Most churches focused on discipleship have an outlet for growing community through groups. We differ on the language—life groups, community groups, missional communities—but our goals in these groups are mostly the same, with some slight differences in emphases of course. Community groups traditionally emphasize study together, while life groups center on digging into relationships and community, and missional communities have more of an “outward” focus. But, at the end of the day, we all want it said of our group that we strived to make disciples and disciple-makers. We all want to study Scripture, fellowship with the saints, and serve one another.
All of these goals are well and good, but those of us who have been part of groups that have lasted for a significant amount of time know how they can drift and turn stale. Sometimes your group may reach the spot where you all just feel stuck.
Here are five small but significant steps your group can take to start getting un-stuck. I call them “tune-ups.” Like an out-of-tune trumpet, perhaps our small groups are still making music but feel slightly off-pitch. We don’t need a new instrument or new equipment, just some quick adjustments. To be clear, these won’t happen at the drop of a hat and without effort, but they may prove to be important shifts for your group to consider making.
Tune-Up #1 – Consider Theology
I recently sat around a table with fellow small group leaders, talking about what’s working and what needs improvement in our groups. A overwhelming majority of the group leaders said that they were struggling most of all with the content of their study time together. They all felt like their groups were sort of indifferent toward whatever it was they were studying.
It’s no secret that many small group curriculums feel cut from the same cloth—practical advice on marriage or finance, general Christian living, or surface-scratching Bible studies. Perhaps if your conversations are feeling less and less indepth these days, it’s time for moving on from milk to meat. There are infinite riches and depths in the study of God; it is hard to get “stuck” when studying theology. Here is a sampling of study recommendations for your group that will offer solid content and are sure to spark discussion:
- A study series on Romans 8. Check out John Piper’s “Look at the Book” video series on Romans 8, “The Greatest Chapter” (here).
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York, HarperOne, 2009).
- Pearcey, Nancy, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity, Study Guide Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
- The New City Catechism Devotional: God’s Truth for Our Hearts and Minds, ed. Collin Hansen (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017).
- Wilkin, Jen, None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different From Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing) (Wheaton, Crossway, 2016).
Tune-Up #2 – Share Your Own Devotional Times
Many small group leaders feel the pressure to come up with a lesson for the group, and sometimes struggle to do so. One way to combat this is to ask a different couple each week to lead by sharing what they have been reading and learning lately in Scripture. We have had success with this in my own life group. It has been encouraging to see how God is speaking to each of us in our own rhythms and using those lessons to impact the group where they are. One week, I shared what had been on my mind in reading Isaiah. Another week, a couple shared from Exodus.
This tune-up gives everyone leadership opportunity. Not only this, but the bar to lead is low. No study must be prepared to lead and there’s no pressure to know the right way to facilitate. It is simply reflecting on time in the Word and hoping to offer some wisdom to others. It encourages each of us to be accountable to be in the Word on our own time. Last, it gives group leaders the opportunity spot other leaders who they can disciple and send out to leader other groups.
Tune-Up #3 – Don’t Always Study Scripture
Easy now. If you’re looking for someone that believes we cannot exhaust our study of the Scriptures, I’m your guy. While I do believe that studying God’s Word should be a fundamental component of our time together in community, perhaps what could help some groups that feel stuck is switching up the agenda from the normal mingle-Bible-study-prayer-mingle rhythm and do something new.
In my current life group, we love “Game Night.” We get together, sometimes with dinner, and we just play board games for the night. It’s obviously not all we do, not even what we mostly do. But it allows us to bond in ways that actually support our times in the Word together. And, believe it or not, some of our best gospel conversations happen in these moments. Have a cook out. Play yard games. Go do something out of the ordinary. Leverage these gatherings to make your time in Scripture together that much sweeter.
Tune-Up #4 – Pray for Your Heart, Not for Your Circumstances
I have a love-hate relationship with prayer request time in small groups. It is valuable. It’s one of the main reasons Christians should meet together (Acts 2:42, 12:12; Jas 5:16). But I often believe prayer request time turns into diatribe laments of the same old circumstances, or circumstances that really don’t matter. When circumstances come our way, the weekly update is often very much of the same, and our prayer time together can turn into the same song and dance.
We should work to re-tune our small group prayer times by focusing on our hearts and striving for repentance. For example, your job transition may be a weekly circumstance—but how’s your heart handling it this week? Are you angry you cannot get traction? Are you getting short with your spouse because of it? Are you struggling to trust in God’s leadership? Are you hopeful and confident in the Lord’s provision? The disciples in Acts, compellingly, prayed not for Peter and John’s protection from persecution but for their hearts to be bold and not lose faith (Acts 4:23-31). We can learn from their example. In these moments, groups can speak the truths of the gospel to one another and truly bear the burdens of their neighbors (Gal 6:2).
Also, maybe add times where we pray Scripture. I recommend working through some of the Psalms or using a book like The Valley of Vision that’s filled will gospel-rich prayers. Spending time focusing on God instead of our circumstances can be invaluable.
Tune-Up #5 – Find a Way to Serve Together
In gospel-centered circles, many pastors warn of not falling into pontificating or building “ivory towers” in our discussion of theology and faith. These are good warnings, but they do not only apply to academics. We are prone to isolating ourselves and building our own ivory tower if our small groups are always 100% inward-focused.
Finding a way to serve together is bound to give your small group some life. After all, the discipleship mandate in Matthew 28 begins with, “Go.” It doesn’t have to be extravagant. Maybe it’s committing to having a “block party” for the neighbors where you meet. Maybe it’s ministry of mercy toward those in need. Whatever it is, work with your group to find opportunities to do something.
The final thing to remember is that finding small group renewal is a Spirit work; no tune-up will work instantaneously and perfectly. But these are some of the ways your group could, with a slight adjustment, perhaps begin to get out of neutral and move in the direction they hope to go.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University, and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.