Essential Ingredients for Life Change in Groups

“A small group provides the optimal environment for the life-change Jesus intends for every believer.”  This was one of five core assumptions that were embedded in Willow Creek’s small group ministry strategy in the 90s.

Was it true?  Is it true?  I believe it was and is true but I also believe that in order for it to be true…certain ingredients must be present in the group* experience**.

*These are the ingredients for a group of any kind (i.e., small group, Sunday school class, Bible study, etc.).  

**Experience is an important word because the group experience extends well beyond the meeting.

What must be true about a group for it to be the optimal environment for life-change? I believe these are the eight key ingredients:

  1. It must be centered on following Jesus.  For a group of any kind to be the optimal environment for life-change…it must be centered on following Jesus.  While following Jesus includes learning about Him, knowledge is not the end in mind.  Following is the end in mind.  Therefore, while learning is involved, becoming is primary.  See also, Small Group Ministry Myth #2: Effective at Connecting and Ineffective at Discipling.
  2. It must be an inclusive environment.  Jesus’ first invitation was, “Come and see.”  Embracing a “come and die” aspiration should not be prerequisite to entry.  ”Come as you are” is deeply woven into the fabric of inclusivity.  See also, Recruiting Like Jesus.
  3. It must encourage intentionality.  While inclusive, there is an expectation of movement.  “Come as you are…and don’t stay that way” is at the heart of life-change.  Every group leader asks the question, “What is your next step?”
  4. It must be a safe  environment where transparency is the rule, not the exception.  “All’s well” and pseudo-community is where most groups live with masks on.  Life-change happens in groups where it is safe for the real me to show up.
  5. It must be an environment that encourages dialogue.  Monologues are often efficient for distributing information.  Monologues are rarely effective at producing the personal clarity and conviction that lead to next steps.  See also, Four Countercultural Characteristics of Authentic Community.
  6. It must facilitate a 24/7 sense of connection.  What happens in the group meeting is important.  What happens between meetings is the secret ingredient that enables the life-on-life engagement that Jesus’ closest followers experienced (as did Paul’s).  Groups whose only interaction is once a week from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. or 9:00 to 10:15 a.m. cannot be expected to produce the kind of deep connection that leads to life-change.  Doing life together (i.e., a meal, a cup of coffee, a text message or a Facebook message to encourage, a phone call just to connect) is the norm in groups that produce life-change.  See also, The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.
  7. It must cultivate the practice of the one-anothers.  This was the primary activity of the early church.  It will always be at the very heart of any effective group.  The love Jesus spoke of in John 13:34-35 was far beyond verbal.  Far more important than a hug and an “I love you brother” is a countercultural one-another.   Setting aside personal interests and paying attention to the interests of others models the sacrifice Jesus made (Philippians 2:3-11).
  8. It must have a leader who functions as a shepherd.  Lowering the bar of leadership makes it possible for ordinary people to take a first step into leadership.  At the same time, for a group to truly be the optimal environment for life-change it must have a See also, 8 Habits of Life-Changing Small Group Leaders and From Here to There: The Preferred Future for Small Group Leaders.

I don’t believe it matters what kind of group you have.  Whether you have a small group that meets off-campus or a Sunday school class that meets on-campus, these certain essential ingredients must be present for a group to be the optimal environment for life-change.  

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Mark Howell
Mark Howell serves as Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. He founded SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services to help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries. He spent four years on the consulting staff at Lifetogether and often contributes to ministry periodicals such as the Pastor's Ministry Toolbox and ChurchCentral.com.

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