Growing up in church, I have been in my fair share of small groups. Some good, some not so good. I’ve been in youth groups, college groups, groups that have met at homes, groups that have met informally, and groups in which I was the youngest by several decades. However, with all that time spent in small groups, I had spent very little time leading one. Last year, I became a small group leader at my local church, shepherding middle school guys on a weekly basis. While I wasn’t totally foreign to teaching middle school guys in a church setting, I certainly wasn’t a veteran either. Almost immediately, I had these great ideas about what my small group would look like and how great it would be. Needless to say, when my romanticized vision of small groups met with reality, it looked much different than I anticipated. In the process of trying to re-create a more realistic picture of small groups, Jesus taught me (and keeps reminding me of) several key lessons that I as a leader needed to hear.
1. Be Patient
I have lost track of how many times I wish the kids I taught would grow in grace and understanding faster or, for some of my kids, I wish they would trust in Jesus sooner rather than later. As small group leaders, we can subtly develop a Messiah complex of sorts. “If I just use this curriculum. If I just do things this way. If we just read this book or if I can be this sort of leader, then the group will change."
Whatever challenges you face, never stop reminding yourself, as Zac Eswine confesses in Sensing Jesus, “I am not the Christ.” We were never intended to “be Jesus” to anyone, including our small group. You can’t carry that weight. You weren’t meant to. As much as we pour into our groups, as many seeds that get planted, we can never lose sight that God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). We should testify to the good news of the gospel and trust God that it will produce fruit in its ordained time. When Paul writes that God, “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6), do you trust that it applies to your small group?
2. Don’t Be Afraid of Big Words
One of the qualms that I have with American Christianity, particularly in student ministry, is that we are afraid our people can’t handle big, theological words or concepts. They have minds as well as hearts, so engage both. When we don’t, not only is this insulting, it also (in the long run) is unhelpful. It shapes disciples who are a foot wide, but an inch deep, so to speak. Shallow teaching leads to shallow theology which leads to shallow worship. Our people need more than that. They need a deep gospel because in life they will face deep and complex problems, namely, the curse of sin that affects everything.
In Romans 1:16, Paul writes that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” In the gospel, the power of God works mightily, not just in saving, but in sustaining and maturing. Salvation isn’t just concerned with our justification, but also our sanctification and glorification. If we define salvation this way (which I think is the way the Bible would define it), and the gospel is the power of God for salvation, then we can be confident that as we lead our small groups and teach them biblical truth, that the Holy Spirit, in his wisdom, will bring change in our people’s hearts, not us. We are free to challenge those we lead with words they may not know and teach them what they do mean, knowing that the Holy Spirit will do his work.
Trevin Wax, in his excellent little book Gospel-Centered Teaching makes a helpful point in this regard:
“As a group leader, you want to provide a feast and let people draw the sustenance they need. But we may have to ‘cut up the meat’ for new believers and make sure that the truth is accessible. They key is to put the biblical ingredients together and provide the meal. Fill up the plate! Don’t be afraid to challenge people, just make sure you are continually thinking of ways to drive the point home.”
Later, Wax further elaborates on this point, especially as it relates to children:
“Small kids need big words. Not because they understand everything all at once but because, over time, God uses the inspired words of His Book to convict kids of sin and convince them to repent and believe in Christ.”
Regardless of the ages of people in your small group, give them meat and trust God to sharpen their teeth as they digest its riches.
3. Be Consistent and Committed
In their book Lead Small, Reggie Joiner and Tom Shefchunas discuss the importance of being a consistent small group leader “Show up consistently…You cannot lead a small group without trust. You cannot build a community without trust. And the first step to gaining the trust of your [group] is making sure they know you will show up.” We need to fight against the human tendency, especially in Western contexts, to be autonomous. It can be suffocating, spiritually and emotionally, to have members be nothing more than one person in a sea of faces. “Everybody needs someone who knows their name, and what’s happening in their lives.” This goes for the small group leader as well. When you are consistent and committed to leading a small group, not only does that give you an opportunity to really know your people, it also gives them an opportunity to know you.
