Leading a Small Group

Beginning and Leading a Small Group: Mapping Your Strategy


Lead a Small Group? Me?

Think about how you came to follow Jesus and how you have grown in your faith. You are who you are today because someone knew you by name and invested in you.

Whether it was your parents, friends, or perhaps a pastor or small group leader, God has used one or more people to make a tremendous difference in your life.

Leading a small group gives you the opportunity to invest — and perhaps make the same sort of impact — in someone else’s life!

Why Small Groups?

Large-group worship services aren’t designed for personal interaction, and it can be difficult to develop close personal relationships if that is your only connection to Christian community. That’s why small groups can be so valuable.

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, New Living Translation)

The focus of the Great Commission, the verses above, is to make disciples— that is, followers of Jesus. How does one do this? By teaching them to obey everything that He commanded. Small groups are a great way to teach people to obey what Jesus commanded.

Read “Gospel-Centered Small Groups” to learn more about the power of small groups.

Who Can Lead a Small Group?

God has an amazing way of using a variety of people to accomplish His goals.

We often think it takes a certain type of person to be a great teacher or dynamic leader, but God is more interested in your availability to Him than your natural abilities. As you trust Him to work through you (focusing on His power as opposed to your weaknesses), He will move in your life and the lives of others.

You do not need to be a Bible scholar to lead a small group. “But what if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?” When (not if) that happens, simply reply that you don’t know but that you can look it up or ask somebody who does.

Your honesty about the fact that you don’t know everything encourages vulnerability and communicates to others that they don’t have to have all the answers to be obedient to what God’s calling them to do.

If you’re still nervous about the idea of leading a small group, reading this article about how to handle questions or other challenges in group discussions may help.

Characteristics of Small Group Leaders

Spiritual leadership requires different characteristics than leadership in other areas. But perfection is not a requirement. If it were, none of us could lead a small group. Growing into maturity is a continual process.

The following five heart attitudes will help keep you in check as a leader. Spiritual leaders:

  • Give and receive scriptural correction (Proverbs 19:20).

  • Serve others rather than only being served (Philippians 2:3-11).

  • Follow the spiritual leadership of others (Hebrews 13:17).

  • Initiate forgiveness and reconciliation with others (Matthew 5:21-26).

  • Keep their word (Matthew 5:33-37).

Do you have these characteristics? What areas do you need to grow in? If you aren’t sure, ask a trusted friend who knows you well— and who will be honest and kind with you — where you are in each of these areas.


Preparing Yourself for Leadership

Remember, the goal is not the small group in and of itself. The ultimate objective is to trust God to change peoples’ lives.

In Colossians 1:28-29 (New Living Translation), Paul emphatically stated: “So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.”

Prayer: The Core of Leadership

You cannot lead a small group well without relying on God. God is the One who changes lives, so obviously, He must lead in the process. Only God can bring the people to your small group, develop their character and create deep, transformational relationships.

Prayer is the starting point for such work, for it is God who makes us grow.

I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6, NLT)

Pray before you start preparing. Too often, prayer is the last thing we consider when planning and preparing for our small groups. We tack on a last-minute, all-encompassing prayers asking God to bless well-made plans.

Instead, we need to declare our dependence upon the Most High God at the onset and seek His will every step of the way.


Key Considerations for Effective Small Groups

Focus on Meeting the Needs of People

Many small group leaders fail to recognize that the purpose of meeting together is not to simply exchange information. The goal is to live the Christian faith, not just to talk about the Christian faith.

As you get together in your group, look for things that will alert you to their individual needs so you will be able to better serve them. See “How to Have a Small Group With Purpose” for more on assessing and meeting your group members’ needs.

Questions to Help You Determine Your Group’s Needs

Use the following questions to help you determine what you will cover during your small group meetings:

  1. What strengths do they have? Where do they need growth? What do they not understand?

  2. What principles or topics would benefit them most at this stage in their Christian walks? (If you are not sure, ask your pastor or a Cru staff member for some suggestions.)

  3. What are their most important needs? Do they comprehend the foundations of their faith (e.g., salvation, forgiveness, the Spirit-filled life and how to study God’s Word)? Are they sharing their faith?

  4. How many weeks should the group run? You will want to make it long enough for the relationships to gel and yet short enough that non-Christians coming to investigate the study won’t feel overwhelmed. You can start in the range of six to eight weeks and make adjustments after three weeks.
     

How Small Groups Can Spread the Gospel

Sometimes we make the mistake of simply wanting our small groups to grow because larger numbers seem better. But a group can grow and still never see a single person come to Christ. And often, Christians only invite other Christians, never considering bringing their non-Christian friends. Beware of this trap, and be sure to consider those who don’t know Christ yet as you invite others.

