8 Practices of Great Small Group Leaders

Most of the time when we think of leading a small group or a missional community, we think in terms of techniques. We live in a world driven by techniques. If you have a problem, someone out there has a solution they’re willing to sell you. If you follow their secret knowledge, then you’ll get different results. If you want to make money, there’s a plan for that. If you want to be happy, then follow the steps some expert outlines for you.

This technique mindset works like this: If you want to experience x, then follow the a + b + c formula. For group leadership, these techniques usually sound something like the following:

• Four steps to leading a great small group discussion
• Three keys to building community
• Seven ways to pray for your group members
• Six rules for leading worship in groups
• Five ways to reach the community with the gospel
• How to ask great questions that generate discussion
• How to contact group members between meetings
• A surefire strategy for developing a new leader

While there is a place for group leadership techniques—I’ve written and continue to write in that vein—it’s just not enough. I would argue it’s not even the place to start when it comes to great group experiences. Most of the things that lead groups into great experiences do not depend on our ability to do a technique properly. While how-to training is a good thing, real breakthroughs in people’s lives almost always call for something other than techniques.

Let me be clear: A technique without God’s presence and love is only a man-made step around a never-ending loop of having to find the next technique. But there is an alternative.

What’s the Alternative?
To find an alternative, we must think briefly about the end or the goal of our group experience. The end we envision for our small groups will dictate the kinds of practices we adopt as leaders. Over the years there have been many different “ends” offered for small groups or missional communities. They include things like evangelism, discipleship, getting people connected, Bible study, multiplication of groups or creating a Jesus movement. Those with the goal of evangelistic growth will focus on practices to reach the lost. Those that seek Bible study will spend great effort honing their Bible study skills. And if these are the “end” of your group, you can find a technique that will get you there. Just search the web and find a resource.

Over the years I’ve wondered if the apostle Paul might write something like this today: “If my group reaches lost people and grows but there is no love, we are only a growing shell of emptiness. If my group raises up new leaders and multiplies but there is no love, we are only multiplying a form of spiritual cancer. If my group gets serious about discipleship and dives deep into the Word but there is no love, we are puffed up hoarders of information. If my group serves and goes forth on mission but there is no love, we are like a chicken with its head cut off. If my group gets lots of people in my church connected but there is no love, we are no better than a salesperson who sells products for a living.”

While the “ends” often promoted are good, they are secondary. They are not the ultimate end that God has in mind. I would like to suggest that the ultimate end is to lead others in “the way of Jesus.” With this end in mind, we are simply talking about becoming the kind of leaders who live in the love of God demonstrated on the cross, allowing God’s love to move through us. The end is God’s love, and since God loves the world (John 3:16), we are simply joining him in the continuing work of the Spirit to love the world with crosslike love. Therefore, we need leadership practices that will align us with how God’s Spirit is moving. We are creating environments in our groups so that people can grow in this crosslike love. This is the end. This is the goal.

I wish someone had sat me down and pumped into my head this one truth about training leaders to love before they started giving me lessons on the technical aspects of leading groups. If someone had done that—or if I had listened if someone did say it to me—it would have spared me a lot of stress. Instead of struggling to figure out what I was doing wrong in my implementation of leadership techniques, I would have known the limitations of those techniques. This is not to belittle the technical side of group leadership. We just need to recognize its proper place.

Only love can beget love. And only the love of God can give a technique any value.

Of course, no one starts out with the ability to love like Jesus. We need practices that equip and guide us along the way. Over the years I’ve observed that those who grow in crosslike love engage in a common set of practices. They include:

• Practice 1: Hear the rhythms of the Jesus way
• Practice 2: Gather in the presence
• Practice 3: Lead collaboratively
• Practice 4: Be yourself
• Practice 5: Hang out
• Practice 6: Make a difference
• Practice 7: Fight well
• Practice 8: Point the way to the cross

This is not meant to be a list of things we do, a list that replaces other lists that describe what small groups leaders do. These practices do not work when we treat them in an “a + b + c = great leadership” way. When we do this, we turn the way of Jesus into something we produce. The way of Jesus is already happening in the world. These practices are meant to help us step on to the way and participate in what God is doing in our world.

These eight practices are not developed in a linear fashion. They act like spokes on a wheel moving us forward. None of them comes before the others. Nor do we outgrow any of them. We never master them, as they are practices of a lifetime. In the early stages of our leadership development, the wheel may be small and move slowly.

At times the spokes may be uneven so we move forward in a clunky manner. But as we follow Jesus and allow the Spirit to shape us, our ability to participate with God and walk with Jesus on his way expands. Our job is to put ourselves in a place where the Spirit of God can shape us in these practices.

This is the focus of my book Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus. Over the next few weeks, I will briefly introduce each of these eight practices.

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, Pages 29-45  

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Scott Boren
M. Scott Boren is a Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, MN and consultant who partners with The Missional Network (www.themissionalnetwork.com). He has written and co-written eight books, including Introducing the Missional Church, Missional Small Groups and MissioRelate. He share life with his bride, Shawna, and their four children, all under the age of eight. He can be reached at his website: www.mscottboren.com.