Mini Group Methodology
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While I have long believed in the simplicity of the Christian life, I was recently reminded of this principal yet again by the great teacher. So, through a combination of my desire for further spiritual development personally and a desire to help create a solid foundation for a current church plant, I’ve been researching a lot recently. I’ve investigated prayer, Bible study, small groups, and other topics searching for two things. A) How can I take my spiritual life to the next level? and B) How can we best help new people and a new church grow? Interestingly, the answer turned out to be the same for both areas, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is famous for a certain team meeting statement. Surrounded by athletes each paid for their football skill, he held a football high above his head so that each player could see it. With all eyes on him, he simply said: “Gentlemen, this is a football.” This quote has been used ever since in sports, business and elsewhere as a rally cry to get back to the basics. In my search for both the next level and a good foundation, God gave me several “this is a football” moments.
One often overlooked concept that can lead people to rally around the wrong things is this: God meets people where they are. This is something that is often praiseworthy during worship and then forgotten during teaching.
Christian books regardless of subject (prayer, Bible study, discipleship, etc.) often site examples of their prescribed method in action. Some group or some church that implemented a specific new prayer regiment, outreach program, or the like - and how they met with great success. Not there is anything wrong with these examples - we all certainly expect a book’s described method to have worked somewhere before pen hit paper. However, in reading many separate works you will discover a common thread in the background of all of these diverse examples from different authors: Regardless of the strategy, method, or principal being applied they all involved a group of people that set out to intentionally pursue God more fully and deeply. The method or principal was simply the framework within which they choose to do it.
Now this is where people go astray. After pursuing God with their best efforts and finding him (with whatever method they choose) they believe that since they found God that there, so will everyone else. Again this is not to discourage the use of this or that method. If you have found a way to pursue God - carry on! Just don’t expect everyone to find your method as effective as you did.
Now I must quickly clarify something here lest I be misunderstood. In our discussion here, “finding God” refers to growing in your knowledge about and relationship with the God King. We are not discussing multiple “paths” to making ourselves right with God. This is discussed in greater detail in other places.
Something God taught me one day while training in Guatemala for a triathlon in the US - it is more important to find Spiritual Truth that applies everywhere - not just to a certain socio-economic group. It must be true in America and Guatemala, in Russia and China, in red States and blue States, with rich people and poor people, with smart people and dumb people… you get the idea. If your method or principal is not universal or transferable to other groups it’s not really that important. That is not to say that it is not of any value, but perhaps it is not of as great a value as some would think.
The advantage of a “back to basics” approach is that the basics are just that: basic. The fundamental building blocks of the Christian life are vital to all Christians: young or old, mature or not, regardless of country, culture or socio-economic position.
Mini Group Methodology
This method is all about a “this is a football” return to the basics of Christianity. Thankfully Jesus summed up the law and the prophets for us:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40
Combine this with the two most basic spiritual disciplines - the Bible and prayer - and you have the four foundations of Christianity. These bedrock principals were turned into a handy “cheat sheet” for small group use.
Small groups have long be proven in the church to be powerful force in spiritual growth. These groups are modeled after Jesus’ example with his disciples. Yes, Jesus often preached to the masses and even to a larger group of disciples (this is from whom they selected Judas’ replacement), but he spent the most time with his twelve chosen apostles and even more so with a select three: Peter, James, and John. Practical church application has discovered the truth of these numbers. Somewhere between 12 and 15 people the dynamics of a group change and a certain level of closeness can not be maintained. Also at a deeper level, intimacy and time constraints make it incredibly difficult to maintain a mini group beyond 3-4 people.
Please realize that this methodology is designed to be foundational and therefore it is best applied in a mini group setting. It is also not meant to be all encompassing either. But I believe that there are many people today are growing increasingly frustrated as they try to learn advanced topics before the basics. To use a math example, we are focusing on new ways to teach and learn multivariable calculus when we have yet to master our multiplication tables. Obviously we need to move beyond the basics, but if we don’t have those down - we should only expect disaster as we move to more “advanced” areas.
Seriously, across the country churches are struggling to teach deeper methods of prayer to people that don’t pray at all (except to avoid some imminent problem). People are told to “watch out” for sin without any accountability or support. Many Christians own three Bibles or more, and haven’t opened any of them in the past month. Meanwhile, churches are desperate for more godly men and women to put into leadership positions (such as small group leaders) to help the needy masses that threaten to overwhelm them.
