intended purpose, and we hope that slapping a new label on the tin will fix the product within. 

But before we start thinking about how to get the best out of small groups, let’s zoom out.

The good, the bad and the history

Our modern small groups have their roots in rich Methodist soil. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was a biblical pragmatist. His motto was essentially: “If something lines up with scripture, and it works, let’s do it!” Though he was most famous for preaching in fields and having a sore bum from constantly riding a horse, the main reason the Methodist movement grew – and kept growing – was down to his focus on believers meeting in small groups (which he called ‘bands’ and ‘classes’). 

Back in the 18th century, John Wesley and George Whitefield were essentially the Ronaldo and Messi of the UK-USA preaching scene. Both were phenomenal preachers, but many more of Wesley’s converts stayed the course. Why? Perhaps because Wesley, who was also well-known for his organisational skills, got them into groups and Whitefield didn’t. 

The research I’ve conducted suggests that people tend to grow in discipleship best alongside others. In the right kind of group, we grow in ways that aren’t possible if we’re left to our own devices. In groups, we recognise ways we could serve others, treat people better and be more proactive in showing and sharing our faith.

Take Josh, for example. A 23-year-old primary school teacher, he’d grown up with an implicit belief that if he was going to “do something for God”, that meant going into church-based ministry, doing overseas mission or at least working for a Christian charity. But by reflecting on what the Bible says about work in Genesis 1 and 2, and by sharing his heart to help children grow and develop with others in a small group, he recognised the job he already has is his God-given calling. It changed how he thought about himself and his whole life. Stuff happens in groups that doesn’t happen by ourselves!

But not all groups lead to this kind of insight. Growth in groups is basically the opposite of my car: it’s natural, but it’s not automatic.

In his excellent book, Disciples Together (SCM Press), Roger Walton shares findings from his research among small groups in the north-east of England. He discovered most people used words like ‘family’, ‘friendship’, and ‘fellowship’ to describe their groups. A few participants mentioned the Bible. But none mentioned anything about serving neighbours or engaging in God’s mission. 

Essentially, these groups excelled at helping people feel supported and remain connected to their church. Great things for sure…but they weren’t forming disciples. They weren’t helping people get better at following Jesus in their day-to-day contexts. If I’d been a high priest when I first read this, I’d have torn my robe! Instead, I just slightly stretched the collar of a t-shirt I didn’t really like. 

So how can we develop small groups that help people know Jesus, follow Jesus and become more like Jesus?

Clarify purpose

Get this right, and a lot else goes right. But if there’s a misalignment between what the church leader, the group leader and the group members think a group is for, you’re onto a hiding to nothing. A lack of clarity over purpose gives birth to frustration, and the offspring of frustration are conflict, disappointment and disengagement. 

Different groups will have different flavours. Some will be focused on sharing what’s going on in the life of members and supporting one another. Some have more of a focus on Bible study, while others are geared towards evangelism. This is all good. But within that, if there isn’t any deliberate focus on helping group members become more like Jesus, may I humbly suggest you think about factoring that in? 

Small groups have had more rebrands than a teenage garage band

This can be easier when you’re starting a group from scratch. When I formed a new group, I met with my senior pastor a couple of times to think through what the group could and should be about. Those conversations – and the reflections on them – resulted in some clear aims. 

Every time we meet around my kitchen table on a Sunday night, the group members must state what the three aims are (and I don’t let the ones who’ve been coming the longest answer). It’s deliberately funny and awkward, but it reminds us what we’re there to do. It shapes the discussions we have, what we notice in the Bible and what we pray about. 

I know a lot of church leaders who struggle when it comes to making changes to existing small groups. I also know a lot of small group leaders who struggle when church leaders try to make changes to their group! Small groups are funny things – not quite the mainland of the Church, but also not an independent island. Navigating that tension between autonomy and oversight is a tricky one.

The key is collaboration. If it’s just top-down, with a church leader or leadership team telling group leaders what to do, the result is rarely good. But respectful, appreciative, humble and hopeful conversations between group and church leaders can create the possibility for change to occur. 

