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Impact Group Primer


By Dan Augsburger

(This was written for a young adult conference and is accordingly worded for that group)


MY EXPERIENCE

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Early Experience
I learned about small groups while attending a church leadership conference in 1996. Purchasing a book on starting groups, another church member and I decided to invite some friends to join us in learning about small groups in a small group setting. At the first Friday evening get together we shared a meal, became better acquainted by sharing a little about our personal spiritual journey, listened to a few testimonies about small groups, studied what the Bible had to say on the subject and concluded with prayer. I was wonderfully blessed and remained a part of that group for many months. Spiritual growth took place, relationships between families were greatly ameliorated, and a wonderful bond developed between us. None of us had prior experience, but we were quickly convicted that small groups were the ideal setting where God works. During the course of that experience we were joined by new Christians, new Adventists, and individuals of multiple ages and backgrounds. We knew so little about small groups that we felt like we were stumbling at times, but the fellowship was great, the Bible study was real and the prayers were effectual. Small group became the highlight of the week!

My role as leader was pretty simple. I thought up some lighter question to introduce the topic and further relationships between us, suggested a chapter of the Bible to read, somewhat facilitated conversation, and signaled the time to start praying. Little time was spent preparing, but the results were life changing and continue to this day. Every member has continued to be involved with groups since then, most have collaborated with others to start groups of their own, and all remain active members of the church.

Our group continued for three months before being interrupted by an evangelistic series. Afterwards small groups were organized in a more formal and intentional way, and failed for the most part. Failure came as a result of attempting to organize the entire church into groups, more formally selecting materials and the varying concerns about what might happen to group members. Still there was some success, and a couple of groups continued. It is important to note that the new members who joined groups remained in the church; those that didn’t left the church for the most part! In spite of the difficulties evolving during this time, the original group remained bonded and working for the good of the church and the new members in spite of being part of many groups. It was as if an organic connection had been made. I have been away from the church for several years, but the friendships with the original group members remain as close to this day.

Life Transformation Group
Later the gender-oriented “Life Transformation” concept was discovered and led to the formation of smaller groups that were even more successful. These mini groups promoted reading the Bible during the week, applying the truths discovered on an ongoing basis, transformation-oriented questions, and conversational prayer.

Started by two individuals, the group was eventually blessed with additional members. The only preparation was reading a passage of Scripture on a saturation basis during the week before. We would agree to read the same passage of Scriptures a predefined number of times during the week. By the time we arrived at group we had come see and experience things with God that casual reading could have never allowed. Meeting time was a rich sharing time of what God had shown us. We would look for specific things we felt convicted about and wrote them down on cards in our Bibles to remind us. These questions formed the basis of our transformational questions. Leadership was shared by all four members of the group and didn’t require any advance preparation time. Members included new Christians and a newly rebaptized member.

The results were profound. Victories were gained, lifestyles changed, spiritual growth accelerated, and witness fostered, in ways that would have formerly been unimaginable; all because we sought to experience God’s presence and power together in the context of a small group.

The original group eventually birthed other similarly inclined groups.


WHY ARE SMALL GROUPS SO SUCCESSFUL?

  • Often home or other informal setting based.
  • Provides wonderful community to connect and make friends in.
  • Creates environment where students can be real.
  • Allows personal discovery of what the Bible teaches.
  • Creates supportive nurturing environment where life change takes place.
  • Easy to organize.
  • Spontaneous
  • Leadership requires little training.
  • Minimal expense.

CORE VALUES BASED ON WHAT WE LEARNED:

Keep it simple:
One of the most important lessons learned is that God can be the most effective in small groups that are configured simply. Complicated lesson outlines, time-consuming preparations, and the need to stick closely to a certain plan invariably worked against success. The same can be said for drawing out simple lessons from the study time. Revelation or Ezekiel are not ideal books for a small group study, unless everyone is into serious Bible study and agrees on that ahead of time. However, it is rare these heavy duty study groups remain meaningful for very long.

Stick to the Bible:
We tried using a small group manual, but found that group members were either bored and worked to make the lesson more interesting, or didn’t understand. Providing study books, explaining words and concepts, trying to cover all the materials during the time allocated, detracted from what God wanted to do. Over time we discovered the Bible had a simplicity and power unmatched by any other alternative. Furthermore by sticking to the Bible we could easily invite and assimilate non-church members into our group. Needless to say, some members also had questions about using non-church materials. Everyone had a Bible, the Spirit seemed to specialize in using Scripture and we could easily communicate on any reading assignments.

