6 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Leading Small Groups

I started leading small groups when I was 16. There I was, barely old enough to drive a car, and I was supposed to lead my group of thirteen-year-old boys on some kind of spiritual journey. Right. I felt good if we got through the meeting without someone making a fart joke.

Since that time, I’ve led small groups for people aged 10 to 40. (High school small groups are my favorite. It’s not even close.) Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. Not as many as I’d like. There’s still a lot about leading small groups well that remains a complete mystery to me. But I have learned. And, reflecting back across the years, here are some things that I really wish I had known when I first started.

1. Ground it in the gospel

For a long time, my small groups were like 12-step programs for believers. Want to grow mature Christians? It’s simple: meet regularly, read the Bible, pray, laugh, eat lots of food, and make sure that you hold each other “accountable” so that you all keep working at it. Do that long enough and something is bound to happen.

What I was missing was any meaningful understanding of how the gospel relates to discipleship. None of these are bad things in themselves. But, if they’re not grounded in grace and empowered by the spirit, then it isn’t discipleship. I’d love to go back and help my younger self catch a vision for a small group of Christians as God’s image bearers in the world, redeemed through Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, and commissioned as ambassadors of the Kingdom. I’d love to see me helping others understand God’s grace and the transforming power of the gospel. In short, I’d love to convince myself that a small group should be so much more than a support group.

2. Have a clear mission

This flows from the first. Why does my small group exist? What should it accomplish? What’s it purpose? These are pretty basic questions. Yet I never asked them. I think I just thought I knew the answers. I didn’t.

Without a clear purpose, your small group will flounder. I promise. The group will naturally gravitate toward what people do best – nothing. Small groups are great at treading water. They’ll meet every week, eat the same snacks, share the same stories, and ask the same questions, never going anywhere.

Small groups don’t all need to have the same purpose, but they do need one. And it should be communicated clearly and often.

3. Be a pastor

I often hear churches downplaying the role of the small group leader. You’re not really responsible for people’s spiritual growth. You don’t have to be able to answer their questions or know how to deal with their difficult life issues. We just need someone to “host” the group. Tidy the house, put some snacks on the table, run them through the discussion guide, and you’re all set. Nothing more is required.

Rubbish.

The church doesn’t need more facilitators; it needs more disciplers. And many churches are in trouble precisely because they have too few of the latter. I think it’s terrifying that many churches now rely almost entirely on small groups for discipling their people (no more Sunday school classes or mid-week services), yet their small groups are led by “facilitators” with little to no training (or vision) for discipleship. I realize it’s intimidating to think that you’re responsible for the spiritual growth of other people. But if you’re leading a small group, you already are. So rise to the challenge and be the best pastor (minister, discipler, whatever) you can.

4. Learn some theology

Small groups are great at two things that we often fail to prepare people for: brutally difficult questions and terrifyingly wrong answers. I’ve heard both.

I remember in one group, a 12-year-old girl asked me if Jesus could truly identify with her weaknesses because he was a boy and never had to go through his first period. What do you say to that? I certainly didn’t know. And that was only one of many. Other times I’ve heard people express opinions in groups that were flat out heretical. And interestingly, no one in the group even noticed. Difficult questions and terrible answers are real challenges for a small group leader.

I think that’s why all small group leaders should strive continually to learn more theology. This won’t mean that you’ll ever reach the point where you know all the answers (a good small group leader should always be willing to say “I don’t know”). But you will have more resources for responding well to difficult questions. And, even more importantly, you’ll be better prepared to recognized when something gets shared in the group that it is so wrong it absolutely must be addressed.

5. Plan to multiply

Some will disagree with me here. But I think a purposeful small group should prepare from the very beginning to grow and multiply. It should be a part of the group’s DNA.

Most of my small groups have failed badly here. It’s not that we were against multiplying, we just weren’t intentional about it. So one of two things happened: either we failed to grow or we grew and didn’t know what to do about it. Some groups failed to grow because we never cast a vision for including new people. Instead, we became in-grown and comfortable. Eventually, such groups stagnate and/or die. But other groups grew and still ran into problems. We hadn’t built multiplication into the group’s DNA, so we resisted the idea of starting new ones. No one wanted to break up the family. And such groups usually end up ceasing to exist as “small” groups, or they begin losing people until they’ve shrunk back down to size.

