Pillars of a Healthy Small Group

By Dr. Jason Snyder

One of the most vital Great Commission ministries for any church is the small-group ministry. At Prestonwood we employ a “Sunday School” model we call Bible Fellowship. Our classes meet after Worship Service on Saturdays and before Worship Services on Sundays. This enables our members to move from worship to Bible Fellowship or from Bible Fellowship to worship with a group of people who are in a similar stage of life.

As with any ministry, it is essential that you tailor your small groups to fit not only your church’s core values and mission, but also to fulfill the Great Commission: to reach the lost, to plug them into our church community, and to help them learn to walk with Christ. Allan Taylor states, “[the small-group ministry] is the church organized to do the work of the Great Commission…. It is imperative the main objective … be reaching the lost and unchurched people.”[1]

With that in mind, our goal should always be to find the sweet spot of relevant ministry where people are growing in their faith, finding themselves closer to Jesus, choosing to be transformed on a daily basis and sharing their faith in their sphere of influence. Therefore, every small-group ministry should be built on a delicate balance between two primary foundation stones. The first stone is the Word of God. Without the study of God’s Word, the small group quickly becomes just a warm, fuzzy, group-therapy session. Scripture provides focus, discussion, growth and a pathway to know God better. Secondly, the group should focus on the needs of group members. Without this foundation stone, the group likely becomes a study of endless facts separated from life application. When a delicate balance of both foundation stones is reached, relevant ministry takes off and people grow in their relationships with Christ and each other. Constructed upon this foundation are the three pillars of a healthy small group.

Pillar 1: Help People Understand the Christian Worldview, and How to Live by That Worldview

First, we must help people understand the Christian worldview, and how to live by that worldview. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul states, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9, ESV). Desire to see your small-group members filled with the knowledge of God, understanding it and putting it into action. Again Paul states, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28, ESV).

A point of clarification—I’m not suggesting that biblical knowledge is the barometer of Christian maturity. I believe you can know a great deal theologically and still be dramatically immature. However, when you tether biblical knowledge, application and orthodox thinking, you will likely see maturity begin to seep out of your small groups. As a quick appraisal of your ministry, ask these questions:

  • Are my people thirstier for God than ever before (Psalm 42:1)?
  • Are my people more and more loving (1 John 4:7)?
  • Are my people more and more influenced by God’s Word (1 Timothy 3:16–17)?
  • Are my people becoming more patient in tribulation (Romans 12:12)?
  • Are my people more generous with their time, talents and treasures (2 Corinthians 9:11)?
  • Are my people more dependent on prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?
  • Are my people more and more concerned with the needs of others (Luke 19:1)?
  • Are my people more and more willing to forgive others (Ephesians 4:32)?

Pillar 2: Relationships

The second pillar is relationships. You cannot have a healthy small group if people don’t enjoy spending time with one another. Scripture is replete with passages that encourage believers to think of others more highly than we think of ourselves, to treat each other with respect, and to love our brothers and sisters as Christ has loved us (e.g., Romans 12:3–5; 9–21). A great way to gauge whether healthy relationships are flourishing is to observe the beginning and end of a small-group gathering. Are people engaging one another in conversation? Do you hear laughter? Are people meeting with one another socially outside of the group? Do visitors feel welcome in the small group and do they return?

Pillar 3: Authenticity

Finally, we’ll call the third pillar authenticity. If your small-group ministry is going to soar, there must be an honesty and openness that permeates your group’s culture. Unfortunately, many people feel they have to put on a mask to shroud their pains, disappointments, frustrations, immaturities, sinful desires and emotions when they engage in a church setting. Wrongfully so, they feel as though an authentic display would yield judgment, ridicule and rejection. However, when people feel that they can be real without fear of what others will say, then you have a group that will ascend the summit of effectiveness. Make no mistake; authenticity is a magnet to people who desire to grow in their walk with Christ.

I believe that relevant ministry begins when we strike a keen balance between the foundations of God’s Word and our people’s needs. Then, when the foundations are linked to right thinking, engaging relationships, and true authenticity, I believe you’ll have a ministry poised to grow. However, as ministers and ministry leaders, we must rely on the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us in this endeavor. Without His personal touch, our ministry won’t be able to reach its redemptive potential.

Now, if the above happens to be aspirational to your ministry and you are wondering what practical steps you can take to get you where you need to be, here are suggestions to get you started.

  1. Use the information above to provide intentional training for your current and future small-group leaders. Remember, vision does not have natural permanence; vision leaks, and you’ll need to consistently remind your leaders what is most important.
  2. Purpose to start new groups with your church’s unique DNA. New groups grow the fastest and multiplication is vital to your ministry’s success.
  3. Ensure your small-group ministry has a cohesive teaching plan. Unity in strategy is often linked to unity in instruction.
  4. Most importantly, pray! Ask God to give you the wisdom, courage and guidance to lead your people toward growth. I guarantee He’ll do it!

[1] Allan Taylor, The Six Core Values of Sunday School: A Philosophical, Practical, & Passionate Approach to Sunday School (Canton, GA: Riverstone Group, 2003), 14.

Dr. Jason Snyder serves as the Minister to Adults at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonwsnyder.