Small Groups Are Others-Oriented

small-groupsSmall groups provide us unparalleled ways to demonstrate the gospel. Doing life with other people allows us to fulfill the commands of Christ to “love one another.” Small groups facilitate this love in unique and challenging ways that lead both to our growing witness and to our sanctification. Small groups, then, that are truly effective at discipleship are groups that are others-oriented.

Small groups should not be less than Word-centered, as we saw last week. But that does not necessarily mean that they should be centered on Bible study or doctrinal investigations. They can be both word-centered and relationally driven. Governed by the gospel, seeking to apply the Scriptures, we are nonetheless driven to do so in a relational context, not a merely informative context. We are not seeking to disseminate information in this context, we are seeking to build relationships and do life with other people. That means a fundamental shift must take place in the way that many people think about their existing small groups and their existing small group ministry. Being others-oriented is foundational to being most effective.

When I think about the culture around us and I think about its greatest needs, up towards the top of my list has to be its relational needs. Ours is an isolated culture. We are a people inundated with social opportunities, and yet often alone and lonely. Robert Putnam has done a tremendous sociological study of our isolation in his book Bowling Alone. In it he catalogues the changes on the American social landscape that have led to increased isolation. He writes:

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently, without warning – that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

The church hast the potential, even the responsibility, of throwing a life line to those adrift in a sea of independence. The church can bridge the gulf that now exists between individuals, and small groups are a particularly helpful means for doing that. As Brad House has written, “The church should be the place where the cultural longing to belong and be known is satisfied, not echoed” (Community, 113). Let’s consider, then, what it looks like for groups to be “others oriented.”

For starters it means having less of a hardline agenda when we gather. If people are our goal then our schedule, our expectations should not rule our gathering with an iron fist. We ought to be more than happy to be flexible, allowing conversations to take shape around the needs and interests of those present. Obviously group leaders should be helpful facilitators when necessary, and obviously we want our gathering to be more than just socializing week-in and week-out. Yet, we should not think that we have to get through our study, get through our questions, or follow a certain schedule. If we spend longer eating and visiting this week, that’s okay. If we spent less time in study and more time in praying for one another’s needs, it’s a good thing. If someone accidentally dominated our discussion this week because of a crisis in their life, we shouldn’t resent them for it. Small groups exist first and foremost for helping each other grow, not for meeting an expectation. People matter more than plans.

Secondly, we should think of our group beyond our weekly (bi-weekly) gathering. The people in our group should become a second family over time, and that only happens if we look beyond the meeting. Find other ways to be engaged with each other throughout the week. Start a Facebook group, email back and forth, text and/or actually call each other. Pray for each other regularly. Sit together at church. Go to the movies, go out to eat, babysit for one another. There are myriads of ways to move your group beyond some formal ministry meeting to an actual community. Encourage the members of your group to think about their relationships as significant and important. If small groups are others-oriented then they need to exist as more than a once-a-week ministry meeting. It means reframing our groups more as lifestyles than events. Brad House explains:

When we see community as a series of events, we hold on to our individuality and see community in terms of what it offers us. If we are to live in community in a way that Peter describes, then we need to rethink our lifestyle. Peter’s picture of community is one in which people consider one another, prefer one another, and sacrifice for one another. This will require a paradigm shift from the thinking that one’s walk with Jesus is solely personal. It requires us to see ourselves as a people and not just a gathering of people. (96)

Small groups that are others-oriented are more interested in this ministry as lifestyle, not as weekly event.

We want small groups to be life-giving for the people who participate in them. We want them to be places where genuine community happens, not just gathering. This means thinking first and foremost about the people in our group, and not about the group as a ministry. Small groups that are effective in discipleship are others-oriented.


  1. This is an awesome piece Dave!
    I have been a proponent of small group ministry and have several colleagues that also really know the spiritual rewards that come from it. I have witnessed it first hand and experienced it personally especially in men’s ministry. As Director of Men’s Ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Virginia, I’ve worked to implement small group ministry during our annual men’s retreat events and it has been successful so much so that by having men talk and pray with one another in a groups of 4 or 5, they seem to be willing to open up more spiritually to one another. The result of this has been seeing men openly pray for each other in the small groups and outside the convines of the structured event. I’ve seen men fellowshipping together one on one and then pray with each other away from the group during a down time. This is remarkable! It really makes me see the the value of small group ministry. It’ll be a part of our retreat again this spring. I always look forward to seeing the men come together in this way and I know that they take it back with them to their homes, churches and other communities. Thanks for the great article! I’ve shared it with my colleagues.
    Ray Gryder

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