Leading a small group can seem scary at first. It can even be a bit challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. With a little planning and practice, it can be super easy, a lot of fun, and very rewarding.
Over the years, I’ve led many small groups, from Bible Studies, to Young Adult groups and Men’s groups. For the last two years, my wife and I have a led a simple Bible Study that started with a few people, and grew to an average of 18- 20 people who attend weekly.
My goal with this article is to create a quick and easy resource with some principles and strategies that will get you up and running, so you can begin to explore the joys of leading and serving others.
My assumption is that you’ve already prayed and feel an unction or leading by the Holy Spirit to begin to serve in this way. If this is the case, congratulations! You’ve made an honorable decision that can be a true blessing to many!
What’s a Small Group?
Some call it a life group, some, a cell group, some a community group. They’re essentially all just different names for the same thing. A small group is basically a group of people gathered for a common purpose.
For the context of this post, a small group is a group of two or more Christian believers (and/or pre-believers) who gather together to share life and learn about God.
The group can range from a Bible Study or Prayer Group, to a group who simply gets together to fellowship periodically. In any case, there’s a purpose for the group, whether it’s to learn about a topic, or to simply make friends and have fun doing life together.
A more important question than what, is why?
Why are small groups important? The simple answer is that people (you and others), will grow and develop more, spiritually and relationally, in a small group than you can if you only read the Bible, or only attend church in a large corporate meeting once a week.
The Basics: Leadership
There are many different views on leadership, but Christian leadership after Jesus' example is rooted in service. Jesus, the Son of God, took a towel and washed the feet of the disciples who followed him. He set an example for all believers who want to be great in the kingdom of God...to love, and to serve from the heart.
Leadership is influence. Effective leadership is influence with purpose. It is intentional. When you've got something worth saying, people will listen. When your life and actions line up with what you say and believe, people will notice. When you have relationship, and invite others into what you're doing, people will follow.
People feel safe to follow leaders who are safe. These are leaders with character and integrity. They are honest and do what they say they will do. They're also humble enough to admit their faults and ask forgiveness when they make mistakes. Safe leaders listen, they're trustworthy, and they genuinely care. Set a good example with your life and be a safe leader.
With that said, I want to clarify an important point. To be a leader, you don't have to be perfect. The reality is that perfection isn't possible, and you will make mistakes. The key is that you stay humble, ask forgiveness when you mess up, and don't give up, no matter what. You'll learn more from your mistakes than you will from your successes.
If you determine to keep getting up, no matter how many times you fail, you'll become a better leader through the process. If you respond well through the process, you can learn quickly and accelerate your growth. Be honest, be open to feedback, and take action on wise counsel.
As a small group leader, I want you remember one thing that will help you more than any other advice I can give. Your primary job is not to control, your primary job is to facilitate. This means that you help along the conversations, or move the group along through the lessons while being mindful of the Holy Spirit's promptings throughout the meetings. Remember to do this, and you will be fruitful.
Vision and Communication
Get a clear vision. Think of vision as your purpose. What is the purpose for the group you want to lead? Do you want to gather a group for a weekly prayer meeting on Wednesday nights? Do you want to study a book of the Bible each week on Friday mornings? Do want to go through a personal finance book for newly-weds every other week on Monday nights?
The first step is to define your purpose clearly and specifically. The more specific you can be, the better. This step seems simple, but it extremely important because this is what you will be communicating to others when you share about the group.
Good basic questions to ask yourself are:
- What do you want to do?
- Why do you want to do this?
- When do you plan to meet?
- Where will meetings be held?
- Will meetings be held for set number of weeks? (Will there be breaks?)
- What will your start and end times be?
- What are the age ranges that are welcome? (Childcare?)
- How many people are you willing to host?
- Will you provide refreshments or dinner?
An example of a clear small group vision is the following:
- What: Bible Study - Book of James
- When: Friday Nights from 7 pm - 9 pm
- Duration: 5 weeks (April 3, 2015 - May 1, 2015)
- Where : Home of Mr. and Mrs. Nazarite, 12345 Freedom from Egypt Rd, Lincoln, NE...