Now, imagine for a moment if even 60% of your church membership was fulfilling these 4 basic principals. They were pursuing God and sharing their successes and failures with a few others doing the same. They were reaching out to love people both inside and outside the church. They were reading an entire book of the Bible each week. And they were praying about something beyond their meals - daily. What would that church look like? Do you think that might change the atmosphere there? Might others be curious about the change? How do you think the church’s search of qualified leaders would change?
Alright enough background, here are the principals boiled down to the simplest terms possible. The cheat sheet lists the four foundation principals as well as a few generalized questions to help facilitate mini group discussion.
- Follow Jesus Christ
This is listed first to remind us where God is supposed to be in our lives and that its the greatest command. (While the 2nd greatest command follows, the other numberings have less significance, as prayer is four because it goes on the back of the card and the bible therefore must be number 3).
Loving God is a directive that many find vague. “How do I love God?” Jesus said “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). Now how can we know the will of God? Well two good ways include the following: we can read his word (see # 3) and speak with him directly (see # 4).
Practical experience has born out that people have a markedly different reaction between “God” and “Jesus”. Using Jesus here removes loophole without losing anything as Jesus points out that “he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). And finally the early church actually referred to themselves as “followers of the way” (another name for Jesus as there were actually many whom claimed to be “the Christ” during those times). Obviously there is an element on conversion contained within this principal as you it is difficult to follow someone you don’t know.
- Love Others.
Unlike the potential problems with the how to’s of loving in # 1 I think its actually helpful here. I think that “love” can vary widely both by circumstances and by the spiritual depth of the group members. While many people struggle with how to “love god” (how terrorists love and serve their god come to mind) I think most people know how to love other people (at least at a significantly higher level than they are operating at now) we just generally don’t want to or simply can’t. When Jesus told people to love their neighbors no one asked what he meant by love… they asked who’s my neighbor (I.E. How large a group of others are we talking about here, Jesus?).
We should remember to love both people inside and people outside the church (as I’ve seen people forget either of these groups) and that often times to truly love some people some times - we need a healthy dose of God to pull it off.
Obviously part of loving others is sharing the good news, but I think you will find these core methods assist greatly in that area. I can assure you that if you are pursuing God, loving those around you and seeped in the word and prayer - it will have a positive impact on your life. At that point the “good news” shifts from an awkward track presentation to simply sharing what’s transforming your own life with others: “hey, I tried this, and it works”.
- Read 4+ Bible Chapters A Day.
This is an adaptation of Neil Cole’s work in this area. If you want more info on mini groups, he makes a persuasive case for his “life transformation groups” in several of his books including Organic Church (aimed at church leaders), and Search & Rescue (aimed at everyone), though such reading is not necessary to begin a mini group. One of the fundamental principals of mini groups is that they are simple enough to be transferable - that is no “training” is required. I had already discovered this method on my own with the help of the Spirit (and after countless trial and error), but reading his additional experiences with it was helpful validation of its effectiveness. You can read his book if you like, or you could try reading the Bible for the same amount of time you would otherwise spend reading his arguments and discover: it works.
The problem with Bible reading in the church today is that we expect the same miraculous results we desire in exercise. We long for that magic device that will keep us fit and trim in just minutes a day (or a week) without breaking a sweat. The same is true for the Bible. We read a verse or a parable or a story now and again - and wait. Nothing really changes and we dismiss the power of this very unique book. This is like someone running for a few minutes as his daily exercise, then after a few weeks dismissing “running” as an effective way to get into shape.
Neil’s practical experience has shown that most people will see results with about 4 chapters per day average. And we both agree on this: while more than four is great, less than four is ill-advised. Like exercise, if you aren’t doing enough to get a real workout - your wasting your time because the results will be too small to notice and you will soon give up. Also like exercise, you will see better results with a consistent approach: 4 a day is better than 28 crammed into the last day of the week.
