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Part 1: Small Group Beginnings

Once you have decided to begin a Christian small group, how do you get it started and keep it going? Understanding some of the basic issues in group life can help you build healthy small groups and avoid some of the more common mistakes. These issues include:


  • purpose
  • commitments
  • foundations
  • participants
  • time
  • stages in group life
  • types of groups
Shared purpose. A Christian small group can be defined as a deliberate face-to-face gathering of three to 12 people who meet regularly and share the common purpose of exploring together some aspect of Christian life, faith, and discipleship.

Foundations. Simply to invite people to join a "Christian small group" or a "Bible study group" does not communicate clearly what they are joining and what obligations are involved. Before inviting anyone to join your small group, make sure you know and can communicate clearly what your group will do and what is being asked of participants.

Answering some general questions about the purpose of the group assists those considering leadership or involvement to be clear about the reasons the group is meeting. Questions might include:


  1. Why do we want to have a small group?


  2. What do you personally want to get out of this group?


  3. What goals do we want to adopt as a small group?


  4. What day will we meet? How many times a month?


  5. What time will we meet?


  6. What will be our commitment to start and close on time?


  7. Will we meet at the same place or rotate places?


  8. What ingredients will we include in our group? What ingredients does the church desire?


  9. What will make this group "successful," or worth the time involved?


  10. How will relationships among the members be built?


  11. How will the group use the Bible in its life together?


  12. What part will prayer occupy in the group?


  13. What level of commitment and work will we have? How hard do we want to work?


  14. What pattern of leadership will we use? What pattern is the church asking us to use?


  15. Who should take responsibility to help the group achieve its goals?


Studies in group dynamics reveal that people are more highly committed to groups in which they have some say about direction and function.

Groups can meet at any time and place convenient for the group members (e.g., weekday during the day or evening, breakfast or luncheon meetings, Saturday morning meetings, or special meetings, due to the unique schedule of the members).

A common pattern for nurture group meeting is:

Gathering/worship—arrival, conversations, light refreshments, or worship (15 minutes)

Studying—Interaction with Scriptures, sometimes in subgroups (30-45 minutes)

Caring—personal sharing of concerns and interests (30 minutes)

Praying—in smaller subgroups or whole group (15 minutes)

Lyman Coleman suggests the following elements for a small group experience, stating, "A lot of groups become unhealthy because they overemphasize one of the basic ingredients of a small group." He lists three elements needed for a balanced healthy group:

1. Bible Study/Nurture: The basic building block of an effective small group is Bible study. But Bible study by itself can be dangerous. "Too much of a good thing" can lead to spiritual indigestion. What else is needed?

2. Group Building/Support: The purpose of a group is… "to become a group." The climate for becoming a group is love, acceptance, forgiveness and belonging. Remember, however, that it can be dangerous if the group dwells exclusively on its own needs and becomes morbidly introspective. What will help?

3. Task/Mission: The most natural form of outreach is to see people who have a similar need for support and bring them into the group. But a group that concentrates exclusively on ministry often ends up with burn-out and/or limits its potential. What's the answer?

One option is the Three-Part Static Group Agenda, in which you make a three-layer cake out of the essentials, and each slice gets equal parts: 30 minutes Bible study, 30 minutes sharing/support, and 30 minutes prayer requests and prayer about your ministry.

A second option is the Flying Wedge Dynamic Flow Agenda, in which you create a yearlong game plan with the three ingredients balanced over the total year. Each slice of the cake gets a different percentage of the ingredients in each phase of group life.

Stanley Ott suggests another model: "The Discipleship Triangle," a means of helping the group live out the WIFE acrostic—Worship (including conversational prayer), Instruction (sharing insights from Scripture), Fellowship (a chance to see how God is working in one another's lives each week, i.e. sharing blessings and needs), and Expression (Ministry to people in and outside the group).


Suggested Format:

7:15 p.m. People gather and chat

7:30 p.m. Word (Bible Study)

8:15 p.m. Share the blessings/needs

9:00 p.m. Prayer and praise

9:30 p.m. Informal talk, refreshments

10:00 p.m. People disperse to minister

(The Vibrant Church, Regal Books, Ventura, Calif., 1989, page 139)

The discipleship community format is a similar model, with 30-40 minutes of instruction from the Word (lecture or discussion); 45 minutes of fellowship (sharing personal blessings/needs with the entire group or small groups); 30 minutes of worship (a blend of music, prayer, Scripture, silence, etc.); and periodic expressions of outreach and fellowship (times when members can bring uninvolved Christians and non-Christian friends).

