Early on in the life of a church, when numbers are small and space is limited, every meeting can feel like a small group. But as a church grows, and more and more people show up, it’s easy to lose that initial intimacy. That’s why many churches have a small group program, in which midweek gatherings take place in homes or on-campus as a way of keeping the conversation going.
There’s no single way to do small groups. What works for one church may not work for all churches. But that doesn’t mean you should leave things to chance or hope that a few strong personalities in your congregation take it upon themselves to lead amazing small groups. You need a plan that aligns with the vision God has given you for your community.
Below are a few ways to tackle small groups and ensure that discipleship is taking place between Sundays.
1. Continue the Sunday Morning Conversation
As a pastor, you put a lot of energy into your Sunday morning message. Oftentimes, these sermons are part of a series that walks your church through a book of the Bible or a topic vital to the life of Christian believers. You don’t want anyone to miss a beat or feel left behind. Small groups are a great way to reinforce weekend teaching during the week.
In this method, the focus of midweek meetings is the sermon from the previous Sunday, along with the related Scripture passages. To prep, small group leaders need to listen or watch the message and familiarize themselves with the Bible passages.
The pastor or other church leader should also provide these small group facilitators with discussion questions based on that week’s message. Some churches have found it helpful to record a short five- or ten-minute teaching video with tips, background information related to the passage(s), and an encouraging word about the importance of small group ministry.
This approach has a number of strengths:
- The entire church rallies around the same Bible passages and themes.
- There is no disconnect between Sunday mornings and midweek gatherings.
- There is little work needed for small group leaders to do ahead of time in order to facilitate a healthy, robust discussion.
With this approach, it’s important to make sure everyone is on board and understands the vision behind tying small groups to Sunday mornings. One downside of this approach is that it requires the teaching pastor to prepare sermons in advance, so that the content is ready to use for prep materials.
2. Read Through Books of the Bible
With this approach, the focus of small groups is growing in knowledge, understanding, and obedience to the Word of God.
The model is straightforward. For each specified period—three weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, etc.—everyone involved in a small group will read through a certain book of the Bible. Rather than assigning weekly readings, it usually works best if everyone follows a daily reading plan. That way, there’s space to focus on smaller portions of Scripture.
There are already some great reading plans to choose from through apps like YouVersion and Bible literacy organizations like She Reads Truth and He Reads Truth. Or you can design your own reading plan. It doesn’t really matter, as long as everyone stays on the same page (literally).
To prep for these meetings, small group leaders should read the passages for the week, plus any assigned supplemental material. This might be a short section from a favorite commentary in your church’s tradition or a teaching video available online. It’s also a good idea to supply discussion questions based on the week’s reading, plus any necessary background information. As with the Sunday-sermon approach, this material can be a short video. It may also be helpful to allocate time for Q & A with small group leaders to help with notoriously tricky verses.
The strengths of this method are numerous:
- It encourages daily Bible reading.
- It allows everyone, but small group leaders especially, the opportunity to go deeper with God’s Word.
- Proper emphasis is placed on the Bible as central to the lives of Jesus’ followers.
- Bible study becomes a community affair, rather than remaining a solely personal disciple.
Two words of caution: First, be sure to point your small group leaders to appropriate commentaries and background resources so that everyone is feeding on good material. You may even want to purchase a certain book for your leaders ahead of time. Second, it’s important to emphasize that small group meetings are not an opportunity for leaders to practice preaching. The goal is to cultivate edifying discussion and to spur one another on, not to come with all the answers.
3. Read Through a Modern Christian Classic
I wouldn’t suggest doing this all the time, for fear that your small group program would turn into a book club, but it may be a good idea to occasionally focus your discussion on a modern classic of Christian literature.
I suggest a modern classic rather than an older one, simply because a more recent book (from the past fifty to seventy-five years or so) will ensure that nearly everyone will be able to comprehend. Books like Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Knowing God by J. I. Packer, or Basic Christianity by John Stott have stood the test of time and have helped countless believers understand the unique calling of Christ and the wonderful privilege of fostering a relationship with God.
In practice, this method functions like a book club. Everyone in a small group reads the assigned chapters ahead of time and comes to their weekly meeting ready to talk about their “Aha!” moments as well as their questions.
For this approach to work well, it’s a good idea to facilitate a weekly leader’s meeting in which a pastor, staff member, or an especially knowledgeable congregant leads a discussion ahead of the individual small groups themselves. This is essentially a multiplying effort. One person feeds a handful, and that handful feeds the rest.
This approach is worthwhile for a number of reasons:
- Books of this sort tend to help readers do theology and give people the larger-picture of faith, rather than a deeper understanding of a single book of the Bible or a single topic.
- As Christians in the English-speaking world, we have been blessed with a number of valuable resources that have consistently helped believers at every stage of their faith journey. Yet today, in a world that reads fewer and fewer books, these gifts to the church are being lost.
- For newer believers and those less comfortable with outright Bible study, a book study may be more familiar and makes a good starting point for answering questions of faith.
As I mentioned above, I would use this approach sparingly. There is no substitute for the Word of God, as valuable as these modern classics of the Christian faith may be.
4. Serve Someone
Who says small groups always have to be about reading? Part of following Jesus is certainly growing in His Word, but it’s also loving those He loves. Consider partnering with a local soup kitchen or other relief ministry to help spread the love of God in tangible ways.
This approach might work well for a season, perhaps in the summertime when people tend to come and go, and sustained reading and discussion plans are difficult to maintain. Or it could be that you decide to include this type of small group one week a month. It doesn’t really matter, as long as everyone knows what’s happening.
Essentially, this method allows your church to meet the needs of a local (or not-so-local) outreach by spending the time your small groups would have spent in discussion serving others. This might be in-person, by literally serving the homeless a meal at a shelter or packing boxes for international relief. Or it could be something that’s done in a home meeting, like creating gospel-saturated care packages for prisoners.
This approach is a good idea, at least every once in a while. Here’s why:
- Growth in the Christian life happens a number of ways, one of which is through sacrifice and service. These disciplines are invaluable, so give your members an opportunity to practice them.
- It actually helps those outside of your church and shows them the love of Jesus in practical, tangible ways.
- Service usually spurs on more service, slowly changing an entire culture.
Service groups can be amazing and play an important part in the life of a local church. Just don’t substitute all your small group time for service opportunities. People need space to grow personally as well.
Over to you
None of these approaches are exclusive. You can try them all in different seasons. The important thing is that you’re helping to create an atmosphere where brothers and sisters in Christ can do life together and grow closer to the Lord.