When people gather together in a small group for Bible study the thing that often happens first and most naturally is fellowship among the people in the group. When people gather together they naturally start to get to know each other and build relationships among each other. However, that fellowship needs to be biblical. And if a small group facilitator is not careful to cultivate and maintain biblical fellowship, that can cause issues further down the road in the small group. In this post I show you can maintain biblical fellowship in your small group.
Photo Credit: WELSTech Podcast
Fellowship is “the dynamic that builds and holds a small group together”
Neal McBride, How To Lead Small Groups, p. 25
I. ACCORD: THE “COVENANT OF LOVE”
(serious about loving each other) 1
The Covenant of Love is a document that our church has our small groups read and complete every fall. It is an “agreement” that the group makes among members for how to experience biblical community. I explain more about the Covenant of Love below.
A. Why We Do the Covenant of Love
In the book, How to Lead Small Groups, Neal McBride describes the ten reasons that small groups fail and terminate. One of those reasons is that “a covenant has not been secured” (p. 55). So with that, let’s talk about why our church uses a “Covenant of Love” for our LIFEGroups ministry.
1. It helps the church have updated contact information for people in your group.
Our church does our best to collect the contact information for the people that attend church using the Keeping in Touch (KIT) card, but that doesn’t always work well. Our church might have someone’s name and address, but not a phone number. Or maybe someone has come to church for a while and never really filled out a KIT card. But he meets you, you notice he is new to church so you invite him to your group, he comes to your group and the church obtains his contact information through the small group.
Why does the church need people’s contact information? About a year or two ago one of our church members posted an update that his son was going to be having emergency surgery. Our senior pastor wanted to call and check in and see how things went, but there was no phone number in our church directory. So he drove up to the hospital only to discover that the surgery had already been done and that the father and his son had been sent home already.
Now, that all probably could have been avoided if we had a correct contact number for that father. He was in a LIFEGroup, but for whatever reason we did not have a phone number for him.
2. Give the names, phone numbers, and emails of all your group members to all your group members so they can stay in touch.
Furthermore, one of the things that you want to do in your small group is give your group roster out to everyone once or twice a year. You want your group to have contact information for everyone so that they can reach out to each other if there is a need for anything. Doing the Covenant of Love every fall helps you do this.
3. The Covenant of Love contains great governing principles that will help you have a healthy and strong small group.
Every small group training encourages the small groups to have a great “agreement” or “covenant.” Even if you purchase curriculum such as the Living on the Edge material by Chip Ingram, they will normally have a group agreement in the back of each study guide because they believe it is that important.
4. It is a tool to refer back to when there are problems and conflict.
When you encounter conflict and issues in your group that need to be addressed, the Covenant of Love is your guiding principles that you refer to and use to correct behavior and issues that you have been encountering in your small group.
B. What Is the Covenant of Love 2
1. Faithful – in attending both my small group and weekend worship at Rocky Hill CC; I understand this is faithfulness, not legalism. There are valid reasons that may come up which prohibit me from attending my small group or a weekend worship service at Rocky Hill CC.
We want people to be involved in a small group and to attend church on the weekend. We want our small groups ministry to compliment the weekend worship service, not to replace it.
At our church we want to make disciples. And to make disciples we believe there are three main things we want everyone to do to be a disciple: attend church on the weekend, be actively involved in a small group, and serve at church in some way.
Additionally, if someone does not show up to your group and no one has heard from that person, reach out to him or her with a phone call. It doesn’t even have to be you as the facilitator, but ask someone who might be able do that for you.
Steve Gladen in his book, Leading Small Groups with Purpose, writes “At Saddleback [Church] we ask group members to call the host (small group leader) whenever they are going to be late or absent. This encourages accountability and conveys the importance of the small group meeting. Don’t let members fail to attend meetings with no explanation at all. It is important to give grace for the many complications of life, but you also need to promote the importance of group attendance” (p. 100).
When you cover the Covenant of Love in your group most people will take it serious. For example, when my wife and I started a new group last year we covered the Covenant of Love the first night. Then later that week I got a call from one of the members saying she wasn’t sure if she should be part of the group because sometimes her daughter needs her to babysit on those nights. It sounded like this was not something that would happen very often (maybe once a month) so I told her that it would be perfectly okay to skip a few meetings here and there so that she could help out her daughter. The one thing I asked is if she could let me know when that happens.
2. Punctual – in arriving on time and leaving the small group on time; As with my faithfulness, I understand this not a legalistic punctuality. There are valid reasons that may arise which affect my arriving on time. “Better late than never” is still a truism.