Beginning and ending the meeting on time is most important to the group's success. When the group begins and ends late, people who have other commitments will tend to reconsider their involvement in it.

Although some groups choose to be casually structured and open to whoever shows up at a particular meeting, most discover that a commitment to regular attendance is absolutely essential.

Additional commitments the group might adopt depend upon its specific goals. For instance, many groups adopt disciplines of prayer and Bible reading as part of their commitment. Some stress attendance at worship services. Others take on financial commitments to a needy project or person, or adopt missionaries relevant to their mission. It is important that the commitments the group chooses to adopt are realistic and honest. Sometimes groups set themselves impossible goals which lead to feelings of guilt and false relationships.

A basic commitment in small groups is to agree strictly to limit the amount of advice given in the group. It is a common tendency when someone shares a concern or problem for other group members to begin telling him what he ought to do.

Most new groups benefit from setting a definite number of weeks/months for their initial cycle. Eight to 10 weeks is a common time frame. Inviting people to join a group with a definite time limit helps to calm fears of an unending commitment. At the end of the agreed time, the group can decide to recommit for another definite length of time (i.e., three months). However, if some wish to leave the group at this time, they can do so with a clear conscience since their agreement was only to the initial period. This new beginning is a also a good point to invite new members to join.

Refreshments can help or hinder a group. If too elaborate or time-consuming, they can interfere with the group's purpose. Having refreshments at the end of the meeting, which requires the host or hostess to leave before the conclusion, limits his or her involvement in the group. Simple, inexpensive refreshments, however, can make people feel more at home and help them enjoy the time together.

Having the meeting in the home of a person other than the leader is good. It lightens the load on each, and encourages a sense that the group belongs to all its members, not just a single, designated leader.

Child care is often a concern for small group meetings. Good options include:


  • Having children attend a church-sponsored program designed especially for them if available
  • Trading off with another group or individual— "I'll watch your children on Wednesday night; you watch my children on Thursday night"
  • One member caring for children in a separate room in the house on a rotating basis
  • Hiring a baby-sitter to care for the children in a separate home from where the group meets
  • Including the children in part or all of the group meeting
"Each of the above has pros and cons," says Neal McBride (How To Lead Small Groups), p. 71. Whatever is decided, sensitivity needs to be shown especially toward young mothers who are often expected to care for children rather than participate fully in the group.


Eight Covenant/Confessional Dynamics For Small Groups

As we begin our small groups, it is vital to make commitments to each other. These are not an absolute standard, but they represent a target. All Christian small groups should develop a clear sense of purpose, which their members should understand and promise to work toward achieving. This promise is sometimes called a covenant. (See Hillcrest Chapel Confessional.)

The covenant of affirmation (unconditional love, agape love): There is nothing you have done or will do that will make me stop loving you. I may not agree with your actions, but I will love you as a person and do all I can to hold you up in God's affirming love.

The covenant of availability: Anything I have—time, energy, insight, possessions—is at your disposal if you need it, to the limit of my resources. I give these to you in a priority of covenant over other non-covenant demands. As part of this availability, I pledge my time on a regular basis, whether in prayer or at an agreed-on meeting time.

The covenant of prayer: I covenant to pray for you in some regular fashion, believing that our caring Father wishes His children to pray for one another and to ask Him for the blessings they need.

The covenant of openness: I promise to strive to become a more open person, disclosing my feelings, my struggles, my joys, and my hurts to you as well as I am able. The degree to which I do so implies that I cannot make it without you, that I trust you with my problems and my dreams, and that I need you. This is to affirm your worth to me as a person. In other words, I need you.

The covenant of honesty: I will try to mirror back to you what I hear you say and feel. If this means risking pain for either of us, I will trust our relationship enough to take that risk, realizing that "speaking the truth in a spirit of love," we grow up in every way into Christ who is the head (Eph. 4:15). I will try to express this honesty in a sensitive and controlled manner and to meter it according to what I perceive the circumstances to be.