Plan for growth from the beginning. Make it one of the group’s core values. Then people will be excited when it happens, rather than seeing it as something to be mourned.

6. Force authenticity

To be honest, this one falls in the category of things I still don’t do well. For me authenticity is critical, but often elusive. And I think I’ve had a hard time with authenticity for two reasons.

First, I don’t like it. I’m a private person, and I’m perfecting happy keeping my issues to myself. I’m also a proud person, and I don’t like exposing my weaknesses. So I constantly struggle with the temptation to let a small group skim along the surface of artificial engagement. It’s more comfortable for me that way.

Second, I don’t expect it. I tend to think that authenticity must be spontaneous. So we should just hang out together until authenticity happens. That’s bunk. Authenticity doesn’t just “happen.” There’s nothing spontaneous about letting people see who you really are. That takes hard work and commitment. So a group that values authenticity will make it clear from the beginning that it expects authenticity. This isn’t a place to come and hide. This is a place to reveal our weaknesses so we can walk together in the strength that only the gospel provides. That will be awkward, difficult, and painful for many (myself included), but growth usually is.

I would love to go back in time and have a little talk with my younger self. But I’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that time travel never works out well. I’d probably end up being my own grandfather or something. So I think I’ll skip the time travel, and just try to build more of this into my current and future small groups.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

17 thoughts on “6 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Leading Small Groups

  1. Marc, an extremly insightful article on what it takes to lead a small group. We surely do stumble and muddle in our leadreship roles.

    Howerver, it is through our experiences that we learn and grow—and you certainly have a few valuable lessons to share through your own stumbling and muddlings.

    I can certainly say the same as I was a small group leader for many years.

    Thanks for the insightful article.

  2. A great list, Mark! Thanks. I learned many of this things the hard way as well, leading a pimply group of high school freshman.

    The one thing I’d contribute to the list is to consider tweaking ‘Force Authenticity” to ‘Model Authenticity.” I just can’t block the image of being waterboarded for community’s sake. I’d rather be invited to join my group’s leader in the participation of honest life and healthy relationship.

    I know that your point is to intentionally frontload a group with the expectation of honest engagement. I’m just nit picking the terminology. 🙂

    1. I actually thought about going with “model” instead of “force.” But I went with the stronger word because I honestly don’t think modeling alone is sufficient. Granted, expectations without modeling are a joke. You can’t expect authenticity and then fail to model it yourself! But I’m not sure that modeling without expectations works either. I’m actually part of a small group right now where authenticity was modeled extremely well by the leader and several members. But a couple of people never joined in and kept some things buried that absolutely should have been shared. When I talked with them about it after the fact, they seemed surprised – it had never occurred to them that they should share their stuff with the group even though other people had clearly modeled that kind of sharing.

      “Expect authenticity” would probably be better language for what I’m talking about. I just liked the “wake up” value of connecting authenticity with force.

  3. I’ve broken and/or benefited from everything on this list. I especially appreciate the call for learning theology. To walk someone through bad theology and contrast it with good theology to see why it not only matters, but how it can relieve lots of doubts and struggles.

    I led the same small group for 4 years and it was a tremendous experience. I would also remind my younger self that growth and transformation come from the Sprit-on the Spirit’s schedule-and not from me.

  4. A good list and pretty good, especially if you’re surrounded by well-trained, excited seminary students. That’s not my world, however, so the high standard of leadership is left pretty much up to me. I know, I know, train others myself, and with God’s help I will. Until then, forgive me for using “facilitators,” so that hopefully I can find a way to do small groups in a smaller church without running myself into an early grave!

    1. Although I teach in a place where I am surrounded by well-trained, excited seminary students, that’s not my ministry context. Most of my life, I’ve served in smaller churches as well. And in the small group ministry I lead now (which is part of a larger church), I think I’m the only one with a seminary background. So I’m very familiar with the struggles you’re talking about. I guess I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with making it clear what your ideal is (even if it’s a long way off) and then discussing what tangible steps you can take now to get a little closer.

