When we think of the work of the apostle Paul, we tend to focus on him alone. In reality, Paul was surrounded by a team of gifted individuals that was continually changing. We know the names of some of them—Barnabas, Luke, Timothy, John Mark, even Priscilla and Aquila. At various points, different individuals became part of the apostolic team led by Paul. The composition of the group evolved and changed over the years. Very often members came on board, made their contribution to the work of encouraging churches in an area, and then attached themselves to a particular church or churches to continue their work apart from Paul. Some were already mature and gifted persons when they joined the Pauline team, but others were nurtured by the apostle and the group. The group experience was vital to the development of disciples and the spread of the Gospel.
My own experience is that small groups of believers provide an opportunity for individual growth in a number of ways. This only happens, however, if the groups are intentional and reflect certain characteristics.
When Pinnacle associates lead Disciple Development Coaching© training, we introduce this definition:
“Disciple Development Coaching is a focused, collaborative relationship, resulting in the disciple living out his or her calling more fully.”—Disciple Development Coaching: Christian Formation for the 21stCentury
This definition certainly informs the basic characteristics of a properly functioning small group.
First, a good small group is healthy. A healthy body is one in which all the parts are working together, each doing the part for which it was designed (see Romans 12:3-8). The term “collaborative” when used in the DDC context is applied primarily to the coach/disciple relationship, but it can also apply to a well-functioning small group. In such a group, each person is involved and willing shares in discussion, direction, and mutual accountability.
Second, a small group is made of people who are authentic with one another. This authenticity is built on “relationship,” another part of the DDC definition. In DDC coaching the relationship is one to one. In a small group, the relationships are multiplied among the various members of the group. Just as the coach models authenticity in the coaching conversation, the leader of a small group takes the lead in modeling authenticity, vulnerability and transparency for the group members. He or she attempts to be open about his or her own struggles while allowing a safe space for the members of the group.
Third, a good small group stays on target. They know what they are there to accomplish and the leader helps them to stay on track. In a coaching conversation, the disciple set the agenda, but the coach provides the structure or keeps the conversation “focused.” This is the role of the leader of a small group—to provide the structure that keeps the group on task while encouraging full participation.
Those involved in small groups would do well to assess their status by asking these questions:
- Are we healthy? Is everyone involved?
- Are we developing strong relationships? Can we be honest with one another?
- Are we focused? Are we achieving what we say we want to accomplish?