By Ryan Sanders
Small group pastors like to talk about stages of group life. We like graphs and bell curves and Venn diagrams.
Bruce Tuckman created the most famous list of small group stages in 1965: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. And while Tuckman’s list has stood the test of time, many other models have enjoyed attention among small groups pastors.
But in seven years of working with small groups, I’ve found it more helpful to think about milestones on a voyage than stations on a production line. A small group should be going somewhere. It should be on a journey.
And any good journey includes landmark moments.
The first step in any group is simply getting the members together. This isn’t always easy. Schedules don’t cooperate. New members get nervous. Hosts forget to send reminder emails.
But groups don’t flourish without consistent participation by at least a core group of members.
Overcoming an obstacle
Here’s a small group secret: There is such a thing as too much convenience. You don’t want convenient groups; you want strong groups.
If groups are formed around people’s preferences, scheduled around other priorities, and funded by the church budget, they won’t provide an opportunity for members to navigate the “Storming” phase.
That’s why my church doesn’t provide childcare or meeting rooms for our groups. We want to give new groups a small challenge to overcome. They have to work out babysitting duties and host homes themselves. And when they do, their group is stronger for it.
The milestone that has the biggest impact on group life is the experience of sharing life stories.
We are all created by a Master Storyteller to resonate with good stories. When group members share the stories of their lives with one another, it helps the other members understand them.
More importantly, it connects them to one another in a profound way. At my church, many of our new groups take time for one member per week to share their story.
Gathering beyond the meeting
Groups turn a corner when they start to exist outside of their usual meeting time. When people stay late, go to dinner, get coffee, run errands, or text one another throughout the week, they’re building better community.
Suddenly, the group becomes more than a slot on their calendar. It becomes their support system; their family.
Once in a while, a group needs to do something besides Bible study. They need to change scenery, get out of their comfort zone, and make memories.
No one ever said, “Remember that time we studied the curriculum?” But people in strong groups say things like, “Remember that time we took a ski trip?”
Finally, the strongest groups achieve unity by overcoming conflict. While early obstacles might be about schedules and potluck assignments, real conflict involves personalities, habits, offenses, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
If a group can pursue unity even though real offenses have taken place, then they have learned what Jesus meant when He said the world will know us by our love.
These milestones are impossible to manufacture, but they’re easy to spot. Watch for them in the groups you lead, and celebrate when groups reach them.