The covenant of sensitivity: Even as I desire to be known and understood by you, I covenant to be sensitive to you and to your needs to the best of my ability. I will try to hear you, see you, and feel where you are; and to draw you out of the pit of discouragement or withdrawal.

The covenant of confidentiality: I will promise to keep whatever is shared within the confines of the group in order to provide the atmosphere of openness. This is absolutely necessary to a healthy small group. This discipline assumes that anything shared in the group will not be mentioned outside, even to close friends or spouses. The only exception would be if permission were explicitly given by the person sharing. Breaking confidentiality destroys trust.

The covenant of accountability: I consider that the gifts God has given me for the common good should be liberated for your benefit. If I should discover areas of my life that are under bondage, hung up, or truncated by my own misdoings or by the scars inflicted by others, I will seek Christ's liberating power through His Holy Spirit and through my covenant partners, so that I might give to you more of myself. I am accountable to you to become what God has designed me to be in His loving creation.

(Louis H. Evans, Jr., Covenant to Care, Victor Books, Scripture Press Publications, Wheaton, IL)

The following should be normative in a small group:

  • willingness to listen to group members and not dominate the discussion
  • willingness to talk and not sit silent for the whole meeting
  • intention to take the Scriptures seriously as worthy of study, thought and application
  • openness to other members' ideas and opinions
  • desire to know and be known by the other group members

The following mindsets should characterize the group:

  • The small group leader is important.
  • The small group is the critical context for life change.
  • The priesthood of the believer is key. "The first Reformation returned the Word to the people, and the current reformation is returning the ministry to the people."
  • Clericalism is dangerous. "Clericalism is one person extending the offer of care to more people than they could give it to"—Carl George. "Clericalism is the expectation that the professional clergy does the ministry"—Disciple Making Pastor, Hull, p. 35.
  • It's no risk to let the Spirit have His way.
  • Multiplication is better than addition, i.e., dandelions and disciples.
  • Training and encouragement are essential.




Because there are so many types of small groups, it is useful to know what kind you want to have. Groups are called by many different names, and purposes and methods are not always obvious from those names.

Seven basic kinds of Christian small groups which use the Bible are:

  • Bible Study groups
  • Nurture groups/Neighborhood Ministry Centers
  • Ministry teams
  • Discipleship groups
  • Support groups
  • Prayer groups/service teams
  • Master teacher model

Bible Study groups have as their focus gaining knowledge and understanding of material, whether a book, chapter, or verse in the Bible, or study of a biblical character or theme. They employ discovery Bible study; chapter, book, thematic, or topical study, word studies, and/or biographical studies. A study group will usually spend a major portion of its time on the study, perhaps 45 minutes to an hour. Variation: Precept studies or Scribe School follow-up.

Nurture groups, Neighborhood Ministry Centers (see N.M.C. Guidelines) have as their focus gaining insight from Scripture to apply to personal circumstances and relationships through discussion and reflection. (See N.M.C. Introduction.) Methods include sharing questions, application of the text, prayer, worship, care for one another, and breaking into small subgroups for prayer, interaction and discussion. Expression of spiritual gifts is encouraged, and friends are invited to attend. Periodic times for "healthy fun" are encouraged. A substantial proportion of this group's meeting time is given to personal self-disclosure and sharing how the Scriptures relate to the individual members of the group. Bible reading and reflection may take 15 to 25 minutes. Personal sharing may take an hour or more.

Ministry teams (see Ministry Team Guidelines) are service- or action-oriented with an emphasis on applying personally and practically what is learned from Scripture to various ministry situations. No fewer than five and usually no more than 15 people are involved. There are three types of ministry teams:


