I'm passionate about small groups. Aside from the research that indicates numerous benefits individually and as a church, I know from my own experience - as a minister and a psychologist - the positive effects that small groups can have. There are certainly potential problems, but these can be alleviated with good quality facilitation. To help in this endeavour, I've developed two models that aim to bring clarity to the purpose of small groups and excellence in small group process (model shown below).
Small Group Purpose is a descriptive model that helps facilitators and participants more consciously identify the reasons for their group’s existence. Note that a group does not need to cover every component; but it could. What is more likely is that particular groups will more strongly identify with some aspects over others (e.g., they may have a particularly strong emphasis on study relative to the other components). It is not important to achieve a ‘high’ score in each area, because they will not necessarily be of of equal importance.
- STUDY focuses on engaging and studying the Bible. This is what is traditionally expected of a Small Group/Bible Study. Typical behaviours include: Systematic reflection on specific passages of the Bible; In-depth discussion of Bible passages; Application of Biblical ideas to daily life; Members seeking to grow their biblical knowledge; People growing in their understanding of the Bible; and Using other resources to help expound the Bible (e.g., commentaries, guides, study notes, software, dictionaries).
- WORSHIP focuses on the outward expression of praise, and inward experience of spirituality. Typical behaviours include: Devoting time to group prayer; Dedicating time to worship (e.g., singing) or liturgy (e.g., lighting a candle); Members desiring to feel closer to God (through small group); Members wanting to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit; A desire to grow in your relationship with God; Members encouraging one another in their spiritual walks; and A deepening of personal faith.
- FELLOWSHIP focuses on a sense of belonging, community, and caring for one another. Typical behaviours include: Discussing life outside of small group (attending to one another’s life circumstances); Talking about personal problems; Spending time together in fellowship; Caring for one another in tangible ways; Spending time together outside of small group; Feeling a strong sense of belonging; A strong sense of trust and intimacy; Praying for one another’s concerns; and Helping one another in times of need.
- MISSION focuses on an outward expression of faith through word and/or deed. Typical behaviours include: Inviting people intentionally along to small group (from outside of the church) to learn about Christianity; Helping grow the missional reach of the church; Actively addressing social justice issues in the local area; Encouraging one another in their regular mission context (e.g., at work or school); Helping one another to share their faith with other people; Planning to split the group; and Using the group to welcome new people.
- SERVICE focuses on using gifts to serve the local church community and each other. Typical behaviours include: Actively caring for people in the church; Taking part together in regular acts of service in their church; Spending time to talk about practical aspects of ministry; Spending time planning how to be more active in ministry; Encouraging one another and being accountable about ministry involvement; Helping one another understand their respective gifts; and Helping to enable one another's gifts to flourish.
If you currently facilitate a group, think about how you might describe the purpose of your group with reference to these areas. Is there an emphasis on particular areas? Are some areas only minimally related to the purpose of your group? Remember: it is not necessary for every group to cover every component. Three questions are of prime importance however:
- Is the described purpose intentional?
- Is the described sense of purpose shared amongst group members?
- Is the group effective in these areas?
Small Group Process is a practical model that helps groups and facilitators improve the processes of their small group. Unlike the previous model, facilitators should be seeking to excel in each of the process areas (they are skill sets, not individual skills). Many of these components often receive minimal attention, with most effort concentrated on the time actually spent in the small group (i.e., the ‘running’ component).
- FORMING: The formation of the group is a continuous task. The group changes and people are seeking confidentiality, trust, shared vision, and engagement. Behaviours that reflect this skill set include: Members and facilitator working actively to build trust and deepen relationships; Sharing meals; Discussing expectations periodically; Shared understanding of purpose; Members know ground rules and confidentiality expectations; and Group remains an open system.
- RUNNING: The running of the actual group is the process that concentrates on facilitating the actual small group session. Behaviours that reflect this skill set include: Use of questions (e.g., open-ended, clarifying, closed) to foster discussion; Active listening and use of silence; Resources utilised to inform discussion; Interpersonal aspects (open, clear, respect, people feel comfortable, not overly confronted, people, individuals do not overtake/dominate, difficult people managed, conflict addressed); Timing and structure (starts and ends on time, there is a regular agreed pattern); Variety of learning styles are accommodated for; and Physical environment is conducive.
- CARING: The pastoral care of group members is a shared responsibility and includes prayer. Behaviours that reflect this skill set include: The facilitator contacts members regularly outside of group time; The facilitator connects group members so that they can care for one another; Members are encouraged to pray for one another during the week; Members know what is happening in one another's lives; The right amount of time is spent discussing personal problems; Time is spent praying for one another; Members genuinely listen to one another; and Appropriate boundaries are maintained between the facilitator and members.
- LINKING: Refers to the continuous process of managing transitions from week-to-week, between studies, and within studies. Behaviours that reflect this skill set include: The facilitator follows up the last meeting by email, phone, or in-person; Transitions between studies are made; Continuity of leadership; Links are made to practical, everyday, aspects of life; Prayer points from the previous session are followed up (e.g., at the beginning of the session asked how it might be going); and Each session does not feel disjointed from the overall study.
- REVIEWING: Is the continuous and periodic process of reflecting on the health of the group and members. Behaviours that reflect this skill set include: Group purpose and process is regularly reviewed; Facilitator asks people for feedback; There is periodic discussion regarding if it is time to split the group; People feel comfortable in providing feedback; A review is conducted after each study is completed; The facilitator will check on progress midway through a multi-week study; and The facilitator will meet with individuals regularly to see how they are growing.
Keeping in mind that facilitators should aim to excel in each of these areas, which are your particular strengths or weaknesses? What are the key priorities for development?
Remember that these models are primarily designed to help you focus the purpose of your group and improve its processes. By keeping in mind the five areas of purpose and process, you can continuously reflect on the status of the group and how continuous improvements can be made.