The following was written by Larry Baxter at his blog Step Up to the Call. He has some good thoughts on how to build a sense of community in a small group.
We often stress the importance of relationships and building community within small groups, but what does that look like? Having socials or getting together outside of group time are good ways to start, but how can we move beyond socialization towards biblical community? Recently one of the small group leaders at my church saw three members of her small group get baptized together. I had been hearing good things about this group, but was blown away by this expression of fellowship, and so I asked her what she or group members were doing to develop such a strong sense of community. Several exciting things stood out in talking with her...
1. Intentional about being relational - The group studies good materials, but they're far more interested in growing in their relationship to God and with each other. The agenda sometimes goes out the window to meet the needs of the group members in a given week. Several people coming are brand new to small groups. Not only have they not been pressured about attendance or sharing/praying in group time, they've been explicitly told that it's fine to participate at whatever level they are comfortable. (So often as group leaders we want to push people rapidly towards being more committed disciples. God is patient.)
2. Intentional about being a safe place to ask questions - The group leader takes a few minutes during most meetings to talk about what is going on in the life of the church. People are free to ask the "why" behind what we do, and get good answers. So talking about a special baptism day was very natural for them, not a big pitch.
3. Intentional about outreach. This is one of our largest small groups. The group members really love getting together, and have taken it upon themselves to ask just about every new person they see to come to their small group. There are many young adult couples, many without a Baptist background, and several have never really thought about being baptized. By talking about it both in the group and one-on-one, they were able to get over any concerns or fears they had - and having a friend getting baptized at the same time made it far easier to take that step.
4. Intentional about spiritual growth - this group leader had already spent some quality time with one of the women considering baptism, without any agenda. This did help build trust, and also allowed her to be comfortable asking her friend to consider baptism. Sometimes as leaders we do need to "make the ask" and encourage people to take a next step as a disciple; this is best done when we know each other as individuals.
5. Intentional about distributed responsibility for ministry - one cool thing that happened was that a fourth group member was the 'baptism helper', walking the others through the process and making sure they had clean towels! The attitude of the group leader was for people to genuinely care for and serve one another, and not for the group to be dependent on her, or let others do all the serving or caring.
6. Group responsibility for building community - the whole group owns this, it's not the leader's job; that was one of the most encouraging parts of our conversation. The group leader really didn't feel like she had done anything too special to "push" community, rather she fostered an environment where community arose organically.
As I've been reading and discussing Joseph Myers' book "Organic Community", I'm seeing more clearly the difference between being intentional (having a purpose and encouraging things you hope to see) vs. being prescriptive (defining a purpose for someone else and telling them what they must do to get there). I think that being intentional, and being strategic in a flexible way, is tremendously important for healthy small groups, for building community, and for making disciples,
If you're a small group leader, is there something you might want to consider about being more intentional, more relational, or more organic, as you shepherd your group and help them to become more fully devoted followers or Christ? (Part two will share the story of another group growing in community, and Part three a few things I'm learning from these leaders.)