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Advice from an Experienced Small Group Member

Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training tool called Small-Group Member Orientation Guide.

Hollie Baker-Lutz is the marketing coordinator for the Discipleship Team at Christianity Today International. She has been involved in small groups—as a member and a leader—for more than ten years.

Building Small Groups: Can you tell me a little bit about your current small group?

Hollie Baker-Lutz: Right now, we have three couples that attend our group regularly, and we meet once a week. We start by having dinner together, and then we get to the “study” part, which right now is Rob Bell’s Nooma series.

One thing that’s interesting about our group is that we’re trying to refocus on prayer. In the past, we’ve fallen victim to something that I think is common for a lot of groups, which is trying to save time at the end of the meeting for prayer, but that time just doesn’t get protected or valued as much as it should. So we are starting to experiment with new ways to pray and getting a new focus on prayer.

And how has that been going?

Good! Recently, we tried an exercise where we pray through the alphabet, thanking God for one thing represented by each letter. So it could be an attribute of God, like faithfulness—or I think I thanked God for grapes when it came to G. That was a really cool experience.

What do you enjoy most about being part of a small group?

I think it’s the opportunity to be more transparent than usual. In a church setting, for example, you obviously can’t have a lot of one-on-one interaction with what’s being talked about. But in a small group, you can really interact with the material being taught. You can also interact with other people and be honest about where you are and how you’re feeling about whatever is being discussed.

What have been some challenges you’ve had to overcome as you’ve been involved with different small groups?

First, when you’re new to a small group that already exists, it’s hard to know when you can feel like a fully integrated member. For me, it was finding that moment when I felt comfortable suggesting that we do something different. Because at the beginning, I’m not going to say, “Thanks for inviting me; I don’t want to study that.”

When you’ve been with a group for a long time, one of the challenges you face is trying to figure out how to measure change, how to plan for change. This was a big issue for my small groups in college. We would have great discussions, but things wouldn’t really change from week to week. I would leave feeling encouraged—feeling like I’d been heard or that I’d learned something about another person or about faith. But when we came back next week, we’d have the same questions, or we’d have the same spiritual pitfalls.

So it’s important to have a plan in a small group—without feeling overly structured—to answer the questions, “How are we going to plan for change and growth, and how are we going to measure it?” But getting that plan can be a challenge.

How do you measure whether a small group is contributing to your spiritual growth?

For me, it’s a change in behavior. When my current group prayed through the alphabet, for example, I found myself having more of an attitude of thankfulness throughout the next week. By doing that exercise, I realized that there is so much more around me that I can be praising God for—little things, big things, who God is, people I come in contact with.

Also, my small group helps me stay accountable—to the group members and also to myself. Because the meetings are so regular and Wednesday just keeps coming. And I realize that I’m going to have to talk about what we discussed last week, and they’re going to ask me how I’ve done. So that motivates me to do something throughout the week so that I have an answer.

Has your knowledge of the Bible grown as a result of participating in small groups rather than studying the Scriptures exclusively on your own?

Yes, because it adds to the variety of opportunities I have to learn. I mean, a small group is different than a pastor talking about the Bible and giving us information on Sunday mornings—that’s one aspect of how I learn about the Bible. And then I read my own personal devotions with a commentary and I pray, and that’s another aspect. But in a small group, hearing other people’s interactions with the Scripture and their experiences—that’s a third dimension that enriches my experience with the Bible even more.

You’ve been in small groups for several years, so what do you know now that you wish you would have known when you first started in a group?

I think back to the first day of the Purpose-Driven Life where Rick Warren says, “It’s not about you.” Being in a small group, it’s so easy to go in and expect to be fed—in my current group, literally fed, but also spiritually fed. We can come in asking, “What can I get out of this?” Or for an extroverted person, “I’m going to talk and share about everything that I think and feel and want to do.”

But going into a small group and saying, “It’s not about you” really changes things, I think. For one thing, it drastically affects the way you handle difficult people—other members who talk too much or have different views than you. You’re going to realize, “I need to give this person grace, because Christ has given so much of that to me.”

So it’s very much about attitude for me and about the expectations you have going in.

What has it been like to share prayer requests with the members of a small group—to pray for other people and to have them pray for you?

It’s been a positive experience for the most part. One thing I’ve learned is that talking about a prayer request should never take longer than actually praying for that request. I think groups need to be really intentional about how they use and protect that time.

Have you been in a group where you felt like the prayer time was wasted or ineffective?

Yeah, because people might really want to pray about their job, but they end up talking about a person who irritates them or a stressful situation for 15 minutes, and they we go and have very surface-level prayer about that request for far less time. And I don’t think that’s nearly as meaningful. I don’t think that’s trusting God to make change. I think that’s actually worrying prayers out loud, which is what I do a lot of the time.

I think every small group should at least try intercessory prayer on a serious level. But one thing we don’t always realize is that it’s okay to practice. I don’t think a lot of people realize that it’s okay to mess up when you pray, which sounds weird. But especially when you’re doing something like intercessory prayer—where you’re really trying to hear God’s voice—a small group is a great, safe place to just try something different.

What would you say to someone who is considering joining a small group, but isn’t sure if they will or not?

I think if I were face-to-face with that person, I would try to discover their story. I would ask them, “What are your reservations? Do you truly believe that this could be a good experience? Have you talked to God about it?” Often my reasons for shying away from a new group came from a place of insecurity (will they like me?), fear (what if they find out about that sin?), or judgment (those people are morons anyway). I always had an excuse to mask the deeper issue—usually busyness. Sometimes the reasons people have for bypassing small groups are legit, and sometimes they’re not. The challenge is being able to identify true motivations.

What advice would you give to someone who has just joined a small group?

Expect God to do new things in new ways. So often, the expectations or attitudes that we bring to a small group become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we go in with judgments about certain people we know are in the group—or make snap judgments once we meet different people or hear their first comment—Satan can use those judgments to create lasting wedges.

So I think it’s important to move in the opposite spirit of that. We need to go in expecting God to do new things—to surprise you with who he is. I think God is always saying to us, “You can’t even imagine what I want to do, you can’t dream about what I have planned.” So anticipate that God will show up. Believe that he will show up. Trust God to be there.  

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Toni Ridgaway is a content editor for the Outreach Web Network, including churchleaders.com and SermonCentral.com.