Lessons from “Making Small Groups Work” (Book)

Making Small Groups Work: What Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know offers the theological vision and practical guidance for nurturing small groups within a Christian faith community. In this book, psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend show how healthy relationships within a small group offer the ideal environment for personal growth. They dispel common, unspoken sentiment that maturity and wisdom happen largely as the result of communing with God alone, striving for growth in a vacuum, divorced from daily life and fellow Christians.

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Making Small Groups Work: What Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know offers the theological vision and practical guidance for nurturing small groups within a Christian faith community.

In this book, psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend show how healthy relationships within a small group offer the ideal environment for personal growth. They dispel common, unspoken sentiment that maturity and wisdom happen largely as the result of communing with God alone, striving for growth in a vacuum, divorced from daily life and fellow Christians.

They also offer insight into the processes that support and compel growth along with specific guidance for leaders in starting and maintaining a healthy group. The duo explain how group members can give and receive love, acceptance, encouragement, and support in a safe setting. But they point out that Christian love doesn’t stop at extending comfort: it also pushes people to make necessary life changes and pursue meaningful challenges.

Cloud and Townsend give specific guidance on dealing with real situations and real people. They discuss how to maintain the right balance between grace and truth. In addition, they cover the nitty-gritty of dealing with difficult people, such as the narcissists, overly needy, and dominating talkers — all of whom can wreck the small group experience. Their methods are suitable for all types of groups with varying dynamics and purposes.

Making Small Groups Work encapsulates how I believe God works in community to bring about transformation and positive change. There are many lessons but here are ones that stand out to me:

Small groups can fulfill the purpose of reconciling its members to God, others, and their authentic selves.

Real, steady involvement in a healthy, functioning small group can change a person’s life — whether the group is involved in a recreational interest, like hiking; service, such as preparing meals for community members; a topic, such as parenting; or Bible study only. The content discussed is important but change and growth happen as a result of the conversations, the (friendly but firm) confrontations, the challenges, and the comfort given and received.

When people know they’ll receive grace and acceptance, they feel free to express themselves authentically. They may share fears and frustrations about a concern at home or work, for example. When this type of conversation occurs, they and others may then realize that they’re not alone in experiencing similar emotions or circumstances.

Sometimes, simply verbalizing problems brings clarity about steps for resolution. At other times, discussions go deeper and longer over a period of time. In both, simple or complex, group members pursue guidance from God, the Bible and fellow Christians for timeless truth and perspective. What’s unique about a functioning small group is that members discuss how they’ve applied biblical wisdom to life challenges.

This process creates an awareness of how God works in the real world in different types of situations. It imparts compassion for others and ourselves, and allows us to experience joy at individual and group successes. It encourages us to pursue and enjoy a relationship with God, group members (and the wider community), and ourselves.

Change and growth happen through experiences, which small groups can provoke.

Experiences using knowledge can help us to understand how things work — whether it’s our feeling of strength (or fatigue) when hiking, other people’s openness to conversation when sharing a meal, our children’s responses to our words and actions, and our application of the Bible to a business or personal decision.

Knowledge is good. It provides a foundation for making decisions and taking action. But it’s useful only to the extent that we apply what we know to real-world situations.

We can pursue specific experiences or reflect on past experiences to gain insights into applying knowledge. A healthy small group encourages and sometimes even pushes members to apply God’s word and wisdom to specific challenges or consider how it’s been useful in the past if we didn’t already make this connection. By supporting, praying for, and being there for its members, a group can incite and encourage lasting change and growth through experiences.

Healthy groups normalize struggle, risk, and failure.

Functioning small groups encourage members to talk about their struggles, take risks, and learn from failures. These processes help people see pain and frustration as a part of life, not things to be avoided or hidden if when they happen.

As a consequence, members gain more realistic views of the challenges associated with growth and less rattled when faced with unexpected complications. They accept risk as necessary to trying new things and evolving as a person. Failures then become easier to accept and more likely to serve as springboards to success.

The group setting provides support, safety, and guidance in determining what risks are appropriate for specific situations and people. Simply showing up and speaking up in a group setting may be a big risk for one person. Pitching a proposal to a new client or going back to school for a new career may be scary to someone else. To be clear, the group doesn’t dictate what members do but rather encourages each member to pursue the goals they deem worthy.

Significantly, taking risks requires faith. Embarking on a new venture, however big or small, can build trust in God.

Bad groups are bad for you.

I’ll say what many of us who have been in small groups before know: some groups function poorly and may even be bad for you. This unhealthy process is described in Making Small Groups Work as “de-facilitating” growth.

Cloud and Townsend point to poor listening skills of leaders as a major cause of stifling growth. Listening means more than just being quiet while others are talking. It means hearing and understanding, and showing people they’re heard and understood in ways that validate another person’s perspective. Sadly, in many groups, members don’t truly listen to each other. “Instead, they preach, teach, advise, pontificate, and immediately talk about themselves,” according to Cloud and Townsend.

Some groups are infiltrated by “spiritualizers” who, like Job’s friends, offer unhelpful advice. Such guidance not only prevents people from experiencing deep emotions needed to process a situation but also fails to deliver real biblical truth.

Some groups may not be harmful but they’re not worth an investment of your time. They may give too much grace, offering solace and comfort only but not challenging members or confronting them with truth. Others may focus too much on truth, making people feel hopelessly condemned and paralyzing them from taking necessary actions.

To be clear, you may dislike a group or find it’s not working for reasons other than it’s a bad group with an ill-equipped facilitator and narcissistic members. You may not be open about your problems or willing to work on them. Further, no group is perfect as groups are comprised of flawed humans. Still, it’s useful to know signs of a poorly functioning group.

A good group yields positive results.

Over time, a healthy small group will make a positive difference in the lives of its members and even the broader community. Groups may vary in how they run or what topics are discussed. But these characteristics are consistent among groups that work well:

  • God is known as sovereign and the source of inspiration and direction
  • Members value relationships as their primary need in life
  • Grace and forgiveness are offered and received
  • Members acknowledge God’s control of the world but also practice self control

There are many more lessons within Making Small Groups Work: What Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know. The first time I read this book, I was in the process of developing the platform for a small group ministry. This book’s message resonated the most with me compared to others on the topic of small groups.

After a recent re-reading, I find, again, the book explains and validates much of what I have learned firsthand in groups. I’ve practiced many of its principles and witnessed change in myself, others, and communities. I’ve encountered spiritual truths in day-to-day activities as a result. Yet, this book contains advanced techniques that I haven’t even tried or mastered. So, read the book and apply its teachings but don’t be intimidated if some sections seem lofty or unattainable.

Start by reading this book to get a framework for small group ministry. Next, simply be honest in your conversations, learn to recognize and avoid shaming, and study the Bible to get real life guidance without pretension. Along the way, consult Making Small Groups Work for making improvements to your group life.

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