- Why: To Study Christian Character in the Bible
- Who's Invited: Ages 18 and up (No child care provided) - 12 spots
- Refreshments will be served by the host.
Once you've clearly defined what you want to do, it's a good idea to check in with your church leadership to get the appropriate permissions to move forward (if necessary). This is especially important if you belong to a church and want to invite other church attendees. It can be a great blessing and benefit to have the support and covering of your home church leadership. They can offer guidelines and advise in case you run into any challenges during the study. The idea is to honor the leaders God has placed in authority, and also to do things with wisdom.
When you have the green light to move forward, it's time to invite others. The best place to start might be with friends who also have an interest to study the Bible. Maybe you can have your church announce the Bible study with your contact details, or include them in a bulletin.
It's a good idea to create an easy way to share the bible study details. Put together a small invitation card with the details, or create an email template so you can easily email or text details to those you talk to or invite.
Don't worry about numbers if you don't find many people who are interested. You just need one other person to start a group. If there's life in the group, it will grow. Just be faithful with 2, and let God bring more. Be as faithful with 2 people as you would with 12, and enjoy the process. The process will prepare you for the 12 (or more).
Let's Talk Dynamics: The Meetings
I'm going to make a statement that will take nearly all of the pressure off of your shoulders. Are you ready? ...You don't have to know everything! To be honest, and a little more extreme, you don't need to know anything about the topic that the group will be focused on.
So what do you need? You need to be teachable, and you need to be willing to learn. You will also need to do a little prep work each week so that you have something to share.
Before the meeting, it will be greatly beneficial to clean your house thoroughly before your guests arrive. Seems like common sense, but perhaps it's not for all. This will help if you want people to come back. Just take my word for it. =)
The first meeting is important. You'll want to share the vision and the plan with the group on the very first night. You'll also want to share any expectations you have as the leader, and possibly set expectations as a group.
Do your best to reduce or eliminate distractions during study time. At the start of the meeting, you may want to ask everyone to silence their cell phones, or to step into another room if they have to take a call. In addition, turn off the TV and/or radio, or ask if everyone would be comfortable with music during devotional periods.
To make things easier on yourself, take the approach of learning and discovering together. The group doesn't belong to you, it belongs to God, and to each person in attendance. Let everyone take a degree of ownership for the health and development of the group, and work together to keep it healthy.
Share the leadership load. Instead of having only one person lead or teach every week, have a different person lead each week. This will reduce the stress of having to produce week after week. It will also keep things interesting as you allow the creative genius of others to be unlocked. If your going through a book of the Bible, you lead the first chapter during the first meeting as an example, and have someone else lead chapter 2 the following week.
In terms of study preparation, you can put as little or as much time as you want in. The more time you invest in preparation, the richer the content of the study will be.
If you don't know yet how to study the Bible (if you chose to do a Bible Study group), consider one of the following strategies to keep things simple:
- Use a free online resource to read and study (excellent free commentaries and study tools):
- Buy or borrow a Bible commentary (Check out your local library)
- Buy or borrow a Study Bible (great for basic history and verse by verse commentaries)
- Search online for Audio Bible Commentaries or Teaching Podcasts
- Have a smartphone? Download a Bible Study App.
- Etc. (you get the idea...)
Share your resources with the group and whoever's in charge of the study for the following week. It will then be easy for the weekly leader to put together a lesson.
This reminds me of an important point about raising up leaders. Use Jesus's example for discipleship. First He modeled (led by example), then He guided the disciples to do the work while He was present, then He commissioned them to go out and do the work.
When raising up new leaders, look first for those who are ready. Meet with them and highlight the key things you do in the group and why you do them. Use specific examples that they have seen you do. Consider leading their first study with them so they don't feel alone. This way you can be there to help with any areas if they get stuck. After their first study, they'll be up and running, and can always come back to you for advice if needed.
