One of the most challenging aspects of pastoral ministry is the management of small discipleship groups. There is a vast amount of material available on small group ministry because it is such a vital part of church life and ministry but finding a synopsis of what works well is difficult. I know of no aspect of pastoral ministry that involves more challenges. These include the matter of recruiting good leadership, keeping leaders accountable, providing encouragement, helping leaders find good material, ensuring that groups are really working in line with the vision of the church and so on. As I have occasion to participate in groups in recent years I find myself asking how they could be more effective.
One issue is purpose. Some groups cast themselves as Bible Study groups. While this sounds good on the surface, the problem is that discussion often consists of no more than everyone sharing their opinion on what a particular verse or passage is all about. At the other extreme are groups that consist largely of some kind of mystical experience without reference to the Bible. I have heard of Christian groups that are little more than seances of one kind or another. It seems to me the larger purpose of small groups is all about making disciples.
Making disciples requires the kind of leadership that knows how to be intentional about this critical issue. It really is about a lot more than merely leading a Bible Study though that will inevitably be involved. If a leader is committed to making disciples, that person will seek to use the Bible to help participants develop their understanding and practice of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. By this objective the Scriptures form a base of operation but the Bible or knowledge of the Bible is not an end in itself. In this process, the leader will guide participants to see how the truth of God’s Word can be integrated into daily life.
Ideally, the leader will take a book or passage of the Bible as a base for discussion about principles of what it means to follow Jesus. Suppose the passage is Psalm 23. The leader will ask the members of the group to focus their attention on this passage in one way or another for several minutes. All in a context of worship and prayer, the leader will ask members to share what the passage is saying — what it means. He or she may then ask group members to share what aspect of the passage stands out to them and why. The leader may find it necessary to offer interpretive correction on comments that may not accurately reflect the meaning of the text. Thus the leader has to be prepared to guide the participants in a proper theological understanding of the text taking into account the larger context of Scripture as a whole. He or she may point to significant cross-references that shed light on the text.
At best, the leader is always looking for ways in which group members can creatively apply the principles of the biblical text. These suggestions would lead into meaningful prayer, rather than simply listing the arbitrary need requests of individuals without reference to the text. This is not to say that prayer can not also include particular individual needs that are unrelated to the text, but too often this is the extent of the prayer aspect of the group.
Over time, it should be evident that group members are growing in their experience of Christ rather than the mere accumulation of Bible knowledge. Transformation in people’s lives will be evident in the quality of their relationships with family members and work associates. It will also be evident in how well they are integrating their faith with the challenges of daily life and witness. Fellowship is a bi-product of this kind of group experience; it need not be a focus. It will inevitably happen as people are led together in a better understanding of what it means to live as a Christian.
It doesn’t seem reasonable that groups remain static in terms of make-up. While there is some benefit from mutual commitment for the sake of Christian growth for a period of time, if the same members are together for more than a year or two, the group gets stale. There should be an openness to new members being added to the group or for new groups to develop. Small groups, by their very nature, should be prepared for growth in size or number.
Also for groups to be progressive and effective, leaders need to meet regularly under pastoral oversight for accountability, mutual encouragement, and the sharpening of leadership skills. This takes a huge amount of pastoral effort. But such an investment pays rich dividends over time. Leaders need to learn how to manage difficult questions or participants, how to listen and draw people out, how to guide participants in becoming disciples. Leaders should have freedom to develop their own style, but accountability for basic discipleship training is fundamental to effective small group ministry.