When I was a Youth Pastor I became fully certified as an instructor/trainer for Son Life Youth Ministries, a philosophy of youth ministry that was meant to help leaders and youth pastors focus the ministry to build disciples for Christ who, in turn, lead others to him and spiritual transformation. I still fully believe in the Son Life basic philosophy for ministry. It's real simple actually. There are important steps that must be followed.
- Assess the diversity of the group and particular spiritual needs and concerns. We called this, laying out a DDP (Description of a Discipled Person). Realize that people are all at different places in their spiritual journey. So what do you believe the Bible says a disciple should look like? From there you outline a strategy or at least a particular plan to connect with each of the different groups of people that arise from your research, from seekers to growing Christians, to potential leaders.
- Develop your vision and mission/purpose for the ministry
- Build Community
- Study, pray and play together
- Minister together
Understand this philosophy came out long before "Purpose Driven Church, Life, or Youth Ministry." Lyman Coleman and Serendipity Small Group ministry was just coming into prominence. But notice the basic principles; simple, understandable and flexible for your ministry.
Developing small group ministry in your church is no different. Groups must know why they exist and how they fit into the life of the mission and vision of the church. But one of the most important points is number three which is closely connected with numbers four and five.
Building community is essential if people in your group are going to care for and confide in one another. And in this area I'm in agreement with Matt Carter when he said at a recent small groups seminar I attended, "Nothing builds community in a group like sharing in mission together " (Right Now Conference 2010). When you face the challenges of being the hands and feet of Christ together t in your community or abroad, a deeper bond grows between the members of your group. It just intrinsically happens.
New group leaders may get frustrated when their group doesn't get too deep and personal within the first month or so. But realize that people need to get to know each other through baby steps that foster deeper relationships before they will pour their heart and soul out in your small group. If the goal is to see people spiritually transformed into disciples through the small group then leaders must guide people in that direction by first connecting people, slowly getting to know each other in a more personal way. Until then exposure of the deeper self will not happen. And until exposure happens the deeper spiritual transformation is less likely to transpire in any significant way.
Often, however, groups tend to stop their development at knowing each other without going into deeper exposure. Sometimes the groups begin to wane becoming more of a social gathering and achieving little in the way of spiritual formation. You know the scene; a group has been meeting for a few years. They meet study and pray, hang out a bit going bowling or celebrating a birthday, but they don't really know what's happening in each others lives except maybe the day to day routines. They don't know that one couple is struggling in their marriage or a young man is questioning whether God even exists. Yet week after week most of the group shows up and everything is congenial. Some groups exist this way for years while most eventually stop meeting citing that it just didn't seem to work or people eventually stopped coming. Suddenly people start having all kinds of reasons for not showing up.
I believe real biblical community never took root in those groups. Real community includes exposure of the deeper struggles of life. I have seen and participated in small groups that help restore broken marriages and create an atmosphere where the deeper questions and struggles of faith can take place. And everyone wins. Real transformation and growth takes place. There is a personal and spiritual freedom that leads to a deeper awareness of one's need for the work of the Holy Spirit and the need for each other in order to develop as disciples. Now add ministering together in mission and service and there is no stopping the possibilities of spiritual formation.
So where is your group at? Do you need to evaluate and take stock of where you are and where you are going as a group? How about you as a leader, are you willing to take the steps necessary toward encouraging deeper exposure by showing more of the real you; your own pains and struggles? I know for many people this is a scary proposition, but for the sake of your group and yourself regarding spiritual development, it is vital.