I’ve not heard of this being a problem in a small group at our church, yet. It probably would be more important for groups that only meet once a month because there is a higher focus placed on that meeting.
If someone is regularly late it shows the rest of the group that they are not important. So, you might need to address this. Do it privately with a phone call. “Hey, I noticed you often arrive to our group late. Is everything okay with your life and work? Is something going on? . . . Okay, well is there something that is preventing you from arrive to small group on time?” This shows that you care for the person and that you want to make sure you don’t rush to a judgement. If the person responds that nothing really serious is going on then you need to say, “Okay, well when you arrive late it disrupts the group and tells everyone else that you do not respect them or their time. Please make an effort to arrive on time.”
3. Edifying – in building up and encouraging others in my small group; There will be times when I may be discouraged and need more building up by others, but I am committed to the overall encouragement of others, knowing uplifting others will also uplift me.
This is important because we want small groups to be a place that encourages people and builds them up. If someone comes to your group each week and leaves discouraged they won’t come back. Small groups need to be a place that people feel loved and accepted. And this is something that you as the facilitator have to model for your group. When that person in your group keeps talking or keeps making a big deal out of little things or makes the same comment over and over, your group needs to see you warmly welcoming and accepting that person.
When someone joins a small group we want them to know that things might not be going well in their lives, but the one thing that is going well is their small group. Their small group should be that one place that they feel welcomed and accepted, regardless of what is going on in their lives.
4. Open – in learning to be more transparent with others in my small group; I understand I will not be pressured to share anything in my life, nor will I pressure anyone else to share anything. Sharing will be encouraged, but never forced.
Some people are good at sharing and opening up, some are not. I struggle to open up and share and I always have. And, if there is a place that people can open up and share, it should be in your small group.
I believe it is important also, to know that people might open up about things in your small group and tell you about things going on in their life. If there ever is a question about whether or not one of the pastors of our church need to know, please tell us.
Furthermore, there will be times in your small group when people are sharing what is going on in their lives. And as the facilitator you might know more about some struggles that someone is having than the group does. Either that person has shared with you privately or maybe me as the Small Groups Pastor has told you. But, remember that you need to let people share their own struggles. Don’t say, “Hey I know you are struggling with this, let’s pray for you.” Always let people share their own struggles with the group on their own terms and time, don’t do it for them.
An example of this was a small group I led where the woman in the group was living with a man who was not her husband. She knew it was wrong and that the Bible taught otherwise. And, she asked via text message for prayer about it. Then, she broke up with him and could not get him to leave the house. As the facilitator I prayed for her personally, but I wanted to let her share it if she wanted to share it.
5. Confidential – in being trustworthy with the transparency of others; I will respect the open sharing of others, avoiding gossip, knowing it is a serious sin that hurts others and God condemns it.
This is once you have people open up, you have to keep it confidential.
There are a few important phrases in this “confidential” section I want to mention. One is the “respect in open sharing.” As the small group facilitator you can’t ever have the “I can’t believe that look.” As a pastor, I have had to always keep that straight face because if you give them a look of “Wow, I can’t believe you did that” then they won’t share with you.
Another is “avoiding gossip.” There’s a phrase I like, “Loose lips sink ships.” If there is one place that you have to beware of gossip is in small groups. It can start and spread. A definition of gossip that our church follows is this: If you are talking about something or someone and you are not part of the problem or the solution, then it is gossip.
6. Gracious – in not criticizing the church or other people; Being fully aware that our church is not perfect, I acknowledge my small group meeting, including just before and just afterward, is not the appropriate time or place to voice criticism of the church, its leadership or individuals in the church.
Again, there are a couple of phrases in here I want to emphasize. The first is that “our church is not perfect.” Maybe we can say it together! “OUR CHURCH IS NOT PERFECT.” If you think it is perfect, call me and I will tell you how it is not. Furthermore, your Small Groups Pastor is not perfect, your Senior Pastor is not perfect. So we need to accept that and know that things won’t always go well or smoothly, things will fall through the cracks, and we will let people down.
Another is the “meeting before and afterward.” Notice that it says “before and afterward” because people will pull you aside as the small group facilitator and want to gossip with you.
But, if someone does start to criticize the church say, “I think it would be best to tell Pastor Christopher or one of the other pastors. I think you should tell him because ‘what I know Christopher knows.’” Gossip is, “If I’m talking about something and I am not part of the solution or the problem, then it is gossip.” If someone approaches you and starts talking to you about an issue, ask the person if they are part of the solution or problem. If they are not, then remind them that what they are sharing is gossip and that it is not appropriate that they share that.