Keep sessions complete:
There is danger in having “continuing” studies. Newcomers often feel like they cannot fully participate, studies tend to get a little complicated, and absent members miss vital information. Even if a Bible book is being studied (Philippians for example), try to make sure that the study starts and concludes in such a way that everyone can fully participate and can take away something to apply during the week.

Rotate leadership:
Anyone can lead a small group. Not everyone thinks they can, however. Accordingly intentionally rotating leadership assures that all members eventually realize they can lead the group, the leader has relief available, multiplication is easier, and everyone has ownership of what is going on.

Be flexible:
We did not have any idea what God had in mind as we started. We just knew that it was something He wanted and thus were open to His leading. He far exceeded our expectations. As surprises came along, we asked for His direction, waited with a positive anticipation and were pleasantly surprised by the neat things God brought with the surprises. In our case, we struggled over whether to allow a family with children to bring them. We finally relented. The result was a family being integrated back into the church, including their children!

Look to Jesus:
The most effective groups are those which are intentionally Christ-centered. Small groups are not social gatherings. There is certainly a social element. In fact the friendships that develop are often more meaningful than the friendships developed otherwise. However, the glue that brings members together is Jesus. He is also the source of wisdom, the power bringing about change, and the one looked to in every aspect of the group’s activities. The group leader’s most important task is to connect members to Jesus in such a way, that the connection will continue during the week to come. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” should be the watch phrase of the group.

Make God your authority:
God’s authority has to be the underpinning of all small group activity. The group never has sufficient wisdom to think for individual members or take the place of God. Neither does the group have the combined wisdom to solve practical problems. Group members can offer suggestions and provide reality checks, but ultimately the group’s primary role is to confirm that others struggle with the same issues, affirm that God cares, suggest God will provide the wisdom needed, and commit to holding the person up as they seek to find God’s wisdom and will on the matter. Group members must resist becoming self-made counselors. The words of Charles Trumbull are excellent in this regard:

“There is only One in the universe who can safely tell a man his duty as to the details of everyday life and practice. Therefore it is our chief duty to lead our fellows to that One, and to seek to win them to a loyal acceptance of Him as their Head and Guide and Savior, so that He may settle their questions of duty for them. It is never our duty to attempt to settle for our fellows such questions as God intends they shall refer to Him. About the only duty that one man can safely and unconditionally prescribe for another man is the supreme duty of surrender to God’s will. “ Taking Men Alive, Page 125

Believe in the way God is leading group members:
Fundamental to a healthy small group is the belief that we are fully redeemed as a result of our personal faith in the saving work of Jesus on the cross. Recognizing that every group member is equally saved on the basis of what Jesus has done negates performance comparisons. All are sinners saved by grace. Successful small groups also strongly believe individual members have been created in the image of God and are being individually led by Him. Accepting the varying ways God is working is critical to long-term success. Groups quickly get in trouble when group-accepted ways of behaving becomes mandated.

Be passionate about personal obedience:
The more the group is passionate about obedience, the more the group will experience the power of God. This value cannot be proscribed, applies on an individual basis, and must be modeled by the leader. As participants pursue greater surrender, other group members will eventually share the same “whatever the Lord says” conviction.

Resist judging:
Because group members can become more “real,” the group members may become aware of areas where participants are struggling. It would be tempting to legislate solutions if it were not recognized that changing hearts and behaviors are God’s responsibility. As the Bible is actively read and prayed over with others, members will be individually convicted of areas of incomplete surrender. Instead of the group pushing the person to change in guilt-producing ways, member will encourage each other to look for Jesus to do what they cannot do for themselves. I continue to be amazed at the radical changes that have been affected without a single “you shouldn’t” statement being made. Challenged by the Pharisees regarding a woman caught in adultery, Jesus responded, “Neither do I condemn you; sin no more.” He seemed to have the right balance between accepting and pointing her to something better which might do well in emulating. Note the following:

“Not until you feel that you could sacrifice your own self-dignity, and even lay down your life in order to save an erring brother, have you cast the beam out of your own eye so that you are prepared to help your brother. Then you can approach him and touch his heart. No one has ever been reclaimed from a wrong position by censure and reproach; but many have thus been driven from Christ and led to seal their hearts against conviction. A tender spirit, a gentle, winning deportment, may save the erring and hide a multitude of sins. The revelation of Christ in your own character will have a transforming power upon all with whom you come in contact. Let Christ be daily made manifest in you, and He will reveal through you the creative energy of His word—a gentle, persuasive, yet mighty influence to re-create other souls in the beauty of the Lord our God.” Mount of Blessing, p. 128

Model servant leadership:
We strongly believe in servant leadership. We want to serve our members to empower and equip them to work for God on this campus and in their world.

