Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review - Simple Small Groups

A short time ago I learned of a book called "Simple Small Groups" by Bill Search. It's sub-titled "A User-Friendly Guide for Small Group Leaders," and it delivers. There is no shortage of books that promote a specific model for doing small groups - this is not one of them. Instead Search distills some essential elements of healthy group-life, and describes how to foster these elements no matter what model you use for your small group ministry. As Mark Howell puts it, "Rather than over-complicate the subject, Search isolates three simple and essential ingredients that every effective group must have, identifies them with a single word, and then proceeds to explain the role played by each of them. The best part? He goes on to flesh out the nuts and bolts of how it works."

Connect. Change. Cultivate. These are the three patterns that lead to a healthy small group.

Connecting is the growing sense of relationship between members of a group.
Changing is the "spiritual and relational renovation that transforms us into the likeness of Christ." It's goes beyond the intellectual or simple behavior modification.
Cultivating is missional lifestyle. Not just service. Not just evangelism. It's both. It's an outward focus that engages hearts into action.

These three patterns are not rules. They're not prescriptive, but descriptive (a concept discussed further by Joseph Myers in Organic Community). A welcome and distinctive feature of the book is that it doesn't hold up intimacy as the only valid form of connection. People have a real need to relate in a number of spaces: public, social, personal, and intimate (The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups). Small group systems that promise intimacy seldom deliver. Instead, seek to create a safe relational space that encourages connecting without trying to force it.

There are three aspects to the book that I found particularly helpful. The first is that Search drills down into each pattern and considers the continuum in which every group falls. For each he considers three different stages, and how to take a positive step wherever the group may be. The second benefit is that each section also contains a "Nut and Bolts" chapter with a lot of stories and tips on how to put these ideas into practice. This makes the book very practical and easy to read. Each pattern also has a simple tool to help assess where your group is at. The third key to Search's approach is that it recommends a harmony between the three patterns, not balance or equality. It's ok to have groups that are not trying to do everything. One group might for a time focus 80% of its effort on developing community, and 10% on the other patterns. The focus may shift over time, according to the needs of the group and the leading of the Spirit.

Relational Pattern
(Connecting Continuum) : Meet - Connect - Belong
Growth Pattern (Change Continuum): Learn - Grow - Transform
Missional Pattern (Cultivate Continuum): Exploring - Applying - Impacting

The book concludes with an appendix of Scripture references highly appropriate for each pattern. Overall I really enjoyed reading the book and it has given me a lot to think about - for myself, my small group, and coaching other small group leaders. The concepts here tie-in very nicely with key principles from other books I've been reading, such as Jim Egli's "Small Groups Big Impact", or the Up-Out-In paradigm described by Mike Breen, Scott Boren and others. The Relational Pattern is IN, the Growth Pattern is UP, the Missional Pattern is OUT. Again the key isn't to set unrealistic goals of perfection, but to be intentional about (and celebrate) small steps forward in each pattern.

Simple Small Groups is an excellent resource for small group leaders, and is a must-read for small group coaches and pastors.

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