Small groups inevitably grow, change, and go through phases of development. Awareness by the group of these stages can help change, which is normal, be productive and positive rather than draining. Though every group is unique and has its own identity, small groups typically go through the following stages in their development: birth, establishing a routine, questioning and refining purpose, and maturity.
In the beginning, or birth stage, the group begins to meet and is fairly dependent on the leader for direction and guidance. People sometimes feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable as they are getting to know one another and are increasing in their comfort with other members of the group. In this stage, the leader plays a very visible role in providing structure and direction for the group. The leader is the primary person who casts the vision for what the group is about and what it is intended to do in the lives of the members. The leader also eases the initial discomfort that some may feel about what they are supposed to be doing by being the first one to discuss the state of his or her soul and by guiding the conversation from one person to the next.
2. Establishing a Routine
As the group transitions, people will become more comfortable with the basic rhythm of the group, and members will feel increasingly comfortable with each other. The key to establishing a routine is simply time and meeting regularly for several weeks. One of the goals of this book is to help ease the transition through the first two stages by providing helpful guidance, direction, and purpose to the group. It is also intended to help the members gradually adjust to talking about their relationships with God more than they may have been used to.
As a result, the “Guide for Small Group Discussion” adapts to the length of time that the group has been meeting, allowing for more time for discussing the content of the study in the beginning and less time for a “transformation question.” By the end of the study, there is less time focused on the content of the study and more time focused on the Transformation Question. The goal is to ease the group into the ideal format for a class meeting over the initial eight weeks that the group is meeting, with the hope that the group will continue meeting as a class after the study has been completed.
3. Questioning and Refining the Purpose of the Group
After the group gains some stability and direction, groups will often go through a period of questioning their purpose. I can still remember my initial experience with this phase the first time I started one of these groups. The group had just come to a place where it felt as though we were comfortable with each other, and several people had recently expressed very positive feelings about the group and the way it was helping them to be much more aware of whether they were really focusing on their relationship with God and how they were living out their faith at work or at home. I was shocked, then, when just a few weeks later the mood of the group seemed to shift dramatically. Several members began asking some very basic questions that really caught me off guard, like: “Is this it?” “Is this all we are going to do?” “Is there going to be more?” and “When are we going to go deeper?” I was unprepared for these questions about the basic purpose and rhythm of the group.
Looking back, it would have been more effective if I had allowed for the questions to be asked to the entire group. I would have responded more effectively if I had understood that people were trying to figure out just how deep they were willing to go. In this stage, the best thing the group leader can do is to be honest about their hopes for the group, while also making room for others to share their thoughts as well.
One of the most positive outcomes of the questioning-and-refining stage is a much stronger sense of ownership by the entire group. In the beginning stage and the routine stage, the leader plays a crucial role in leading the group and owning the purpose of the group on behalf of the entire group. In the questioning stage, the group collectively wrestles with its purpose and may redefine it or clarify it in a way that will allow the entire group to go deeper. This process is not necessarily explicit, and the leader should not force a conversation like this to occur. It is something that usually happens naturally. This is also when deeper patterns, sensibilities, and assumptions become fairly rooted in the group. It can also be an ideal time to start a new group.
Finally, the group will enter the stage of maturity. At this stage, the group will either adapt and change based on the evolving needs of the group, or it will die. The leader can play a key role here in helping the group to navigate this process. Leaders and group members need not be anxious about this stage, because both outcomes can be healthy. Sometimes the best thing for a small group is for it to expire, so the members can be released to be a part of new groups. The group I was in at Munger Place died, but its death was certainly not a failure, as it resulted in five new groups.
Our group was very tight-knit and had an implicit, but very deep sense of purpose. As a result of journeying together through the “Questioning and Refining Stage,” we all knew what the group was about. One of the main goals of the group was to experience a class meeting in order to make a group like it a fundamental part of the DNA of this new church of which we were all a part. As a result, we knew we would need to be willing to give up our comfort in the group for the sake of multiplying these groups and making them available to as many people as possible. In our case, we ended up dividing our group of ten people into five groups with two leaders. We then added six to eight new people to each group. This meant that the group immediately grew from one group of ten people to five groups with about fifty total people! It was hard for all of us to give up the familiarity and comfort of the group we knew so well, but it was rewarding to see so many people enter into the same type of groups that had been such a blessing to us.
This will not be the right approach in all contexts. Another way to multiply the groups would be for the leader to identify someone they feel would be a great leader and “apprentice” that person. The apprenticeship would primarily consist of the potential leader being given increased responsibility within the group. This person would open the group in prayer, lead the group a few times, and receive prayers and feedback from the initial leader. After the apprentice has observed the leader and led the group a few times, he or she can then be sent out (with a prayer of blessing, of course!) to start a new group.
During maturity, the group may also continue to adapt to the changing dynamics of the group. There is no need to set an arbitrary time on how long these groups will last. Here, class meetings are similar to Sunday school classes—some last for decades, and some last for months.
A Key to a Successful Group: You
The most important ingredient to a successful group is you! Your honesty with your group is crucial to its success. Your prayers for your group and individual members will be an enormous asset to the group’s endurance and growth. Your willingness to be vulnerable and share openly, as well as to make sure you don’t monopolize the conversation, will make the experience more powerful for everyone else. It really isn’t that hard. The main thing you need to do is be willing, by the grace of God, to grow in your love for God and other people—and to be willing to do so within the context of a supportive community of faith.
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