What are the essential elements of a fruitful small group? Scott Hughes names and explains six elements that characterize effective small groups — prayer and scripture, Bible study, accountability, nurture and care, mission, and covenant.
1. Prayer and scripture
The two most obvious elements of a small group are the spiritual practices of prayer and reading scripture. Unfortunately, prayer can become perfunctory to a small group meeting instead of the source of encountering God. Perhaps this is in part due to the way many understand how prayer “works.” Most people seem to think of prayer as words we say to God. Conversely, my favorite definition of prayer is “intentionally being in the presence of God.” I favor this definition or description of prayer for a few reasons. For one, there is nothing about talking or even listening. The emphasis is on being. Secondly, it properly locates us — in the presence of God. We can have a posture or attitude of prayer in various physical postures, for very brief or extended periods of time, in a church building or outside. We don’t invoke God’s presence when we pray as much as we attune ourselves to the God who is present with us. I think this understanding of prayer is what Paul might have had in mind in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” More than merely perfunctory words either at the beginning and/or end of the small-group time, prayer should be a time when we bring all of who we are before God’s throne, so that God might work in and through us.
2. Bible study
For some, a small group is almost equivalent to Bible study. Certainly, there are many other practices and activities that small groups can and should participate in beyond exclusively studying the Bible. Churches should offer a variety of small groups, and how the Scriptures should be engaged will and should vary according to the type of group. For some groups, Bible study might take up most of the group’s time. For other groups, care or accountability might be the predominant features of their time together. In whatever form it looks like, small groups should make time to engage God’s Word.
Bible study curricula can be a crutch for the group and for the church. Too often, curricula can get in the way of a fruitful discussion. As Jeffrey Arnold notes in his book, The Big Book of Small Groups, “Don’t let a printed study hinder small-group creativity.” It is more important to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead than to complete the lesson plan. I’ll repeat that sentence for emphasis: It is more important to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead than to complete the lesson plan. This is one of myriad reasons why small-group facilitators should be trained. Trained facilitators make the most of teachable moments and rely on curricula only as a means for meaningful conversation. Participants in small groups (from affinity groups to covenant groups) should have at least some engagement with God’s Word for guidance and discernment.
The next element is accountability. Without much context or explanation, the notion of accountability is likely to cause some confusion, consternation, and even trepidation. Upon hearing this word, some small-group participants might envision something punitive or something that will induce guilt or shame. This is not the kind of accountability we’re speaking of for Wesleyan small groups. Conviction should come between participants and the Holy Spirit. Thus, accountability occurs between each participant and the Holy Spirit more so than between the participants. The role of other participants should be supportive and encouraging. Other participants might be firm and/or offer advice, but conviction and guidance are from the Holy Spirit.
Adding accountability to small groups can happen in a variety of ways. One option is to have all groups read the church’s mission statement at the beginning or end of the group time and give brief reports on how they’ve seen this lived out. A second option would be to recite the baptismal promises or membership vows for groups to report on. Another option would be to offer guiding questions that might include: “How is it with your soul? Where have you seen God at work since we last met?”
One of the benefits of this element of fruitful small groups is moving participants beyond the myth of autonomy. As we see in passages such as Acts 2:41-47, mutuality and interdependence were crucial components of the early church movement. Steven Manskar notes in his book, Accountable Discipleship, that the benefit of accountability in our small groups helps us to “stand against the trap of believing and living as though we are self-sufficient.” Julie A. Gorman notes in her book, Community That Is Christian, that Christian small groups have “three goals and a fourth that is distinctly Christian: accomplishment of purpose; caring for personal needs of individuals in the group; maintaining healthy relationships; and — overarching all three — becoming the people of God in process.” Having accountability for living our faith helps us as individuals and collectively to become the people of God.
4. Nurture and care
A marker of when small groups have become fruitful is when they become the primary place of pastoral care for their participants. Small-group participants and leaders should be on the front lines of offering care and support to group members. I’ve heard it said that “small-group members should beat the pastor to the hospital when one of their members is there.” Pastoral care response for the church best happens through small groups.
Another way care and nurture might come out is through offering proper hospitality. This should be true whether the group meets at church or in a home. When life feels overwhelming, to truly be present in a place and with a supportive group can be a lifeline. Additionally, snacks or a meal before, during, or after the group time can be beneficial. Be sensitive to food allergies and avoid getting into a competition in serving the best snacks or food.
How small groups engage in mission will vary according to the group. For some groups, mission activities might be the predominant activity of the group. When done well, mission activities should lead participants back into scripture and prayer (just as prayer and Bible study should lead us into mission). Some groups might undertake to engage in mission individually or collectively as a group. Serving together can provide opportunities for bonding and debriefing God’s presence. Often, small-group covenants will note that the small group should engage in mission opportunities on a certain basis (once a year, twice a year, or whatever is deemed appropriate by the church).
Healthy boundaries are essential for healthy small groups. The use of a covenant cannot be stressed enough as a means of developing healthy and fruitful small groups. Small-group covenants should list expectations and provide beneficial guardrails for participants. As Jeffrey Arnold notes, “Operating a small group without a covenant is similar to running a corporation without a charter, bylaws, and strategy.” Covenants should include the purpose of the group, specific tasks and roles for participants, expectations for attendance and confidentiality, as well as the beginning and ending time. These covenants should be reevaluated on a regular basis (at least annually). Reviewing and/or renewing covenants can assist the group in having more open and candid conversations about whether the group is meeting participants’ needs or if a switch in groups is needed to accommodate a change in life situation.
This article was originally published by Discipleship Ministries at umcdiscipleship.org. Used by permission.