The article “Small Groups That Reach Out: Why It’s Better When You Help Others” has more information about continuing to have an outward-focused mindset as your group progresses.

Size Range for an Effective Small Group

A small group needs to have at least three people in it. But when does a small group become too large? The answer to that question depends on how well you can meet these important goals:

  • Everyone can participate.

  • Learning takes place through dialogue.

  • People listen and help each other.

Usually, this becomes difficult when a group has 10 or more people.

Multiplication Through Apprentices and Co-Leaders

The apostle Paul was skilled at developing leaders to continue the work of ministry. His words reveal the priority he placed on developing other leaders: “You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2, New Living Translation).

In light of this verse, it is wise to have a co-leader you can work with or an apprentice who can learn from you.

Your prayer should be that your small group would grow to the point that you need to divide into two groups, with your co-leader or apprentice taking on the new group.

Welcoming Others

You’ll most likely have Christians in your group, but it’s important to invite and welcome people who don’t yet have a relationship with God to join you as well.

See how they can be an important part of your small group, and how you can create an environment where anyone can come and feel safe to explore faith.


Details, Details, Details

Location

Location is key to creating a comfortable, welcoming environment.

Think about whom you want to invite and what location would be best for them. For example, if you want people who don’t follow Jesus to come, a church may not be the best location to meet.

Having people over to your home (or another group member’s home) can be a good way to create a comfortable environment.

Look for a location close to most of the group members that is easy for people to find and has adequate parking or access to public transportation.

Time

In general, aim to meet for at least one hour but no more than two. Honor your time commitments, especially your commitment to an end time. People have other things to do, and you should avoid (at all costs) becoming the “on-and-on-and-on” group.

You can use your phone throughout the meeting to make sure you’re on track.

Inviting People to the First Meeting

First impressions are critical. When people walk into a small group setting for the first time, they often ask three questions (usually subconsciously):

  • Do I like these people?

  • Do these people like me?

  • Do I like what this group is about?

Work hard to give people a positive experience. You can’t please everyone, but ask God for wisdom in showing love and hospitality.

If you are inviting people who aren’t Christians, be clear about what you will be discussing. Don’t mislead them into thinking that you’ll just be hanging out and then suddenly pull out a Bible and say, “Hey, let’s all look at the Bible... ” It will probably be the last time you see them there.

If you are inviting people you don’t personally know (like from a sign-up sheet or contact card), try to personally meet and invite them. If you won’t naturally see them, you can call or text them instead. Be sure to introduce yourself and explain how you got their names and numbers.


Time to Prepare

The Importance of Planning

Don’t wing your small group meetings. Leaders who don’t plan are ultimately more stressed and can hinder the group’s growth. You can lead a great discussion without a lot of prep, but you need a deliberate plan to discuss and apply the Bible.

Choosing Your Content

For new small groups, it’s always good to focus on the fundamentals of the Christian faith that can benefit everyone, wherever they are spiritually.

Choose a Bible study that is written and structured with a focus on Christ and a goal of heart change— not simply behavior change.

Check out our Bible studies page.

Preparing Everything Else

Sometimes we think, “I’ve prepared the passage, I’m ready to go.” Yet there is more to leading a successful small group than what you study. Your job as the leader is to cultivate an environment with the crucial elements of a small group, where relationships will grow between you, the group members and God.

Icebreakers

Icebreakers can help the group open up, build trust and get in the mood for a deeper discussion.

Choose one that will lead you into your discussion in that day’s study or one that’s just fun. Just make sure it will help the members of the group to get to know one another. Never underestimate the value of this part of the study.

Prayer

Prayer can be the glue that holds a small group together or it can be a barrier that keeps people out.

On the one hand, the intimate things that are often shared in a prayer time can draw people together. On the other hand, prayer can be a hurdle for the people new to or exploring Christianity. Feeling pressure to pray out loud (which can happen even if you don’t ask them to) can make people not want to return to a study.

Be sensitive to where people are. Lead by example and invite people to pray in short sentences if they want to. Don’t ever force anyone to pray.

For more ideas on how you can incorporate prayer in your group, check out “How to Lead a Prayer Meeting.”

Snacks

Snacks are a nice addition to a study. But don’t let them prevent you from thoroughly preparing your content! If preparing snacks is a burden for you, buy them, skip them or, better yet, involve others in the group in the responsibility!


Countdown to Kickoff

One Week or a Few Days Before the First Meeting

  1. Make sure you have contacted all group members and that they know when, where and at what time the group is, as well as a little of what they can expect from the group.

  2. Prepare the content of your lesson and go through it yourself. Become familiar with the content. Read “How to Prepare an Effective Small Group Lesson” to learn more.