  • Task teams function as meaningful Christian communities when they work together on a given task. The focus is on working with their hands to help someone; e.g., helping a single mom with car needs, rebuilding a porch on a small church in the area, cooking meals for church gatherings, helping with material needs of the Body and the community. Each group's members should take time to care for each other as well.
  • Mission teams are groups of people who sense a call to a common mission opportunity and join together to try to accomplish it. Mission group members often spend a lot of time preparing to minister to their target mission, resulting in a real camaraderie and closeness developed as they minister side-by-side. Examples: short term mission trips, care for the homeless, food bank volunteering, care for AIDS patients, teaching English to recent immigrants.
  • Special ministry teams come together for common ministry to people inside or outside the church, focused on meeting the spiritual needs of their target group. Worship teams, Telecare ministries, evangelism groups, drama groups, missions corps, etc.
  • Ministry teams may decide that the nurture/care of group members should be provided outside the group meeting times. This allows more group time to be focused on the common ministry. Some groups mandate that members be involved in another small group, spiritual friendship, or a Bible Study. Most group time is focused on discussing the task, with some time for personal sharing and Bible reflection. Task time may take 90 minutes; sharing and prayer, 30 minutes.

    Discipleship groups are basic Christian small groups which combine the ingredients of the other types of groups to provide a complete experience of learning about and living the Christian faith. These are the best groups for those beginning in the faith or those with no previous group experience, and are often called Christian growth groups or "koinonia" groups. They focus on discovering the possibilities to be realized in living as a Christian through personal sharing, discussion Bible study, an emphasis on active discipleship, and praying aloud. Methods employed include sharing questions and inductive discussion Bible study with attention to application and prayer. A large group gathering followed by small group interaction and application works well in a School of Discipleship. Smaller discipleship groups of three to five members are also effective.

    Support groups are special needs groups. The collapse of the traditional societal support systems has made these groups more and more essential. Lyman Coleman writes, "If the church is going to be the primary place in our society where broken people can be reconstructed, equipped and released for God's work in a broken world, the Church must start offering places and groups where people can gather on the basis of need."

    Support groups focus on the "hurting people" inside and outside the church. Sometimes people need support because of abuse and mistreatment from others—e.g., sexual or physical abuse, adult children of alcoholism, etc. Some support groups are needed for people recovering from addictive substances and behavior. These include alcoholism, nicotine addiction, compulsions (e.g., eating problems), and other addictions (e.g., work, sex, gambling, obsessive relationships, pornography).

    Others who are encountering difficult, stretching, or new phases in their life may need support (parents of young children; adolescents; single parents; blended families; divorce; grief/loss; aging parents; life-threatening illness; career change/unemployment; emotions—e.g., depression, anger, fears; engagement; newly married.

    The church has the opportunity to proclaim the good news to believers that in Christ we are loved, redeemed, forgiven, and accepted. All of this is based on Christ's performance and is available in gift form only. However, listening in a regular church service doesn't automatically make us able to experience those things in our lives. Some Christians are so tired, wounded, or stuck they cannot pull this off. They yearn for the abundant life, but they need more help.


    How can Christian recovery ministry groups benefit their members?

    Christian recovery ministries provide a safe context in which people can experience, not just hear, the good news. Some people are more wounded than the average person, and support groups can provide a safe and accepting place for them to get on with life. Recovery is the process of restoration and transformation, of relearning and learning, and of growing in the areas of forgiveness and grieving lost dreams, lost relationships, lost families, and lost childhoods.

    Christian recovery helps people set appropriate boundaries. Many don't know where to set boundaries, so they keep setting up walls between themselves and people who are safe, and continue to allow access between themselves and people who would continue to hurt them. They don't know where their responsibility stops and that of others starts.

    Christian recovery teaches people how to deal with emotions in a constructive way. Many people are stuck with their emotions, believing that not showing feelings is the same as not having them. They believe that if they can just manage not to look like they feel a certain way, it's the same as not feeling that way. But they are so emotionally shut down and wounded that they can't use their relationships as signals to drive them into reconciliation and into healthy living skills. (Jeff VanVonderen, Excerpted from Christian Recovery Leader Audio Magazine, June 1993)

    Listening, caring, and supporting are the main functions of these groups; but they often need some content to help change their behavior, or heal their hurts. This kind of group should be sensitive to the need for activities outside the group—trips, dinners, sporting events, social activities, etc.

    Personal sharing in this type of group may take one-half to one hour. The content portion of the meeting may take 15 to 30 minutes. Each group will need to be sensitive to group members' special circumstances and adjust the format when necessary.

