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Milestones for Small Groups: How to Measure Spiritual Growth

Have you ever heard of the one-armed fisherman? He caught a fish this big…(extend one arm in front of you.) Or was it this big…(move arm out a little wider)? It’s hard to know how a big a fish the one-armed fisherman really caught. The same can be true for measuring the effectiveness of Small Groups. Sometimes measuring how effectively we are designing, implementing, and leading a Small Group ministry is like using one arm to describe how big a fish you caught.

At Gateway Church in Austin, Texas we are aligning our Life Groups to become outcome based discipleship groups for the purpose of bringing life and freedom to everyone in the group. We want to measure people’s growth using two hands so we can celebrate life change.

Jesus Measured Spiritual Growth

What was Jesus measuring stick for spiritual growth? When someone asked him what the greatest commandment was he used two spiritual outcomes as his answer, “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus defined growth as someone who is loving God and loving people.

Jesus used this parable, probably in reference to the Jews, but its application is for all of us in regards to measuring spiritual growth, “Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9).

Outcome Based Discipleship

Outcome based discipleship is a holistic discipleship strategy that goes beyond giving group leaders a list of resources to use in the group. Outcome based discipleship is about having a clear milestone for measuring spiritual growth in people’s lives and moving people towards an intentional outcome in their life. Most Small Group ministries provide their group leaders resources for their group but they don’t define what the results of these resources should transform in the lives of group members. By focusing on outcomes, and not resources, we believe our group leaders can use a variety of books, Biblical studies, video messages, or experiences for their group members to help them achieve an outcome. The outcome of intentional growth is primary, and the resources to help people get there are secondary.

We have milestones for a group to measure its progress as it is forming in the ‘Live Connected’ layer of a group. These milestones help a group leader navigate the formation of a community through the relational stages of strangers, acquaintances, friends, and transparent community. In the ‘Be Transformed’ layer of a group we have individual outcomes for people to know if they are making progress in living out a particular outcome. We have identified 28 different outcomes for becoming spiritual mature in Christ. Is it a perfect distribution of all of the Biblical content for becoming mature in Christ, no. Does it give a pretty good attempt at creating a structure for our group leaders to navigate their groups growth into maturity, yes.

Examples of Outcome Based Milestones

Create Community (from strangers to acquaintances) as a Group Milestones:

  • Everyone in the group knows each others’ names.
  • The group has an established meeting rhythm.
  • Group attendance averages more than 75%.
  • Participants take ownership by taking on various roles.

Create Loving Community (from acquaintances to friends) as a Group Milestones:

  • Participants are relationally connected to at least 2-3 others in the group.
  • Participants spend time together outside of the group meeting context.
  • Participants comfortably share their needs with the group.
  • Participants both serve and support each other in their daily lives.

Create Transparent Community (from friends to confessional) as a Group Milestones:

  • The group culture is one of safety, confidentiality, vulnerability, and high trust.
  • Each group member feels safe enough to be fully themselves and fully open.
  • Each group member has shared his/her life story with the group.
  • Running Partner relationships are beginning to form naturally within the group.

Milestone for the Spiritual Outcome of “Relate to God”

  • The passion and practice of engaging God daily through Scripture
  • The passion and practice of engaging God daily through conversational prayer
  • Seeking God for wisdom, insight, and direction in all aspects of one’s life
  • The daily bringing of both hardship and celebration to one’s relationship with God

Milestone for the Spiritual Outcome of “Stay Connected to God’s Spirit”

  • Ever-increasing presence of the fruit of the Spirit in one’s life
  • A growing conversational relationship with God throughout one’s day
  • An identifiable decrease in sin’s appeal or grip
  • A growing ability to discern God’s guidance throughout one’s day

Milestone for the Spiritual Outcome of “Humility”

  • In a leadership role (e.g., boss, parent, mentor) within the past month, willingly and joyfully embraced a follower’s idea and openly gave credit where credit was due
  • In a follower role (e.g., employee, student, volunteer) within the past month, willingly and joyfully embraced a leader’s idea even though it differed from one’s personal preference
  • In the past week, has actively sought the opinions and input of others, out of genuine desire for their insight
  • Is able to maintain confidence when others disagree without becoming arrogant or insecure

Milestone for the Spiritual Outcome of “Serving”

  • Proactively finds ways to serve others rather than dodge needs
  • Can name at least one serving situation in the past three months that was challenging—and not particularly pleasurable within itself—but engaged nonetheless
  • Can identify one simple act of service in the past twenty-four hours
  • Practices service in a manner that truly helps and empowers those being served rather than service that hinders or enables

Milestone for the Spiritual Outcome of “Surrender”

  • Can name a significant disappointment that has been processed openly with God to a point of peace (peace with God and peace with the disappointment)
  • Has an identifiable expectancy and excitement for the will of God in one’s life
  • Can identify a time in a recent season of life where one followed God despite personal inhibitions or concerns
  • Has let go of one’s own manmade vision of one’s life and has fully embraced God’s vision for one’s life (or is passionately seeking God’s vision)

Find Other Spiritual Outcomes Here

Assessment Tools

Just like the one armed fisherman doesn’t give a very accurate picture of how big of a fish he caught, sometimes we need an assessment of how we are growing into all that God wants us to be. We have designed a set of discern assessment tools to help individuals in a group reflect on how they are making progress in these 28 spiritual outcomes. The assessments can be used at the beginning, middle, and end of the ‘Be Transformed’ layer of a group to measure progress. It is a self reflective tool that is processed openly in the group so each person can speak into other group members lives about growth and progress. Check out the Discern Assessment Tools here.

How Did We Get Here as a Church?

We have had a history of Small Groups from the beginning of Gateway. We wanted to be a community where No Perfect People are Allowed and you can come as you are but not stay as you are. Our groups from the beginning of Gateway have been great at creating community where people are accepted by grace, known, and loved. Over the years we discovered we needed to increase the temperature of discipleship in our groups. Creating spiritual outcomes is our way of being more intentional about the goal of spiritual development in our group life. Another key reason for developing spiritual outcomes and a structure for our groups was so they can become more transferable for multiplying discipleship. By defining milestones, and structuring a path of resources associated with specific spiritual outcomes, we believe newly maturing followers of Jesus will take the next step of maturity into ‘Changing Your World.’ This means that group members move from growing for themselves to multiplying discipleship into a new group of others. One of the 28 spiritual outcomes is ‘Multiplication.’ This means becoming someone who disciples others. We want to be faithful to Jesus commandment in Matthew 28:18 to make disciples. This is our commitment as a church.

What About You?

What is your exposure to an outcome based discipleship system? Where is this working or what obstacles are there to this model? I would love to get your feedback.