How to Structure the Meeting Time:
Be considerate of the time that your meeting starts. Is it an early morning meeting before the workday begins? Is it an evening meeting after the work day has ended? If early morning, consider serving coffee or tea and pastries. If it's in the evening, consider if you want to include dinner.
Why's this important? It can help a lot with everyone's already busy schedule. There’s something powerful about sharing a meal together. There is also a family dynamic to eating and talking together. The disciples called it breaking bread. In some cultures, sharing a meal together meant there was a pact of unity being created which essentially said that the two parties would not go to war against each other.
In the practical, however, we can narrow it down to a few simple ideas. People are busy, and people need to eat. It's also a very polite and generous gesture to serve refreshments and/or a meal to your guests. If you don't have the means to provide a these items, there are some easy solutions you can consider. You could meet at a cafe or coffee shop where everyone can purchase their own refreshments. Or for a dinner, instead of providing the whole meal, have everyone sign-up to bring something so that the burden doesn't fall on one person. This is also a nice way to build engagement and ownership within the community group.
Now that you have your meeting location and meal arrangements, it's time to map out the meeting time. If you are meeting from 7 pm - 9 pm, then you know you have 2 hours to work with. Timing is important because, as mentioned earlier, people are busy and many have schedules that they want, or need to keep. Do your best to be respectful of their time. Start when you say you will start, and end when you say you will end. This way people can plan around the meeting times as needed.
Interestingly, to note, not everyone will be on time. Also, understand that people aren't going to be ready to hit the ground running right at 7 pm. They will need some time to ease in, chat with friends in the group, and to simply decompress from the day. This is why dinner can be so beneficial. It gives people a chance to eat, fellowship and relax. It also serves as a good social ice-breaker so attendees can get acquainted.
After dinner, you'll want to reign in everyone's attention to transition into the study. You want to give the leader a chance to introduce the topic, and to share or teach what they've prepared. It's also nice to give a little time at first for any important announcements or updates. This is also a great spot for weekly testimonies or praise reports. You can send around a sign up sheet to collect new comer email addresses, etc, at this time as well.
You'll want to also build in time for people to talk, or to share their thoughts or insights. This is one of the most important things you can do because people will remember what they shared, more than what you shared.
At the end, the leader can share any concluding thoughts to close the topic. One of the most important things you can do at this point is make some time to pray for each other before everyone leaves. This gives every person a chance to share any needs that can be covered in prayer, and gives the group a chance to encourage one another.
After praying, it's a good time to let the group know any important reminders or updates for the following week (including plans for dinner, what to study, etc.). Then, make sure to formally dismiss everyone so they know it’s ok to go.
A sample of a schedule you can follow is the following:
- 7 pm - 7:10 pm ~ People arrive
- 7:10 pm - 7:50 ~ Dinner and Fellowship
- 7:50 pm - 8 pm ~ Announcements and Testimonies
- 8 pm - 8:45 pm ~ Lesson on James Chapter 1 (Build in time for discussion)
- 8:45 pm - 8:55 pm ~ Group Prayer
- 8:55 pm - 9 pm ~ Closing Remarks & Reminders
It's not mandatory to stick to this schedule, as you may need to flex, or use a schedule that works better for your group. This is simply a guideline. Communicate with your group to see what works best for everyone.
A best practice that we've adopted is to send out a weekly email communication as a reminder of the next weeks topic and food items. We also include if we need volunteers to signup to do or bring something. It works great and gives the group a chance to plan.
How to Share: Tell Them, Tell Them, Tell Them
When it comes to actually sharing or teaching your content during the study, I like to stick to the basic "Tell Them 3x" formula (which I essentially picked up from public speaking lessons by Dale Carnegie). What I mean by this is:
- Tell Them what your going to tell them - Give a brief overview of what you plan to cover and how you plan to do it.
- Tell Them - Here's your time to shine. Go ahead and lead with your content and cover the meat of what you want to share. This is also the section where you will build-in interactive discussion questions and facilitate discussion.
- Tell Them what you told them - After you've finished your lesson or discussion, highlight and recap the main points that were covered.