3 resources to help your small group focus on growth

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The Gateway Seven series covers seven books of the Bible, each from a different biblical genre. Discover how to read law, prophecy, letters, apocalyptic, wisdom, narrative and gospel writing – and explore their implications for life today. 

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Fruitfulness on the Frontline helps you see how God is working through your ordinary, daily life – and how you can make a difference with him, right where you are.

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The Character Course brings together the most up-to-date psychology with ancient biblical wisdom. It covers key themes of Christian discipleship: learning, hope, love, forgiveness, gratitude, humour, persistence and curiosity. 

Make space for stories

I was talking to someone the other day who’s been in a home group for ages. Despite meeting together for years, he confided that he didn’t really know much about the lives of other members. They talk church. They talk Christianity. They talk ailments. But they don’t really talk about their day-to-day lives: the joys and challenges of work; the depths and disappointments of friendship; the thrills and spills of grandparenting, marriage or singleness. 

Growth in groups is natural, but it’s not automatic

This is more than just sad, it’s dangerous, because what we talk about indicates what matters to us – and what doesn’t. If we only talk about the Bible, what’s happening in church or that recent diagnosis, we’re implicitly saying: “This is the stuff that matters. All that other ‘life stuff’ is just irrelevant noise.” 

If our conversations remain at this level, we will never truly know each other, nor will we be truly known. But when people talk about life, beautiful things happen. We become three-dimensional and we recognise more of God’s presence in the mundane and the regular. It also helps us do the next thing…

Connect the Bible to everyday life 

There are some Church circles that absolutely love the Bible. But sometimes this can result in a belief that if we pay too much attention to people’s everyday lives, this focus will be diluted. Yet, the research I conducted for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC) found the polar opposite. As people discovered how to apply scripture to their everyday life together, their love for it increased. 

Levels of engagement with the Bible will vary, but whatever it’s like in your group, don’t let the Bible hover above reality – you need to earth it. Yes, Ephesians 3:17-19 talks about how great God’s love is, so how might we be more aware of that love while we’re prescribing medication, or creating a TikTok video? Yes, Luke 5 talks about Jesus showing up in Peter’s work as a fisherman, but how might he show up on your building site, at your exercise class or even while you’re fishing? 

Increasingly, Bible scholars such as Chris Wright and NT Wright (no relation) are emphasising the importance of reading the Bible ‘missionally’. The Bible tells us about God’s mission and prepares us to play our part in that mission. So, in your group, don’t stop once you get to the point of understanding a passage; that’s only the beginning. Take time to explore: “What might this look like for us tomorrow?”

Pray differently

I don’t know about your group, but often prayer requests at the end of a session imagine God to be the great firefighter. “So,” the group leader intones. “What would people like prayer for this week?” You go round the room. “I’d like prayer for energy; I’m feeling a bit tired.” Next person: “Please can you pray for my granny’s friend’s neighbour – she’s really hurt her toe.”

Now, of course we want to pray for immediate needs, both for ourselves and for others. That’s biblical. “Give us today our daily bread” says Matthew 6:11. But let’s be honest. If we get stuck in this mode, it can be pretty boring. 

When people talk about life, beautiful things happen

As we pray for immediate needs and for God to rescue us from difficult situations, how about we also pray for growth? What if we asked God to grow our character in the midst of the restructuring that’s taking place at work, and pray we’ll be a source of wisdom and hope for our colleagues? What if we prayed for that friend of ours who seems so closed to the gospel? What if we shared how we’re often snappy with our kids or housemates, and would love prayer to be more gracious in our speech? As well as praying firefighter prayers, let’s pray faith-building ones too. 

What do you want to do?

If you’re a church leader, have you thought through what you’d like your small groups to be achieving, and whether that is happening in reality? And are you aware of the good things going on within groups? I don’t want to be responsible for starting a third world war, but some open conversations with small group leaders might be a good start.

If you’re a small group leader, are there one or two things you could do to shift the culture of the group, so that it is even more effective in helping people to grow and live out their faith in their day-to-day lives?

If you’re a small group member, maybe you could be more open about what’s going on in your life, and be a little bolder in what you ask for prayer for.

And if you’re not in a small group, maybe you might want to give them a go? Maybe?