Be supportive of the rest of church:
Paul clearly likened the church to a body where the members are joined in mutually benefiting relationships. Success by the “hand” at the expense of the “feet” is not really success. God-driven success that resulted in the revival and soul winning occurring at Pentecost reflected a compassionate concern for the health of the entire church. Groups should not be an end in themselves. Rather they strengthen and equip members to be supportive of the greater church and serve as God calls them. Leaders need to especially model positive support. Resist complaining and judging. You will be better for it, and so will your participants. Encourage them to put their energy into praying for the people and circumstances that are annoying. God will be thus liberated to work in ways He could not work otherwise.

Allow members to safely be themselves:
A group cannot long survive if the members do not feel safe to be themselves. The ability to create a safe environment is dependent on group members realizing that participants created in the image of God have feet of clay and need a safe place where God can deal with the clay. Affirming recognition of who a person can become in Christ, an awareness that we share similar struggles, and a respectful commitment to help members become whole, creates the shared commitment to provide a safe environment.

Be appropriately transparent:
Being appropriately “real” will greatly further the group’s success. Much can be communicated in general terms without getting into specifics. Transparency is about acknowledging struggles in group-affirming ways, not in potentially debilitating self-disclosure. An “I’m struggling with finances” is more than sufficient to garner prayer and encouragement support.

Bathe your group in prayer:
Prayer is the vehicle bringing change. Prayer is also the glue that opens and cements group members to God. Accordingly group members should be encouraged to pray for each other during the week. Group should start with prayer. Group should conclude with prayer. Where possible, use conversational prayers at the end to allow greater participation. Use the prayer sheets to educate on the subject of prayer and to note specific requests. Encourage members to come to midweek prayer services for example.

Use icebreakers to connect group members:
Icebreaking questions and activities at the beginning of any session will open group members to each other. Without these relationship-building activities, group members will have difficulty deeply connecting with each other during Bible study and prayer time.

Encourage outreach:
A significant part of a group’s excitement is praying for opportunities to witness, and sharing the answers…bringing the results in some cases by bringing the person being witnessed to…to the next meeting. Groups become stale without an outer focus. Ultimately groups are about members becoming the people God can use to reach others.


WHAT KINDS OF SMALL GROUPS ARE THERE?

  • Traditional Groups (6 to 10 elsewhere)
  • Service Groups (centered on some shared service activity)
  • Prayer Groups (For changing the campus and world through prayer)
  • Life Transformation Group (Generally a gender-based mini group of three people that multiplies every time it grows to four people) o   
  • Life Impact Group (Similar to Life Transformation Group, but uses questions about group members’ spiritual walk)

WHAT DOES AN IMPACT GROUP SESSION INCLUDE?

Small group meetings universally include relational icebreakers, study, prayer, and outreach. Some groups include what I am calling “transformation” questions. At the Way we also pass around a prayer pad and collect contact information (where possible).

Fellowship:
Many groups start with some time for fellowship. A “How has the week been?” question quickly sets an informal tone to the gathering. Don’t waste too much time, but do encourage “reconnecting.” Fellowship can also be furthered through activities participated in at other times, such as a potluck for group members.

Impact questions:
Some groups will inject some elements of accountability. Generally speaking accountability groups are gender oriented and may not be appropriate at the Way. However, carefully selected accountability questions can be included at any group, will reduce the spiritual barriers between members and significantly advance the life change process. A simple “Did we look more to Jesus than to ourselves this week,” opens a positive discussion of what the week has been like. A “Were we consistent in our devotions” reminds and affirms the need for ongoing personal time with Jesus. Impact questions are about loving encouragement, not group judgement. Accordingly, feedback will often take the form of “I’m glad to hear you are normal,” rather than “How could you?” These questions can be used as part of the fellowship time.

Relational icebreakers:
The next thing should be a relational icebreaker. Members of a successful group will enjoy close interpersonal relationships. These ties are greatly furthered by ongoing icebreaking activities. Questions can include “Share something from your wallet or purse that say something about your life?” Or “Describe your week as a color, and why? What about “On a busy multilane highway, what lane do your drive in? All of these questions are followed up with a specific question relating to spiritual matters. For example the latter question could be followed up with “What lane are you in your spiritual life, and why?” If possible, questions should transition participants from the social discussion to the spiritual. Ice breaking questions wonderfully bond members and sets the stage for the discussion that will follow. The first question bonds interpersonally; the second question bonds spiritually. Please make them more then silly questions of only social value.