    Care should be exercised so that the meeting doesn't just become a dumping ground for angry feelings, and an occasion to continually relive past experiences, failures, and abuses. (See Hillcrest Support Groups)

    Prayer groups/service teams. Prayer is the emphasis of these groups, either for a specific need(s) or focusing on the needs of the members. Often these groups will focus on the needs of their local church, community, and special needs in the world scene. Members often get to know each other as they share personal requests and fellowship before and after the prayer time. Most prayer groups will pray for one to two hours.

    Master Teacher Model. If the Pastor has the "gift of teaching" and is free to choose the text for the Sunday morning worship service, or if you have an Assistant Pastor with the "gift of teaching" and can accommodate a large adult Sunday School class, the best model for a church-wide program for small groups is the "master teacher" model. (Taken from Serendipity Training Manual For Groups, by Lyman Coleman and Marty Scales, p. 71.)

    This model incorporates the strengths of the pastor and the natural setting of the worship service to encourage people to get into small groups. These groups (which usually meet during the week or right before the worship service) offer a natural setting to assimilate new people immediately into a small support community. The two-semester (Fall and Spring) plan provides a natural rhythm for beginning and ending groups, with breaks for Christmas and the summer. People who will not attend any other group will attend this kind of group, because they know what they are getting into—especially those who are nervous about groups.

    There are two options for scheduling the teaching component: Either give the expository teaching first, so that the people can have the benefit of the pastor/teacher's insight before the group meets, or give the teaching last, so that the groups have to do their own study and sharing before the pastor/teacher "does their work for them."


    Mastering the Basics:

    An integrated program that combines small group Bible study with the Sunday morning teaching from the pastor or adult Sunday School class. There are three phases each week.

    Self Study

    Group Study, and

    Expository Teaching:

    Everyone studies the Scripture passage on his own. Everyone meets with the group to share, study, and care for one another. The pastor or teacher goes over the same Scripture passage at the Sunday School hour or in the worship service.

    Two-Semester Plan: Using a short epistle for a semester (13 weeks) or a long epistle for two semesters (26 weeks):

    Fall Semester / 13 Weeks September 15-December 15


    Spring Semester /13 Weeks February 1-June 1


    From the moment a visitor comes to your church in search of a church home, you have approximately six months to assimilate him/her into an ongoing, supportive community. If you do not act on this "window of opportunity," he/she will start looking elsewhere for support.

    The solution is to offer a short-term class (the pastor's class) for visitors interested in knowing more about the Christian faith (inquirer) and/or membership in the church. You might go so far as to require it before or after joining the church. Meet like a small group in someone's house. (See Hillcrest Assimilation Plan.)

    Six Session Pastor's Class

    Session 1: Let's get acquainted. Based on Questions 1 and 2. The pastor goes first and answers the first question with his "story," then everyone answers. (Take about 3 minutes each.) This is the format for each question.


  • Question 1: Where were you living at age 7, and how many brothers/sisters did you have?
  • Question 2: How did you heat your house when you were age 7 and what were the winters like? (The better the story from the pastor, the better the stories will be from the group.)
  • Session 2: My Spiritual Story. Use the following questions for this meeting, or use the Box Questionnaire in the Serendipity New Testament or Serendipity Bible.


  • Question 3: Where was the center of warmth in your life at age 7? This can be a person, such as Grandma; a place in the house, such as the kitchen, or a time in the year, such as Christmas. (The leadoff story of the pastor will set the pace for teaching stories from the group.)
  • Question 4: When did God become more than just a name in your life? The answer should not be limited to age 7, but should include significant facts about your spiritual background.
  • Sessions 3-6: What our church is all about. These four sessions should be a mixture of input from the pastor about the church/what you believe/what membership means, etc....and a continuation of "group building." We recommend you use the Gospel column in the course entitled "Learning The Basics" (page 11 in the Serendipity New Testament or the Serendipity Bible)—using the Box Questionnaires across the page from the Bible passage.

    —Concepts from Serendipity Training Manual for Groups, by Lyman Coleman and Mary Scales.



    Who should be invited to join your small group? How will you discover who might be interested? Throw the net wide, not deciding in advance who will and will not be interested. Talk about the new group with as many different people as possible and see who is interested. Consider diversity and homogeneity in the group.