Beyond the 4/day, you need little more instruction. Pick a book of the Bible with your group to read each week. Many books like Matthew and Acts are the perfect length for this. Longer books like Psalms can be broken up into 28ish Chapter chunks for each week. Other shorter books are read repeatedly to maintain the 4/day level (Ephesians for instance would be read five times). Extremely short books like 2nd or 3rd John should usually be combined with another short book (otherwise you would need to read 3rd John 4x per day). The repetition is very useful. So much so that your group may decide to repeat longer books for a few successive weeks to obtain the additional insights discovered in the repetition of shorter books.
No you will not unlock every spiritual secret this way - at times you will have questions that require assistance from other mature believers - but the Holy Spirit is an excellent teacher and you will learn much more than you could ever imagine:
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. John 14:26
Because the large volume of scripture is read in the context of an entire book, serious biblical misinterpretations are much more difficult than in studies that may focus on as little as a sentence or two - or even forgo direct Bible references entirely. This fact coupled with the guiding discussion questions, allows mini groups to function without a “leader”. Leaders require training, mini groups require willing participants. Anyone in the mini group can “lead” by reading the questions on their card.
There are a LOT of books on prayer and a lot of ways to pray Biblically. I thought it best to get out of the way here. I did label the first two lines as “souls” to underscore the need to be praying for the lost in our call to make disciples (see the Christian Cheat Sheet). Beyond that it seemed like I would quickly be suggesting a style/type/message of prayer. And finally this links back to # 2’s loving people outside the church.
Christian Cheat Sheet
Beyond these principals, I listed a few discussion questions for the mini group. These questions are not the end all be all questions. They are merely suggestions. Change them or add to them if others can serve you better.
However, an effort was made to keep them broad for the sake of simplicity (fewer questions) and to minimize the chances of them becoming a legalistic “spiritual measuring stick”. The goal was also for the cheat sheet to fit on a half sheet of paper that could folded in half to create a two sided “card” that could be left inside your Bible. You can download a free PDF with this cheat sheet and description at ChristianCheatSheet.com
Follow Jesus Christ.
- How have you seen God at work in your life this week?
- What sin have you struggled with this week?
- How has God helped you loved someone inside or outside the church this week?
Read 4+ Bible Chapters A Day.
- Did you finish the reading?
- What did you learn?
- Were you able to apply it in your life?
(no questions, just several blank lines for your prayer list on back of card)
Expect many of your answers to not always be “good”. Remember we are pursuing God here, not obtaining perfection. Also don’t expect soul baring at first. Trust and intimacy take time to become established. At the same time, these groups and questions are meant to stretch you. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t expect the results.
While discipleship experts list a host of criteria for group selection, they boil down to two points. Choose group members wisely and participants must want to participate. Much like choosing friends, in selection of your mini group members, wisdom can save you a lot of heartache. This is not, however, to imply that only “good” people should be allowed into your mini group. Christ’s discipleship example was quite the opposite and so should ours:
And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17
He later points out why “sinners” make much better disciples than the “righteous” in his parable about the two debtors:
“A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Luke 7:41-43
Also, just like you can’t make someone want to lose weight and get in shape - you can’t make someone want to grow spirituality. In fact, Dale Carnegie points out in How to Win Friends & Influence People, that people won’t do anything that they don’t want to do! (He admits you can make some want to do something by pointing a gun at them, but that is not a lasting method.)
While this foundational methodology is quite simple - it is not easy. Be honest about the requirements up front and you will have much more willing participants to deal with. One other quick thing to note is that due to the intimate nature of some of the group questions, mini groups should not be co-ed.
While it is not easy it is effective. Which means your group will grow in numbers through a combination of evangelism and “spiritual jealousy”. The group’s focus on loving others, praying for the lost, and actual positive life changes that will you want to share with others, will draw in new believers to the group. The marked changes in your group’s lives and overall spiritual growth will draw existing believers to the group. This leads us to multiplication.
As previously stated, these groups work best as mini groups (2-4 people). As your group adds new members, you will need to multiply to maintain this group size. So once your mini group adds its fourth committed member (the new member is consistently coming to mini group, answering discussion questions, and completing the reading) it should get ready to split into two groups of two.
Life circumstances change and schedules change, so members may split off or a group might end due to such events. Once you have established this practice around you, however, it is easy to add those displaced members into one of the other mini groups meeting from the same small group, church, school, ministry etc.
Lastly remember this is a spiritual foundation to build on. Foundations are very important but they aren’t the entire building.