  3. Prepare to lead or guide the lesson. It is one thing to study the lesson yourself; it is another thing to lead it. Read “How to Guide a Meaningful Group Discussion” for tips on leading the discussion part of your small group.

  4. Pray for those coming. Ask God for wisdom about how He wants to work in their lives.
     

Two Days Before Your Small Group

  1. Contact group members to remind them of the time and place. Be sure to let them know you are glad they are coming. Make sure they have your phone number.

  2. Plan a good icebreaker to help group members start building relationships. An icebreaker is something that gets each group member talking and sharing early on. Choose one that works for any number of people. Check out some ideas for icebreakers.

  3. Plan the specifics for your meeting. You have a limited amount of time to build relationships, cover content and pray. What portion of the time do you want to spend on each aspect? Different levels of spiritual maturity among members will dictate different amounts of time for each part, and the balance of time will likely be different as the group grows and its members get to know one another.

  4. Pick up some refreshments. The first few weeks can be awkward as people get to know one another. There is nothing like a good snack to get people comfortable, loosened up and talking. Make it easy on yourself and buy something prepared.
     

Thirty Minutes Before Your Small Group

  1. Be there early to review the lesson.
     

  2. Pray for your time and your group members, and ask the Lord to give you the ability to lead well.
     

  3. Turn your phone to vibrate to reduce the distractions (but keep it on in case someone gets lost and tries to call you).
     

  4. Make sure there are plenty of comfortable seats.
     

  5. Set out snacks.
     

  6. Send out last minute reminder texts to people.
     

Conducting Your First Meeting

Begin by introducing people to one another. Don’t delay. Start with your icebreaker and then transition into your study. Be sure to end promptly.

In the first meeting, focus on building relationships. That’s not to say you should minimize the Bible, but if the people in the group don’t know each other, it’s important that they learn more about each other. Read “How to Build Community in Your Small Group” for ideas on how to continue to build community over time.

Read “Your First Group Meeting” for more tips.
 

After the First Meeting

  1. Call the group members and ask them how things are going. Ask them specifics about the things they shared in the group.

  2. Serve them. If someone in the group expressed a need, try to meet it — a ride to a job interview, a meal on a hectic day, a call to follow up a prayer request, etc.

  3. Do something fun. Meet people for lunch, sit with them at church, or greet them with a cup of coffee.

  4. Evaluate how it went and make any necessary changes before the next week.
     

Evaluate Your Meeting

  1. How did you see God at work during the meeting? Take time to thank Him for all He did.

  2. Did everyone show up?

    • Did people who had expressed interest but didn’t show up contact you before or after the meeting to tell you why?
    • Is there anything you can do to help more people come in the future?
    • If people forgot, you could call them an hour before.
    • If the time/place isn’t convenient for multiple people who are interested, could you change it?
       
  3. Were you prepared? Did you feel confident and at ease?

  4. Did you have an attitude of expectancy? Were you prepared for everyone who came?

  5. Did you create a warm atmosphere? Did people seem comfortable? (Some people may feel awkward regardless of how welcoming you are, but if most people seemed relaxed and open, that’s a good indication you created a good environment).

  6. What other adjustments do you need to make?
     

Plan the Next Few Meetings

Icebreakers

Choose an icebreaker for each meeting. Choose icebreakers that will work for both small and large groups. Choose activities that will help people get to know each other but won’t feel intrusive for people who may not feel comfortable opening up right away.

Content

You want your content to have continuity, but you also want each lesson to be able to stand alone if someone misses a meeting or someone new comes. Don’t discourage your group members by making them feel lost if they didn’t make a previous meeting.

At the same time, having a theme or a topic for several weeks in a row can help the group feel more consistent. One idea is to stick to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, which will be accessible to everyone.

If you are working with predetermined content, such as questions based on weekly sermons or a book, make sure that anyone who comes can still participate in the discussion. If someone didn’t hear the sermon or didn’t read the chapter, give a summary at the beginning or write up a summary and give everyone a few minutes to read it before the discussion. Be sure to explain anything that may not be clear during the discussion, such as quotations or references.

Small groups can be a great opportunity for members to invite friends, but group members may not feel comfortable inviting people if guests will have to listen to a sermon or read a chapter from a book to participate.


One Final Thought

Remember that the goal of leading a small group is changed lives. How does God usually do this? Memorize this verse: “Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, New American Standard Bible).

It’s easy to meet and simply discuss information with others, but that’s not the goal. You must be willing to demonstrate God’s love to the people in your group. Be ready for people to share the messy parts of their lives as well as the polished parts. This is the true hard work of leading a small group, but it is the most rewarding part as well.

May God bless your labor. May it be to His glory and His glory alone.


Next Steps

Now that you’ve mapped the strategy for your group:

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