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How to be in a small group

How to be in a small group

Another year, another Bible study group. Time to sign up, turn up and get things rolling for another year.

Time also perhaps to ask some questions about your small group. Do you feel as if you just go along because that’s what you’re expected to do? Does the group have a clear purpose, or does it just exist because it has always existed? More to the point, what part are you going to play in this year’s group? What can you be doing to make the group a success?

There are many books and guides and training materials for small group leaders (like Growth Groups from Matthias Media), but what about the humble group member? What can each of us be doing to make the most of our small groups?

Why go in the first place?

People go to small groups for all sorts of reasons: to fulfil expectations, to make friends, to pursue romantic possibilities, to receive encouragement and counsel, to learn, and so on.

While most of these might be perfectly acceptable reasons to join a small group, the first and indispensable reason must be clear in our minds. Our primary reason for belonging to a small group is to give us opportunity to love and encourage other people in Christ. It’s not about Me; it’s about Them. And it’s about Them because of Christ.

This after all is what the Christian life is about. Our most basic principle is to love other people as Christ has loved us, to lay down our lives for them as Christ did for us. This applies as much to small groups as it does to marriages, families, workplaces, and larger Christian meetings. We go to small groups not primarily to have our needs met, but to meet the needs of others. Of course, we have needs too, and no doubt they will be met along the way—but we can let others worry about that. In fact, paradoxically, the more we focus on loving others, and doing whatever we can for them, the more encouragement and strength we find ourselves.

There are many ways we can love and encourage the other people in our groups. Here are five powerful ones (complete with alliterative titles).

1. The power of presence

This is the simplest and most obvious, but is no less powerful for being so. Just being there each week without fail is a powerful encouragement to the other members of the group. In making the group time a solid commitment, to be missed only in times of emergency, you send a very clear message to the other members: “Being with you matters very much to me. Unless something very important comes up, you can expect me. Encouraging you is a top priority.”

Conversely, inconsistent attendance sends a somewhat less encouraging message: “I don’t mind coming, but it’s not that important. If I feel a bit tired or something else crops up, don’t expect me. Being with you and encouraging you isn’t really a very high priority for me.”

Turning up regularly requires no extraordinary gifts or talent, but it is a powerful way of loving other people.

2. The power of preparation

Most small groups complete their evening’s Bible study with a plaintive plea from the leader for people to read the passage and prepare for next week’s study. The leader knows full well that most people won’t, but there’s no harm in trying!

However, preparing for the group time is another powerful way to love the members of the group. Of course, having read the passage, or done the homework, greatly increases the benefit you yourself receive from the discussion. More importantly, however, it equips you to encourage others by what you say. Rather than throwing in whatever occurs to you at the time, you have actually thought about the Bible passage and the issues that it raises. You are much better prepared to say things that stimulate and encourage and teach others if you have bothered to give it some thought beforehand.

3. The power of prayer

Paul’s friend and fellow worker, Epaphras, would have made an ideal small group member. According to Paul, he was always “wrestling in prayer” for the Colossians, that they might “stand firm in all the will of God”. Paul was able to vouch that in doing so, Epaphras was “working hard for you” (Col 4:12-13).

Praying for others is hard work, but real work. It is one of the most loving things we can do for our fellow group members, not only because it is through our prayers that God does his work in people’s lives, but because it is such a quiet, inconspicuous form of ministry. Making a casserole for someone, by comparison, is much more satisfying—you see something very tangible for your efforts, and you have the pleasure of delivering it to the person and receiving their warm expressions of thanks. Prayer has none of those rewards. You do it for one reason only: that you care for that person and want what is best for them in Christ. And so you pray for them.

4. The power of personality

The alliteration may be starting to stretch a little thin here, but the point is solid enough—that a powerful way of loving others in your small group is to be willing to share your own life and personality with them.

This is by no means an easy thing to do. Many of us would much rather keep quiet and not give too much away. However, by opening up and sharing our lives and thoughts and struggles and joys, we do others a great service. We not only show them that we have the very same struggles that they have (but thought they were alone in suffering); we also encourage them to open up as well.

Of course, it is anything but loving to indiscriminately dump everything we are thinking or feeling onto the group. We need to heed the advice of Proverbs and think carefully before we speak; as well as the words of Ephesians 4: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29).

5. The power of love

Whatever you do in the group—every word you say, every action—do it for the sake of others. Look for how you can support and help the leader. Look for ways to care for the members of the group—those who could really do with a phone call or visit; those who would benefit from having someone to pray or read the Bible with; those who need financial or other material help; those who just need a friend to have pizza and a video with.

Belonging to a small group can be a very demanding exercise. It can cost us our lives, because that is what it means to be a follower of Christ—to lay down our lives for the sake of others. If we grasp the possibilities, small groups represent an enormously fruitful opportunity for doing just that.

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Tony Payne

Since founding Matthias Media in 1988, Tony Payne has written more than 30 books, ministry courses and Bible studies, including The Trellis and the Vine, The Course of Your Life and The Tony Payne Collection (an anthology of articles and essays). He now works as a ministry trainer and writer-in-residence at Campus Bible Study (UNSW). He is married to Ali, with five adult children and six grandchildren. The Payneful Truth is Tony’s weekly text and audio journal.