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Defining Small Groups

What is a Small Group? A micro-community of 3 to 12 Jesus followers doing the Christian life deeply together. The roles and activities of small groups tend to fall into four quadrants: theological, relational, restorational, and missional.

Defining a small group is a difficult task. Over the last 20 or so years, variations on the theme have become norm. The information in this article unveils the basics of a biblically-driven small group - those things that should be consistent in any group type.

A simple definition of a small group is: "A micro-community of 3 to 12 Jesus followers doing the Christian life deeply together." If honesty and vulnerability are necessary for spiritual growth, group dynamics would tell us that the levels of transparency that make this possible won't happen if the group is made up of more than 12 or less than 3 individuals.

"Doing the Christian life deeply together" can be seen in the practices of some of the first believers, following Pentecost, as outlined in Acts 2:42-47. Included in this list are: 1) devotion to living out what they learned from studying God's Word together ("the apostles' teaching); 2) devotion to doing life together ("fellowship" or koinonia); 3) eating together and/or partaking of the Lord's Supper together ("the breaking of bread"); 4) wholehearted, faith-centered prayer that brought about the miracles seen throughout the book of Acts; and 5) meeting one another's needs even when it meant giving up something substantial of their own: "Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need" (Acts 2:44-45).

Small groups, unlike straightforward Bible studies, make disciples through the utilization of and processing of God's story as it intersects with our stories. When an individual joins a micro-community of believers, that person involves herself/himself in the gaining and processing of biblical knowledge in community and utilizes Scripture to get to know a complex God and to understand life in relationship with Him. This is what I call "experiential discipleship." Examples of experiential discipleship in action include experiencing a "dark night of the soul" season and processing that time of life through the lens of Scripture with a group of fellow journeyers; dealing with the heartbreak of a broken relationship and processing with others the pain in light of God's Word as it speaks to grief, loss, and ultimate victory; or facing failure and working through it as group members share their stories and together you look at examples from Scripture.

But experiential discipleship isn't just about darkness, missteps, and failure. Small groups encourage one another, celebrate life's accomplishments together, observe traditions together, and rejoice together when God answers their prayers. A biblical small group knows and does 1 Corinthians 12:26, "If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it."

For high levels of connection and vulnerability to take place it's important that larger "small" groups either purposefully or organically form groups within the group. Sub-grouping (think: breaking groups of 12 into multiple groups of 3) will enhance the levels of intimacy and vulnerability. The smaller the group the more open the conversation. Some groups, especially multi-gender groups, might send men to one room and women to another room at some point during the meeting for accountability and/or prayer. For many groups, sub-group formation happens naturally among people whose chemistry sparks a relationship. Often those people will gather together separate from the meeting times. I can't help but think how this mimic's Jesus' model. He had His 12, and He had His 3.

The roles and activities of small groups tend to fall into four quadrants: theological, relational, restorational, and missional. Here's how that breaks down.


    Through studying Scripture group members learn out about God's character and His expectations and allow the Bible to speak into the activities and actions of the group as a whole.


    Those involved learn to embrace interdependency (an "I need you and you need me" mind-set) and put away dangerous childlike dependency (an "I can't survive on my own, I must have you in my life to take care of me" mind-set), as well as a teenage-like independency (an "I don't need anyone else. I can do everything by myself" mind-set).


    Through His power and healthy Christian community, God wants to redeem the pain our personal history has caused us and restore in us the joy and peace He promises: "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of our God's vengeance; to comfort all who mourn" (Isaiah 61:1-2).


    Small groups are on mission to meet the needs of the hurting in the name of Jesus, to share with non-believers what Jesus can and wants to do to bring them into a relationship with Him, and to be involved in making the gospel known to all nations: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

    Rick Howerton travels around the country as consultant and trainer to teach churches how to build small-group ministries. He is founding pastor of The Bridge Church in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Rick has authored Destination: Community - A Small-Group Ministry Manual from Serendipity House, and is co-author of Small Group Life Ministry Manual: A New Approach to Small Groups. He and his wife, Julie, make their home in Franklin, Tennessee.