I believe it is important to note that as a small group facilitator and leader, you are tasked with helping people be disciples. You are helping people grow in their faith not just in “what they know about the Bible” or “how they pray and worship God.” But you are helping them grow in their faith in how they interact with others and within God’s church. Teaching someone about gossip is a way that you help them grow and become more like Christ. So don’t see this as something you “have to do” or have to “manage people.” This your chance to help the person grow in his or her faith.
7. Courteous – in listening well to others and not dominating the discussion; Realizing we all have different personalities, some being more outgoing and others more reserved, I will do my best to be considerate of others so everyone has the opportunity to participate.
Make sure that one or two people don’t always dominate the discussions in your small groups.
An example of this is when I facilitated a group meeting for our Wednesday morning Men’s group. The group was going to start a series of DVD studies so I said, “Hey, maybe I could facilitate the first meeting just as a sample.” So I did. We watched the DVD, there were 7 questions we were working through. And after the first four questions one guy had answered every single question and there were a couple other guys that had not shared yet. So when we came to question five I said, “Okay, [name], you have answered the other questions thus far, maybe someone who hasn’t yet shared might like to chime in.” Or another way to say this is, “[name], if you were to answer this question I know you would say this, but let’s see what other people think.” Or say, “This side of the room has been really quiet. Maybe somebody has something that they would like to share.”
(note, if you are having issues you might need to subgroup your group)
II. AUTHENTICITY: TRUSTING TRANSPARENCY
(encouraged, but not pushed)
A. Trusting Transparency
The phrase “trusting transparency” means that I feel that my small group is a safe place to share my struggles because I know that I will not be judged and I will not be counseled unless I specifically “ask for advice.”
1. Prevent judgmental looks and attitudes.
This is important because if people think that they will be judged or told what to do, then they will never open up and share. This means you need to foster an environment of non-judgmental and non-advice giving culture. But, judgement only comes through in what people, say, right? It’s only words? Of course not. Judgment most commonly takes place in non-verbal ques. You probably are familiar with the common stats that only 7 percent of what is communicated is actually words. The other 38 percent is tone of voice and 55 percent is body language. This means 93 percent of what we say is not communicated through words, but instead is communicated through our body language and tone of voice. As a pastor I have had to learn the “non-judgmental” look. Meaning, I have had to learn to be told things that I can’t believe because they are so bad and so out of character. I’ve had to learn to have a straight face when being told some amazing things.
Here’s some tips for not judging people:
- Make and maintain eye contact.
- Don’t look at other people.
- Don’t start to respond, listen.
- Repeat what they say to make sure that you understand.
- Share a relatable story to soften the blow from your personal life if you can.
- Don’t roll your eyes.
NOTE: Sometimes in our small groups we are going to have people that might not even be Christians there at our group. People that may or may not be believers. And, one of the most powerful testimonies to what it means to be a Christian can occur when people that may or may not be a Christian realize that a small group is a safe place that people can come to share their struggles.
2. Limit counseling and advice unless it is specifically requested.
Now, if there is one thing that we as Americans are bad at is that we often want to counsel and give advice, yet we don’t want to listen. When it comes to men and women, which gender is more likely to not listen and want to give advice/counsel? MEN! Yet, we need to not counsel others. Men give advice, and women give counsel.
This is how it normally goes with guys. “Guys, I have to admit something to you. I really struggle with spending money. Like every day I spend money on stuff that I don’t need nor want. I know it’s wrong, but I struggle with it.” Before the guy has barely finished the sentence a guy in the group speaks up. “Brother, I’ll tell you what you need to do. You need to pray more. Well actually, your problem is that you are not praying enough.” What do you think of that? Was the guy asking for advice?
This is how it normally goes with women. “Gals, I continue to have issues with my daughter. No matter what I do it seems to make her mad at me. It breaks my heart. I feel like I am a terrible parent.” To which one woman loudly responds, “Listen hear honey. You need to love her. If you love her all will be well. God is love just love her!” So, tell me what’s wrong with this? It basically tells the woman that she does not love her daughter.
Does this mean that you cannot give advice in a situation? Of course not. There was an example in the small group my wife and I facilitated where a young man was working at a high school, but the school was closing that year. He did not have another job lined up. He was a first year teacher and a young man. So when the man in our group who had been a school principle/teacher for 30 years and who’s wife also had been a teacher heard that the young man’s school was closing, he chimed in and said, “If I can give you a piece of advice, do not ‘quit.’ Let the school ‘lay you off’ that way you are eligible for state benefits.”