    When you don't know who to invite, ask your pastor or leaders in your congregation for names of those who might be interested. Ask your friends for names. Consider inviting acquaintances or neighbors who do not go to church. Most importantly, pray and ask God to send those who should participate.

    Sometimes it may take three months before a new group can function with a full complement of 8-12 members. Consider beginning when you have 4 or 5, and increase the size of the group as time goes along.

    When inviting people to consider involvement in a new group, the right language and attitude is very important. Attempt to express why you yourself are involved in this group and what you expect of it.

    A good way to invite people who are uncertain about whether they want to be involved is to have an introductory meeting, an informal gathering with refreshments and a sample abbreviated small group experience. Those who come are not required to commit to ongoing involvement, and since some of those invited may decide not to continue, it helps to invite a few more than the desired final number of group members. Plan this information meeting carefully, so that it is nonthreatening, positive, and helpful to people making a decision about the future.

    Stages in Group Life

    Small groups go through stages as they begin, continue, and end their lives together.

    The pre-commitment is what you say to each other and mutually agree upon before the first "official" meeting of the group.

    When a group first meets, in the orientation stage members tend to experience conflicting feelings of attraction and repulsion. While having chosen to be there, they are still testing the group to see if it can be a satisfying and worthwhile experience for them. Each wonders whether he will be accepted.

    The power and control stage may begin early in the first meeting as members seek to determine the group's purpose and the promises it will make, and find their own roles within the group.

    The trust stage is when a group begins to feel a sense of belonging and unity. Attitudes shift from thinking primarily about what "I" want out of this group, to what "we" want.

    After groups have been together for awhile and a sense of trust and belonging has developed, they may plateau and stay in this stage for a long time, or they may experience differentiation, or change.

    Conclusion or new beginning. After a group has an evaluation discussion, it must decide whether to continue. If the time has come for the group to end, this should be accepted gracefully. "Even the best small groups die in time. In a highly mobile society like ours, this is in part caused by group members moving. Groups lasting more than one or two years are the exception, not the rule.

    There is no exciting way to terminate, but there are effective ways to prepare. Perhaps the most effective way is to start meeting with less frequency, like once per month or every other week. Over time, the group will naturally draw apart, and the end of the group will be less painful than it might otherwise be"—Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, p. 192.

    Steps To Begin A Small Group

    (where no groups exist)

    Get ready!

    Determine your purpose. What do you want to accomplish in this small group experience? What needs do you want to meet? What results do you hope for? What do you want to do? Pray.

    Recruit one or two partners. Discuss with them your ideas for a small group. Ask them if they would like to be involved.

    Discuss your idea with the appropriate leaders in your church. Ask for suggestions and consider possible resources and materials. Ask if you can meet on a regular basis with the pastor for debriefing, counsel and training. Small groups must be under the covering of the local church and be submissive to pastoral oversight.

    Pray and plan together. Redefine your purpose. Think about possible participants. Search for resources to help you accomplish your purpose. Decide on timing: how long will each meeting be? How many weeks will the group meet?

    Decide on a time and place for the first meeting. Set the date several weeks in advance to give people time to plan.

    Make contacts!

    Invite people to join the group. Invite more people than you want in the group, so that you will have a good size even if some turn you down. Share the purpose of the group as you invite people. Be honest; be positive.

    Determine your leadership pattern. Will one person lead the meeting each week? Will different people lead different parts of the meeting under the direction of an overall coordinator; or will a different person lead each week?

    Choose resources or the methods you will use. What section of Scripture will you study? How will you approach it? Will you use a printed guide? Will everyone have a copy?

    Meet together!

    Plan and conduct your first meeting. Emphasize building relationships and discussing the purpose of the group and the length of the contract period.

    Evaluate the first meeting and decide on future direction. Pray for those who came. Contact any who did not arrive who were expected. Encourage each other. Plan next week's meeting. Ask others to help as needed.

    Plan to have a group discussion about how the group is going about the fifth week or so. Prepare to discuss whether the group wishes to continue on to the end of the contract period. Have suggestions about what the group might do if it continues, so that a good choice can be made by the group—Using the Bible in Groups, Roberta Hestenes, p. 35.