  5. This article has been an answer to my prayers as I feel like God is leading me towards creating a small group with a specific purpose. Currently, I’m in prayer about it and I still don’t know where to start. This article definitely got me thinking. I was wondering if there are great resources out there that will enlighten me on this process and new journey in starting a small group. Thank you!

    1. I’m far from an expert on small group training resources. Most of this just comes from my personal experience leading small groups. But I have found C. J. Mahaney’s little book “Why Small Groups” to be very helpful.

  6. Great article! I love shared wisdom such as this! If possible, could you take a look at my blog? I’ve started blogging my small group’s adventures. We’re pretty much praying for revival at our high school and are trying hard to be spirit-led but we could use some more experienced leaders’ tips!

    Thanks!!

    https://highschoolrevival.wordpress.com/

  7. These are all great and helpful. I wondered…for number 1, grounded in the gospel. Well, it is easy to “say” that things should be grounded in grace and empowered by the Spirit. But how would this play out practically?? What can we do or how could we go about helping a group grasp a gospel centered approach?? Hope that isn’t a dumb question. Sometimes I struggle with connecting what I know, with how to live it out or how to help others catch the same vision.

    1. This is definitely not a dumb question. I think this is one of the more challenging aspects of good small group leadership. From my experience must of it has to do with making sure that your group understands the gospel and the broader story of the Bible as the necessary context for understanding the gospel. And then it’s a matter of making sure that the group continually reminds itself that Christian action is always a response to God’s grace and never a way of earning his grace. There’s no shortcut, and the process is never “over.” It’s a matter of connecting the dots back to the gospel continually.

  8. I got involved with Navigators as a freshman in college. The Navigators’ purpose for small groups was discipleship and reproduction…we went through the complete Design for Discipleship series. Our small group leader was Nav staff and we met one-on-one with her regularly. Eventually we also met weekly with a rotating “partner” from the study-partially to get to know one another better, but also as a way to practice accountability outside the study environment. The larger Nav organization provided monthly meetings for worship which included solid theology teaching. Church attendance was expected-it is part of the Christian life and after college we were going to need to know how to be a part of a church. By my 2nd year, at least one from our group was leading a new small group of freshmen.

    It didn’t take long before I was rather ticked that I hadn’t experienced anything like this growing up in church (EVFree & Cons. Baptist). There’s a lot of talk about discipleship but not much practice. Since then, I’ve spent 20 yrs in couples/co-ed home groups, women’s Bible studies, etc., with varied approaches and I am happy to see someone talking about this. I still think many people do want more than a support group and can rise to the challenge of a more rigorous discipleship in a church community.

    Some things I would add:

    You need people to buy in to the mission for it to work. When I was 17 and our study leader said “we’re going to memorize scripture” we did it because we didn’t know we could blow her off. Most adults aren’t so compliant.

    Safety is crucial for authenticity. What is shared in small group stays in small group. It’s too easy to misrepresent the struggles or comments of another person. I think it’s important for participants decide to grant permission to others in the group to hold them accountable. If I mention struggling with a bad attitude, hopefully I will allow others to say to me “you’ve got a bad attitude, how can I help” when it is so. Forgiveness should also be a core value-be prepared to give it and to need it.

    Church leaders have to set the tone for the ministry. Help the small group leader learn pastoral skills and theology. Be available to offer moral support and coach through difficult situations. Don’t allow certain kinds of situations/sins to go unaddressed by the pastoral staff….small group leaders shouldn’t have to carry the full burden of people’s baggage.

    Those people who do want “just” a support group?…their need is no less valid. Meeting people where they are at doesn’t fit into a template.

    1. Great thoughts. I particularly liked your comment about the need for this to be modeled/supported by the leadership. The church’s leadership has a lot to do with establishing the “culture” of the church. And that broader culture is vital to a healthy small group ministry.

      And I completely agree that safety is important. The only concern I’d register here is that safety is often understood today as meaning that I can say/do pretty much whatever I want without any fear that I’ll be challenged. That’s obviously not the kind of safety that you mean in your comment. But, since that’s how “safety” is often heard today, I thought it worth pointing out.

      Thanks for sharing from your experiences.

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