B. Encouraged but Not Pushed
Different people open up at different rates. Some people will be opening up very early, it will be the first week and they are telling you about their whole life story. Other people are like me. They are going to be in the group for two years before they really share anything personal in their lives.
1. Let people talk when they are ready.
Never push someone to share about what’s going on in their life if he or she is not ready. Let them share at their own pace. Since you are the facilitator of the group the people in your group might share things with you one-to-one that they don’t necessarily share with the group. If that’s the case, let the person share when he or she is ready.
2. Reduce the regular talkers.
If you have facilitated a small group or ever been in one usually you can recognize who the regular talkers are. And if you think, “Hey, I’ve never noticed who the regular talker is.” Then guess what, it’s you!
How do you reduce the regular talkers? One way to go about this is to talk to the person outside of the group meeting. Talk to him privately and remind him that in a small group we want everyone to get the chance to share and talk about what they are learning and how they are applying it to their lives. Ask that person if he could help you with this by only answering about half the questions instead of every one. Ask him to pick the questions he really wants to talk about, then let others discuss the other questions.
Another way to go about this is to make specific statements in the group. For example, when you have gone through five questions in your discussion guide and one person has answered every single question. Then go on to question six, ask the question, and say, “(person’s name), you have answered every question thus far, let’s let someone else share their thoughts on this question.” Or, ask the question and say, “I’d like to hear from someone who has not yet shared. I’m not sure who that is, but maybe someone who hasn’t yet shared an answer can talk about this question.”
III. ACTION: DOING THE “ONE ANOTHER’S”
(where a small group excels)
A. Why Are “One Anothers” Important to a Church?
There are many purposes for small groups. But perhaps the biggest role and most important service to God’s church is doing the one anothers. Small groups exist to care for each other. A church that just has a bunch of people who attend a service on a Sunday and then go off and do their own thing is not a healthy church of growing Christians.
The “one another” passages in the New Testament are important for us as Christians because they tell us how we relate to each other. More specifically, in a small group setting it tells how we are supposed to interact with each other as Christians in community. A quick survey of the “one another” uses in the New Testament using the New Living Translation landed me on seven key one-another principles.
B. The “One Anothers” of the New Testament (NLT Based)
Small groups are great ways to make sure that people are well “cared for.” The one another passages in the New Testament tell us how we are supposed to act like Christians to one another. This list helps us know how we should treat each other in small groups.
1. Proof of Discipleship (John 13:35)
In John 13 Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17), tells the disciples that one of them will betray him (John 13:18-30), then he tells the disciples that it is time for Jesus to leave (John 13:31-38). In the process of telling his disciples that he is going to leave he tells his disciples that when he leaves the disciples need to love each other just as Jesus loved them (John 13:34) because their love for one another will prove to the world that they were his disciples (John 13:35).
2. Love One Another (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:13; Phil 2:2; 1 Thess 3:12; 4:9; 2 Thess 1:3; Heb 10:24; 1 John 2:7; 3:11, 23; 4:7; 2 John 5, 6)
This is by far the most common use of “one another” passages in the New Testament. Believers are supposed to love one other. Yet, that is not always easy. Christians are justified and made righteous in God’s eyes by their faith in Jesus, yet we are still imperfect, have faults. Perhaps God knew that loving each other would be difficult to do, so he gave us many reminders about it.
3. Forgive One Another (Eph 4:32)
The first three chapters of Ephesians contain lots of doctrine and theology, then in chapter four Paul turns to practical matters. He tells Christians to start living out their faith and one of the ways to do that is to get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, hard words, slander, and all evil behavior (Eph 4:31). Instead of doing those things and acting in that way, believers are supposed to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgive one another (Eph 4:32). Still not convinced that this is the way that a Christian is supposed to live? Paul hammers home the point that we are supposed to forgive others just as Christ has given us (Eph 4:32). Ouch!
4. Submit to One Another (Eph 5:21)
In Paul’s section talking about how wives and husbands are supposed to interact with each other, Paul starts out the section saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Women are supposed to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22) and husbands are supposed to love their wives (Eph 5:25). But, the mutual action that each person is supposed to do is to submit to one another out of respect for Christ. Warren Wiersbe writes about this verse, “Does this suggest that children tell the parents what to do, or that the masters obey the servants? Of course not! Submission has nothing to do with the order of authority, but rather governs the operation of authority, how it is given and how it is received” (Wiersbe, Be Rich, 152).
