(In response to a discussion, about what we like in a church, which Lu and I have been having, on her blog, here.)
The small group that I’m part of, through my church, is a highlight of my life these days. Maybe it’s just some magic or chemistry coming from the people who are involved, or maybe it’s a special blessing from God, but I think a lot of the appeal comes from some simple aspects of the way the whole thing is set up.
I’ve been in groups where I learned more or was challenged more or was known more. Many people prefer groups that ask more of the participants, or that are limited by age group, marital status, gender, etc. So I don’t want to say this is the ultimate model. But it’s a good one, and I wish more churches had small groups that ran this way. They would be a lot more fun.
Here are some “distinctives” of the approach:
- GOOD TIME TO MEET: We don’t meet on a “school night,” but get together, instead, a couple of Fridays a month. With the work week over and the weekend stretching out ahead our time together feels unbounded. We always have some kind of wrap up at 9:30 so people who are busy or tired know they are free to go, but we can (and often do) stay and hang out late.
The frequency is right, too: We used to meet the first three Fridays of the month (taking off the fourth, and fifth if there is one). Now it’s just the first and third Fridays of the month – not quite enough for me, but I’m the only one without a family.
- GOOD PLACE TO MEET: We meet in the home of the host couple. It’s a comfortable, conveniently located place that’s just the right mix of architectural openness and separateness to facilitate mingling. There’s a big dining room, nice kitchen, comfy living room, and a basement where the kids can hang out.
- FOOD AND FELLOWSHIP: Our time together starts with hanging out in the kitchen finishing dinner prep, chatting, and waiting for people to arrive. Often we have chips and salsa. Then we sit down to a meal together. The casual environment of the meal is great for facilitating catch-up and conversation. Taking turns helping with the meal also provides a way for everyone to participate fairly often, without burdening anyone.
- CONTACT THROUGHOUT THE WEEK: Organizing the meal requires email communication in the couple of days before we meet. It's a small way of keeping up with what’s going on with each, sharing words of encouragement, and letting us know who is going to make it or not.
- WELCOMING AND INCLUSIVE: The group is open to new people or visitors at any time. If anyone new has come, as we transition from the dining room to the living room we pass out copies of the sheet the leaders wrote up describing what our group is about and how it works, and we all walk through it together. This helps people know what to expect and sets them at ease.
- WORSHIP AND PRAYER: Next, someone passes out song sheets and hits play on the stereo, and we sing and worship along with a CD. This is much simpler than many other approaches, but just as effective.
After a couple of songs we go straight into corporate prayer. This group loves to pray and is comfortable praying together, so we skip “sharing requests” or making plans for who will pray for what. We don't have to talk about it, we just do it. Dinner and email conversation gave us enough insight into how everyone is. We can always pray again if someone has something they want to share and explain to the whole group.
- STUDY AND DISCUSSION: It was unanimous, we wanted this to be a group with no homework. What we usually do is read something together and discuss it. The couple that leads the group – both teachers, which probably helps – have a large collection of pencils, pens, and highlighters, and they will have photocopied a section from whatever book we’re studying (or a section from the scriptures) as well as preparing sort of an agenda for the evening so everyone can see where we’re going with it.
One introduces the topic and leads us in discussing a related question, while the other makes and brings out the coffee. Then, individually, we read some or all of the chapter, and discuss what we’ve read. The first book from which we studied excerpts was 21 Most Effective Prayers of the Bible. We didn't have to agree with everything in the book or with each other, but it gave us a good focus.
Making the copies and coming up with discussion questions involves some work for the leaders, but it’s nice for those who come to be relieved of the small burdens of buying the book and bringing it each week as well as reading ahead and organizing their thoughts. We just all do it together.