Tips for Small Group Success?

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A recent article in The Banner (Small Group Suggestion: Real Simple) sparked my interest and got me thinking about small groups. In this article the author shares a small group structure that, in his own 45+ years of experience, has worked the best. He makes a case for splitting the meeting into thirds as follows: 1) the first third is for reading and reflecting on a Bible passage, 2) the second third is for sharing thoughts from the past week, and 3) the final third is for praying aloud. He also adds a note that "food and drink should be simple and affordable for all." 

In thinking about my own experience in various small groups (I've been part of a women's Bible study, a youth group, and am currently in a couple's small group), I wondered what what would make my "best practices" list. Though my fount of knowledge is much closer to 15 years than 45, I was able to come up with a few ideas for what I've seen work well.

In my own experience, a good small group includes: 

  • Clear Expectations. It’s best to set expectations at the very beginning. What are the scheduling constraints? How often can people realistically meet? Are we going to study a book or reflect on the sermon? Having clear expectations that the group agrees upon makes it more likely that people will keep their commitment.
  • A Welcoming Environment. The physical setting where the group gathers can set the tone for discussion. It's important to find an environment where people can “take off their shoes” so to speak. I've been part of groups that have met at Panera Bread, the church, and in people's homes. In my experience, meeting at a house works best. Homes are welcoming, private and cost-effective. Meeting at church can sometimes feel formal and public places can discourage openness and sharing.
  • Vulnerability. I've been part of small groups where conversation is forced and remains "surface level." On the flip side, I've been part of groups where authentic struggles are shared and real growth takes place. I think the key factor to good conversation in a small group in vulnerability. When one or two people are willing to "get real" about something going on in their lives, they create a safe space and open the door for others in the group to share on a deeper level. 

What tips or suggestions would you add to this list? Whether you have 45 years of experience or have just joined a small group for the first time, I'd love to hear your ideas!

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I would like to suggest that small groups change membership every three years.  If close friendships have formed during those three years the members can continue relationships on a friendship level.  If groups don't switch out members, they can become cliques all too easily.  New church members can find it very difficult to find a place to "fit in."  At one point, when I was a new member at a church, looking for a small group, I was told that the small groups were "full."

Admin

Great suggestion. I think it can be incredibly discouraging for new people to hear that the small groups are "full." I would add that it can be helpful to have regular announcements (from church leaders, on the church website/Facebook page, or in the bulletin) that invite people to join small groups.  

Other questions are:
What is the purpose of the group:
Is it for Bible Study?
Is it for Bible Study and growing in your walk with God?
Is it for Bible Study and looking at your own personal struggles?

All these can mean different things to different people. You might think these three are all the same thing. They aren't. It is very difficult if some people in the same group only want the first one and not number 2 or 3.
.......
Is the small group a mentoring group? This means that the leader is mentoring the other participants. in these groups there is less discussion because the participants are being taught. The leader would be more mature in whatever they are learning. The participants need to have agreed upfront that they respect the leader and want to be learn from him or her.

Is the small group a discussion group where everyone will freely discuss what ever they are studying? The leader then moderates.

Trained leadership/good leadership/servant leadership is a most important part of a small group.

.......
Some people are very uncomfortable with praying out loud. To help them get more comfortable start simple. Ask for prayer requests, Then ask each person just to say "Please Lord bless ____ (the person on their right) and keep that going around the circle. Then the leader prays for the requests at the end.

After a couple of meetings ask each person to share one thing thing they would like prayer for. Then ask each person to pray for the person on their right about that one prayer request. Keep going around the circle.

After some more weeks ask for the prayer requests to be personal to the person asking. Something about themselves. and follow the same routine.

This way everyone knows what is expected and they know exactly who and what to pray for. In time as people get more comfortable you can have less structure
 

Admin

Thanks for this! Lots of good thoughts here. Important note about some people not being comfortable praying aloud. I think your suggestion for structure helps. It can also be a good idea to ask for volunteers to lead in prayer. After a few weeks or months, other may feel more comfortable stepping up. 

We have a small group in my church, that has been in existence at least ten years. We usually meet in our church at 6:30, and then have a potluck dinner together. This works well!

Afterward, for about an hour and a half, we discuss a book, Banner article, or video. We are always looking for good discussion material, and my reason for adding this comment is to ask for suggestions. Which resources has your discussion group enjoyed?

John Cook, Ottawa Calvary, jgcook@rogers.com

 

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