Study:
Pure fellowship stagnates quickly without meaningful spiritual activities. Ongoing study is critical to long-term success. Reading multiple chapters of the Bible repeatedly in preparation for group is one of the better ways of assuring life changing discussions take place. Keep your study simple and relating to how to live on a daily basis. Small group isn’t the place to bring commentaries and Bible dictionaries. Allow the Bible to speak for itself. One of the easiest ways to study is to read three or four verses and ask a series of questions: “What was God trying to say to the people back then? What is He saying to us in our day and situation? How do we stand relative to this? How can we apply these truths in a life-changing way this week?”

Prayer:
Just as prayer is fundamental to the Christian life, so prayer is key to any group’s vitality. In fact, early studies on prayer can be very helpful. Gatherings should start and end with prayer. Conversational, popcorn, word, or “promise” prayers can help new believers participate more easily. Prayer requests are always in order. Use the prayer sheets to foster continued praying during the week.

Outreach:
Healthy small groups are involved in outreach. Outreach opportunities should be sought and encouraged. As group members work and pray for their friends, roommates, teachers, and other acquaintances, a sense of anticipation and purpose will g row. Nothing so energizes a group as ongoing testimonies about what God is doing with outreach between meetings. Needless to say, group is the perfect place to bring people being witnessed to. Outreach should be mentioned as prayer requests are being taken, to allow praying for the various outreach activities represented.


SUCCESS FACTORS

For a group to succeed certain factors need to exist:

Group has to be meaningful and bring blessings:
Failure to make gatherings enjoyable times of fellowships and spiritual growth will doom the effort.

Groups need to facilitate friendships:
A primary reason young adults join groups is to develop relationships with other young adults. As one young adult put it, I join a group based on who is in the group more than who is leading out. Groups need to facilitate friendships.

Groups need to be user friendly:
Groups should be easy to invite others to, and efforts should be made to assure that all attendees are participating, regardless of spiritual walk or denominational background.

Minimize formal leadership:
Take care to make sure your group is not dependent on one person, nor that leadership is restricted to individuals with stipulated levels of training. A small group isn’t a college classroom. It is the place where students can be “real” and not feel like they are being lectured.

Remain Bible centered:
God seems to especially bless the Bible. It is also the least controversial of all study materials and is fully accepted by individuals of all denominations.

Avoid controversy:
Nothing will implode a group quicker than controversy.

Affirm other commitments, relationships, and be sensitive to time:
Students have busy schedules and multiple commitments around campus. Affirm those relationships and try to plan with their needs and time in mind. Encourage students to participate in other activities and ministries. Only participating in “Way” activities and having friends made at the Way is not healthy in the long run. End meetings before group members tire of them, and don’t require more time than they can safely give.

Be participative:
A guaranteed group killer is having one person dominate. Leaders are not there to teach, but to experience the presence and power of God with group members, and to discover God’s word with them. The leader should only talk 20% of the time.


RESOURCES

The Serendipity Bible for Personal and Small Group Bible Study This Bible includes helpful questions on each section of the Bible, including ice-breakers, study and apply questions, configured for a variety of groups.

Cultivating a Life for God by Neil Cole, Church Smart Resources, Carol Stream, IL Provides very helpful information on implementing Life Transformation Groups. A must read for anyone wanting to start a mini group.

Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN Blackaby’s book has been very successfully used in a wide variety of settings. H a very meaningful workbook that some consider superior to the book.

How To Lead Small Groups by Neal McBride, Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO Considered one of the best books on leading traditional groups.

Ice-Breakers and Heart-Warmers by Steve Sheely, Serendipity, Littleton, CO Full of ice-breakers and other activities to start groups.

Starting (& Ending) A Small Group by Dan Williams, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL Many helpful suggestions on starting and ending small groups, including establishing expectations, keeping groups interesting, getting members involved in missions, and how to run a session.

Written by Dan Augsburger, Path2Prayer Ministries (path2prayer.com & path2prayer@yahoo.com)

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What approach works for your group?

Cherie
2006-09-19 12:00 AM

I am just dropping you a line to let you know that the format you shared with us for bible studies is working really well. We just had a bible study this morning on Mark Chp 5, and God brought a woman to us who is seeking. She absolutely loved this approach and was blessed by it (as we all were).

Anonymous