Kris Henderson, discipleship pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church in Ranburne, doesn’t believe in change for change’s sake, but he does believe some intentional adjustments to the structure and curricula of small groups can be transformational.
“You cannot stay where you are and go with God. Change has to happen,” Henderson said, speaking during a breakout session at Pinnacle Alabama, an annual conference for Sunday School and small group leaders hosted by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “We can reinvent. We can change stuff and make it fresh … without completely abandoning everything we’ve been doing.”
A recent example involved something he thought was relatively uncontroversial — tables.
Henderson’s goal was to increase engagement in discussion and sharing, and he thought the tables were in the way.
Not everyone agreed. When one member questioned them being gone, Henderson asked why it mattered. The group member replied that she didn’t feel comfortable sharing when everything was open and people were facing each other.
Henderson learned a valuable lesson — each group is different and has different needs.
But setup is important for groups, he said. One option is to place chairs in a semicircle instead of rows.
“Now everybody’s on the front row,” Henderson joked.
Chairs aren’t moved simply for the sake of change. With them in a semicircle, everyone can see each other and communicate better, he explained.
Another option is to have the leader sit instead of stand.
Henderson noted that when he sits down, people seem more willing to share. There tends to be a lot more conversation, perhaps because everyone is on the same level.
Open versus closed classes
Curriculum also needs to be purposeful. It should be changed as needed.
If a group is focused on evangelism and reaching those who don’t regularly attend the class, the curriculum should be open, featuring lessons that don’t need preparation or build on each other. That way anyone can come at any time and not feel lost.
Sunday School is a good example of an open class, and one in which application of the lesson is perhaps the most important aspect, he said.
“We want to get to deeper applications,” he explained. “If we don’t get the history of the kings, that’s okay. We [need to] get deeper into, ‘How can I apply this? What do I need to purge out of my life?”
Lifeway Christian Resources’ Bible Studies for Life curriculum is a good option for open small groups, he said, with resources like the Personal Study Guide, often used in a weekly group session, and the Daily Discipleship Guide, which gives class members a way to prepare for the following week’s lesson, with daily devotions and daily questions for reflection.
Closed groups play an important role too, especially in building accountability. Henderson said he’s been in a men-only small group for about a year, and the members are very transparent with each other.
“We get real,” he said, and there are “shut the door and make sure nobody’s listening” moments.
The structure of a small group is also important. Participants often feel more comfortable if they know the basic agenda of a class.
Henderson recommended Jay Gordon’s Five Looks model, a way to structure small groups that focuses on the class becoming a community of believers.
- Look around. Make sure connections are made. Let people have time to meet, and use name tags, even if everyone knows each other.
- Look up. Pray for God to provide opportunities for others to join the group.
- Look back. Reflect on the challenge provided in last week’s lesson and have people share its impact.
- Look down. Based on John 1:35–42, this step examines the idea of being called into Christian community by asking questions. It focuses on exalting and equipping (vv. 35–37), engaging and encouraging (vv. 38-39) and evangelism (vv. 40–42).
- Look ahead. Provide challenges such as asking someone new to join the group next week.
Henderson said he feels it’s important to keep groups small, because it’s easier to reach people in small groups than in large ones.
He also emphasized the importance of developing leaders who can step up as groups grow and multiply. Identify people who are faithful, available and teachable and invest in them, he advised.
Henderson reminded group leaders to keep their priorities at the forefront: keeping God’s word first and foremost and helping grow mature disciples of Christ.
“The center of the whole thing,” he said, “has to do with us all becoming disciples of Christ — us all living together, us all growing together as disciples of Christ.”