5. Serve One Another (1 Peter 4:10)
There are places in the New Testament that talk about the spiritual gifts of Christians. Those locations are Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4. In 1 Peter the leader of the early church, Peter, is about to talk about using spiritual gifts. But before he describes the spiritual gifts he says that people are supposed to use those gifts to “serve one another.” Meaning, the gifts are meant for the benefit of each person in the body. Kind of like the guy who is a body builder and believes he is unselfish because he wears no shirt and walks down the street so that everyone can enjoy looking at him, right? No, your gift should benefit me and my gift should benefit you.
6. Motivate and Encourage One Another (Heb 10:24-25)
Life as a Christian in a fallen and corrupt world can be discouraging. So, the author of the book of Hebrews encourages the people to meet together and while they meet they should motivate one another (Heb 10:24) and encourage one another (Heb 10:25).
7. Remain Faithful in Marriage to One Another (Heb 13:4)
In conclusion of this long letter the author of Hebrews tells the Christians to give honor to their marriages by remaining faithful to one another. In an American culture that does nothing to value marriage any more, it is important that Christians remain faithful to one another in marriage both sexually and emotionally.
C. Practical Examples of One Anothers
Here’s some practical ways that you can do “one anothers” in your small group.
- When someone is not at group and they didn’t tell anyone that they wouldn’t be there, have some call them to check in and make sure everything is alright.
- If someone in your group is sick, maybe someone can call him and see if the person needs to have medicine or food brought to him.
- A guy that cannot drive because of health reasons needs a ride to church. So another guy from his small group went and picked him up and took him to church.
- Keep track of the birthdays in your small group. When someone’s birthday is coming up pass around a card for everyone to sign, then give the card to the person the week of her birthday.
- Someone might be retiring from work. Throw him or her a “restarting” party in your small group.
- A group member has to move. So your group takes the night you normally meet to help that person pack or unpack.
- Schedule a coffee or lunch with someone in your group that has been having a tough time with work, family, or just life in general. Don’t go to counsel or give advice. Just listen and encourage the person.
- Use your network of contacts to help people in your group when they need a job, a place to live, a plumber, etc.
- When someone says something that offends someone else in the group, then the offender goes and asks for forgiveness.
- The people in your group pray for each other and let each other know that they are praying for each other.
- Bring meals to someone who recently lost a loved one or had a baby.
IV. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. If only a few people can come to your group, still meet.
Some of your best fellowship will occur in the meeting where some of the group can’t make it. If it’s only two or three people that’s totally okay. You never want to cancel a meeting just because some people can’t be there.
Don’t let low attendance slow you down, discourage you, or prevent the committed people from meeting.
Let’s say you are at the end of your meeting you tell everyone that next week the group will do the lesson in the guide that goes through the Sermon on the Mount. One couple responds, “Oh man! We love the Sermon on the Mount! But we will be in Hawaii next week. We hate to miss that lesson. Maybe we could take next week off?” To this, you as the facilitator respond, “Well, it sounds like the group will be here in the 105 degree valley heat while you are going to be on the beach in Hawaii at 70 degrees. Sounds like you are going to have to suffer for a week.” But you get the point, right? Keep your group moving and keep your group going. And just because a few people can’t make it doesn’t mean you should cancel your group.
B. Keep your group going throughout the summer.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year deal. Let’s say you have twelve people in your group and five of them take a long vacation over the summer. Take those seven people that aren’t traveling and do a study with them. Maybe do a short DVD study, or pick a couple easy books like 1 & 2 Thessalonians or Mark to read together over the summer, or do a Navigators’ “Design for Discipleship.” But, the reality is that while most people travel over the summer and take vacations, they are often only gone for a week or two on vacation. And, sometimes it is better to still have your group over the summer because people are less busy with soccer, baseball, basketball, football, etc. Sometimes for younger families the summer is easier and better.
C. Serve together.
One of the best way to develop relationships with the people in your group is to serve together. This could be serving together at church. Maybe you say that one Sunday every month your group is going to help serve food and do the dishes for the church services. Or maybe your group says that you all are going to provide the dinner for a Thursday night service and attend together? Or you want to go the Boys & Girls Club and help them there to do a project that they need completed. Or the Youth Ministry is going on a trip and some of your group agrees to drive the youth to the concert or event. Serving together is a great way to experience biblical fellowship with each other.
- The three main headings to this blog post about “Accord” “Authenticity” and “Action” are based on Dr. David Ward Miller’s “LIFEGroup” material he has asked me to use at our church. This is blog post is based on his framework with me filling in a lot of the details. ↩
- The Covenant of Love is a copyright of David Ward Miller ↩