Using this strategy helps ensure the plan of action is clear to all, the content is covered, and the chances of listeners remembering what was shared is increased.
To highlight some important points about sharing your message, see the following:
- Know what you want to say. Review your lesson before the group meeting so that it's fresh in your mind.
- Do something to engage the whole group as you begin. For example, if you are doing a Bible Study, consider reading the chapter aloud as a group one person and verse at a time. This helps everyone transition into the study portion of the meeting, and helps each person to focus.
- Consider using handouts when appropriate. It's nice for others to have something to easily follow along with.
- Use Questions and Let others talk (but watch the time): Again, people remember what they share more than what you share. Give people enough time to share, but keep the conversation moving.
- Acknowledge what other people share, but don't feel the need to say something after each person. It can prolong time spent, and feel redundant.
- If others chime in on something that is shared, consider letting the conversation go for a bit if it is beneficial to the group, and if there's time for it.
- Try not to talk too much yourself. Be mindful of how long you are speaking. If you’re like me, and you like to talk (a lot), you’ll want to scale back some of the additional comments to allow time for others in the group to speak.
- Be clear in what you want to share, and beware of bunny trails (wandering off topic), which could can make it difficult to get back on track.
- Use stories and examples to illustrate points. It helps people to follow along with you and understand your points. Relevant stories make lessons more interesting.
- If questions arise that you don’t know the answer to, be honest. Jot down the question, research over the next week, and share the findings in the next meeting.
- Be creative, and let leaders be creative in how they share. Some of our funnest times have been during creative leading which involved skits, costumes, stories, music, and more.
Other Dimensions Of A Life Group: Outside Of The Meetings
The goal of a small group is not just to have another information meeting. People can read books or watch youtube from home if they were only looking for more information. The purpose should be building community, developing meaningful relationships, and experiencing transformation through God-centered truth. It’s about sharing life together in community, in the way that God intended.
There are a few things that you can do that will greatly help nurture the relationship development of those in the group.
- Meet People Outside for coffee or for a meal
- Check-in with group members. You can call, text, or email. It means a lot to people when you make a little extra effort to show that you care.
- Pray for group members. You can even ask them if there is anything in particular you can pray for them for throughout the week.
- Create Fellowship events or fun nights, just to hang out. Some great and easy ways to do this is to simply plan a night for bowling, miniature golf, a movie, a hiking day, etc. The idea here is work hard, play hard. It can be taxing and redundant to only study together. People need to have fun together. Doing activities together is a great way to develop rapport and friendship.
The initial meetings may serve a very practical purpose of learning a topic, but the end-goal is healthy, life-long friendships that will be developed within the group during your season together. In addition, if we as small group leaders model healthy, Godly living in community, then those we serve and influence will have an example that can be reproduced in their own lives. This is essentially what Jesus did when He shared his life with 12 disciples who reproduced what they learned, and ultimately changed the known world.
Here are a few last thoughts and reminders to help you as you lead:
- Keep communication open with the group and allow feedback
- Share needs and help each other when you can
- Remember to be respectful towards God and towards people at all times
- Let others lead projects and events they are passionate about
- Nurture an environment that is safe to learn about God, and to grow in faith.
- Have grace for each other, and for yourself. Nobody’s perfect. If you miss it, ask forgiveness.
- Forgive…enough said.
- Schedule meeting break periods to stay refreshed
- Be consistent with your meeting times
- Make time for people, they are important!
Although this article doesn’t cover every detail or possible factor that can be encountered during the leading of small groups, it should help you to define a basic blue print and create a roadmap for how you can structure and lead a small group. Part of the fun in your development will be the process (including the easy items, and the difficult) which will grow you. If you practice the tools provided above, you will eventually become skilled, and will come up with effective and creative ideas of your own.
Live well, love sincerely, and serve from your heart. Keep God first, and stay teachable even as you lead. Do these things, and you will make a great small group leader who can make a real difference in the life of those you serve. Remember, it doesn’t have to be hard. When you understand the dynamics, it’s actually…quite simple.
All the best as you journey forward with God!