4. Show Them Jesus
The greatest need your small group has is to have you point them to Jesus. More specifically, they need you to point them to Christ’s finished work on the cross as a substitute for sinners. They need a big view of Jesus. All the programs and events we can schedule as small group leaders won’t provide what they need that Christ alone has made provision for. They need to believe in Jesus as their Prophet, Priest, and King. Your people need to know the difference between “do this and live” and “it is finished.” In the midst of a law-driven church culture and a society that says your identity is wrapped up in your behavior, they need to hear the hope of the cross and resurrection, that “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30).
Unfortunately, many of your small group members, specifically those who have already been born again, may live with a low-level guilt because they think somehow they haven’t done enough for God to be pleased with and they are scared he hates them. Give them some hope, some grace. Point them to the Living Word seen in the written Word. Show them all the promises that are already theirs in Christ. A small group who delights in Christ’s finished work for his people and is addicted to grace will be transformative and a place where people connect in genuine, honest community.
5. Help Them Love the Church
As of late, it has been “trendy” to hate on the Church. With the influence of postmodernism and various elements of the “emerging church” conversation still lingering about, we need to lead our people in seeing with new eyes the centrality of the local church in the life of a Christian. With all the problems in the Church (and yes, there are many), the Bride of Christ is Jesus’ chosen means by which he carries out his mission. In a Twitter post on December 30, Juan Sanchez, preaching pastor of High Pointe Austin, quotes D.A. Carson on the Church, saying, “It was inconceivable in the New Testament for someone to say I'm a Christian, but I'm not part of a church.”
Jesus is gathering for himself a ransomed people, not just a bunch of isolated individuals. Your small group needs to see community in the local church as a place where Jesus is made much of, sin is fought against and joy is fought for, and people come from various backgrounds and seasons of life to do life as one family. They need the Church more than they know. Help them see that for themselves.
6. Don’t Be Discouraged
After reading all this, you might be thinking to yourself, “Chris, I can’t do this. If this is what it takes to be a small group leader, I won’t make the cut.” Let me provide a word of encouragement. First off, I by no means what to say, “This is the standard of being a small group leader.” Some of you reading this may have been small groups leaders longer than I have been alive, so I by no means what to suggest that I have formulated the perfect model for small group leadership. To be honest, I don’t think there is one. There are too many variables to consider to try and formulate a one-size fits all model for effective small groups.
Secondly, more than effective models, your people need a Substitute and they have one in Christ. And so do you. The gospel promises you that because Christ was strong for you, you can be weak. You don’t have to have all the answers and can point to Christ, who is their Wisdom (1 Cor. 2). Jesus desires that you use your gifts and passions of leading and teaching people as a human being, not as the Messiah. The gospel announces that all the you need is yours in Christ. There is one thing you need to be an effective small group leader: a heart that has been awakened by the glorious gospel of grace. All the things you need to be equipped in this task, Christ will provide. In your weakness, Christ has not left you. As a small group leader and as a child of God, your identity is not wrapped up in your inadequacies and failures. Your identity is wrapped up in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which causes your Heavenly Father to look upon you and say, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Chris Crane serves as Middle School Small Group Leader at Lake Highlands Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. He holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Baptist University and is currently pursuing a Th.M. at Dallas Seminary. He writes at chriscrane.net. You can follow him on Twitter: @cmcrane87.
 Zach Eswine, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2013), 20
 Trevin Wax, Gospel-Centered Teaching (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013), 69
 Ibid., 73
 Reggie Joiner and Tom Shefchunas, Lead Small (Cumming, GA: Orange, 2012), 29
 Ibid., 29
 Juan Sanchez, Twitter post, December 30, 2013, 8:46 a.m., http://www.twitter.com/manorjuan
 I first heard this expression from Tullian Tchividjian’s very helpful book Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011).