Discipleship involves two aspects of our lives. First, it is living in God’s presence. Second, it is how we live on a day-to-day basis: balancing God’s purposes in our lives, relating to others, and seeking to become more like Christ. Here are some practical suggestions for your group. They are arranged in crawl, walk, run order—with the simplest suggestions at the beginning of the list.
Make sure everyone has a Bible. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but don’t assume that everyone in your group has a Bible. If your church does not provide Bibles, ask group members to donate Bibles for other group members. Make sure everyone in your group has a Bible in a translation they can understand.
Have an authentic walk with God yourself. You need to strive to live out your faith and the purposes of God in your own life. Then you need to let the people in your group get close enough to you to see how you do it. Don’t give them a laundry list of your activities, but share what you are doing and how you do it. For example, if it is difficult for you to remember to pray, you may want to share that you always pray whenever you are waiting at a traffic light, or right before bed, or when you wake up in the morning. Give group members practical suggestions that work for you.
Model the importance of having a quiet time. Spend time alone with God, and let your small group know that you do. Suggest passages they can study for their own devotional time. Share resources. From time to time, check in with them to see how their quiet times are going.
Give an encouraging word. As stated before, Hebrews 3:13 tells us, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Read this verse to your group, emphasizing the phrase, “encourage one another daily.” (Other verses you can use include 1 Thessalonians 5:9–11 and 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17.) Then challenge the people in your group to encourage at least one person every day for the next week. During the next meeting, discuss what happened.
The Lord is my shepherd. Ask for several volunteers to read Psalm 23, filling in their own name every time they come to a personal pronoun. For example, “The Lord is Steve’s shepherd. . . .” After the Psalm has been read several times, ask people which verse is the most meaningful to them. Discuss some of the ways that God the Shepherd provides for them.
White noise. Ask group members to meet you at a noisy public location such as a mall food court. Gather together and ask everyone to just sit silently and listen to all of the noise surrounding them. Then ask how many of them were listening to the radio or some other form of music on the way to the meeting. Ask how many of them spent some time before they left for work this morning listening to the radio or the television. Discuss the importance of being still so that God can reach us without all the distractions. Challenge group members to drive home in silence, praying and listening for God.
Ask group members to devote a certain amount of time to studying the Bible each week. This does not need to be the same for everyone. The idea is to get them to commit to something that will work for them, not to try to mirror the habits of other members. Keep the commitments private (or just between spiritual partners) so that members do not feel they are competing with one another. One member may commit to five minutes per day while another commits to half an hour a day, and another commits to ten hours a week. The amount of time is not important. The important thing is to meet them where they are and encourage them to increase their time in the Word.
Ask group members to share their spiritual practices. If you have a hard time studying the Bible on your own (or if someone else in the group does), ask other group members how they study on their own. Open topics of conversation on matters such as spiritual disciplines. Seeing how others grow not only impacts on a practical level, but it also encourages other members to know that you are not perfect either. In addition, someone may have an idea that will assist you in your walk with God.
Rotate leadership. When you rotate leadership, you empower people to move beyond their comfort zone. Everybody can rotate and lead the group either by doing a sentence of the curriculum (asking members how they responded to a particular question or what they thought of a particular sentence), a section of the curriculum, or by leading an entire study of the curriculum. Place the bar very low and ask members to lead the group for a few minutes at a time. If there are enough questions at the end of your small group study, have each member take a question. This is a great way to get people to move toward leadership. There’s a fine line between respecting people’s reluctance and nudging them to their next step, and you need to know where that line is for each member. But if you keep the bar low and encourage them in a casual manner, they will meet the challenge.
Promote prayer. Your group needs to learn how to develop the spiritual habit of regular prayer. Colossians 4:2 tells us, “Devote yourselves to prayer.” Do a multiweek study on prayer. Be sure to include lots of time for members to talk about their prayer habits and how they can improve upon those habits.
Promote margin and balance. We are often so busy with the schedules of our daily life that we neglect our spirituality and our health. Ask group members how much time they devote to just sitting in silence with the Lord. Challenge them to give up one activity (for example, half an hour of television at night) and instead spend that time in silence with God. Encourage members to sit in a quiet room and, if they so desire, journal their thoughts.
Suggest the group read a classic Christian book together. Have everyone read one chapter per week and come to the group ready to discuss that chapter. If you are reading a long book, you may want to discuss multiple chapters per week.
My favorite verse. At the end of a meeting, ask group members to bring in one of their favorite Bible verses next week. During that meeting, ask them to read the verse and explain why it is one of their favorites.
Take a class together. If your church offers classes, sign up as a group to take a class together. If some members of the group have already taken the class, encourage them to do so again to support those who have not attended the class. A group experience like this is a great way to grow.
Have a balanced plan of study. For example, annually study one book of the Bible or one on spiritual growth, evangelism, fellowship, ministry, worship, or a life stage study (such as marriage, parenting, empty nest, etc.). Variety makes your group more interesting. Also, be sure to ask for input from group members on what type of study they would like to do next.
Get outside. Plan a trip to a local park. Instruct group members to bring along a Bible and a blanket or chair. When everyone arrives, split up for half of the meeting to allow members to go off to a quiet place to sit and read their Bible and reflect. After they have all done so, gather back together and ask them to share any insights or thoughts they had during their time alone with God.
Steve Gladen and John Ortberg, Leading Small Groups with Purpose: Everything You Need to Lead a Healthy Group (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012).