Effective Small Groups
One clear way to conceptualize faith is the three directions of faith–up, in, and out. Faith develops “up” in relationship with God, “in” in relationships with other followers of Jesus, and “out” in holistic mission (reconciliation, redemption, and restoration). (This is pretty much the same as Neil Cole’s DNA–divine truth, nurturing relationships, apostolic mission. I’ve also seen it done with the terms worship, discipleship, and mission.) Intentional and deep movement in all three directions is essential for discipleship. So what does this have to do with small groups?
One out of three ain’t bad. Or is it?
Few groups only hit one out of the three, but it is possible. When a group does this it is usually ineffective, and even potentially harmful. A group that only hits the out gets out and serves their community. They are action-oriented, but their group could easily do a lot of great things without ever connecting it to Jesus. That’s okay if you just want to do good things, but not if you want to make disciples of Jesus. Groups focused only up have the opposite problem. They might grow in their knowledge of the Bible, but could easily slide by without ever putting it into practice. Disciples of Jesus are meant to live like him, not just know more about him. Groups that focus only on relationships are potentially most harmful. These groups get together and hang out but have no intentionality in what they do. Often this looks like people getting together, making small talk for an hour, and then praying to close their time together so they feel like they did something. These groups easily fall into a pattern where they are not doing anything of significance. I’m all for hanging out (shoot, I’ve got two fantasy football drafts coming up!), but just hanging out without the intentional pursuit of depth with others, God, or movement into mission is completely ineffective in making disciples of Jesus.
A group may have single events/times together that are focused almost exclusively on one of the three directions of faith. But a group that only focuses on one of the three every time is like someone who goes to the gym and only does bicep curls. That person might feel like they’re getting in great shape but really they’re becoming unbalanced and accomplishing very little.
Two is better.
Most small groups (or community groups or whatever we call them) fall into this category. For a long time small group meant getting together with other people from church and learning about each other (“in”) and then doing a Bible or curriculum study of some kind (“up”). More recently there has been a focus on groups that get together to develop relationships (“in”) and do something together (“out”).
Groups that engage two of the three directions do a better job of moving people toward discipleship than groups that only move in one direction. However, there is still enough deficiency here to make these groups less than desirable. I was talking with a pastor a couple days ago who told me of a small group in their church that had been together for twenty years. They knew each other well and were always working their way through a book of the Bible. But in twenty years they had never seen one of their friends or neighbors put their faith in Jesus. God had not moved any of them into new endeavors for the kingdom. Very few if any of their neighbors, friends, or co-workers even knew about the groups–and they certainly hadn’t received an invitation.
Groups that focus on the “in” and “out” directions run the same risk as groups that only focus on “out”. It would be easily possible for them to do many good things without any connection to being disciples of Jesus. If they are deeply engaging each other an mission there is a chance that they will share faith as a part of their connection and action, but it is very easy for this not to happen.
So while engaging two directions is better than one, it still falls short of a pursuit of holistic discipleship.
Three is the sweet spot.
If you want to see continual growth as a disciple of Jesus it is important to strive to engage all three directions of faith. (This is true both for individual faith, group life, and the life of an entire church). When these three things come together they produce fruit that is more than the sum of the parts. There is a dynamic interaction between relationship with God, relationship with other followers of Jesus, and working with God for his holistic mission. The three inform and develop each other.
This doesn’t mean there is a specific formula for effective group life. Movement in all three directions can look like hundreds of different things. At my church we’re helping people think through this by just asking small group leaders to share how they are moving their groups in all three directions. Some groups will be heavier in one direction than others, but our hope is that all our groups will be intentional about movement in all three directions. I think most people who are giving their time and effort to leading a group want to be as effective in making disciples of Jesus as possible–this is an easy and powerful way to help them do that.
Want to see how we’re approaching all this at Trailhead? Watch this.