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Small groups: two pastors provide valuable insight

Equipping Christian Leaders feature article: winter 2020

two men holding coffee cups and talking

Ken Bohney, Salem Evangelical Free Church, Moorhead, Minn.

Small groups foster deep relationships

by Ken Bohney, Salem Evangelical Free Church, Moorhead, Minn.

Something happens when the people of God gather around the word of God in groups for fellowship and learning. We tend to go deeper, grow faster, become more aware of our shortcomings and experience Christ in life-giving ways. Our mission at Salem is to live lives of love with God, in community and on mission. We would love to see every member of our church family in healthy, Christ-centered community.

As the campus pastor of Salem Evangelical Free Church in Moorhead, Minn., I have responsibility for shepherding our small group ministry. I was first introduced to the concept of small groups in 2001. I attended my first small group training at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., in 2003, prior to launching a small group ministry in a non-denominational church of 200 people in 2004 in Salt Lake City. Since then, I have been responsible for starting and overseeing small group ministries at two other churches of 1,100 and 700 people in different parts of the country.

I have received small group training in various settings, including Rockbridge Seminary, Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Church. Most of the training I received had to do with structuring, marketing, organizing, forming, recruiting and leading different aspects of small groups. We studied the purpose of small groups, different curriculums, planning your time well, being hospitable and dealing with difficulties.

But there was something different, something tangible, something helpful, something energizing about the training I received while going through the Facilitating Relational Learning course with Entrust. We got into the nuts and bolts of creating good questions that foster great conversations, and creating group guidelines. Learning and practicing these skills has been a game changer. Through this training, I feel we are really able to help our leaders succeed. We are giving them tools and ways of thinking that should lead to healthy, dynamic Bible-centered discussions.

man showing another man text from his book

Establishing mutually-agreed-upon group guidelines at the outset with a group, a skill we gained in FRL, is one have we practiced in the context of small groups, and have even applied to our church staff meetings. We have a staff of 14 people that meets on a weekly basis, and we recently decided to pull the team together to collaboratively create group guidelines. It was eye-opening to learn some of the things that made people feel safe or unsafe in our group gatherings. It was fun to work together to decide what our meeting should be about and the guidelines that would make them safe and productive. I anticipate that this will also create a culture of buy-in and shared responsibility for everyone on our staff, holding one another to the guidelines. I am guessing we will have even better meetings in the future.

One of the true joys of participating in this training has been the relationships I developed with my colleagues who also participated. We grew closer to Jesus and to one another. My appreciation for their giftedness and their wiring expanded. It was fun to learn with and from them. We are now sharing what we learned with our church community. Our hope is to help all our group leaders feel and become equipped to have life-giving, engaging conversations centered around God’s word.

In a conversation with one of our elders who serves as a life group leader, he said, “Who hasn’t been victim of the bad question?” It’s so true. We have all heard the crickets when we asked a question that went nowhere. A question that shut down the conversation. Sometimes silence is a good thing to allow people to gather their thoughts, but sometimes we just don’t ask very good questions. Experiences like that lead to doubt and hesitation. Experiences like that cause people to be fearful of leading. I believe this training will not only help eliminate those types of questions but will also give our leaders tools to rephrase questions to get the conversation going again.

As a side benefit, I believe God orchestrated the timing of this training to give my counterpart and me the opportunity and structure to further our relationship. Neither of us knew going into this training in the spring of 2019 that our senior pastor would soon be leaving, and it would be critical for us to build a strong relationship. One of the biggest blessings of this training has been how we have gotten to know one another better and respect each other’s giftings more.

Our hope at Salem is to foster deeper friendships with one another and with Jesus. Healthy small groups are one of the best ways I know to see those hopes come true. Well-equipped leaders are much more likely to have vibrant, authentic, Bible-focused conversations that help us to learn more about ourselves, our God and others. May we continue to learn and grow in this area and may we help people connect to Jesus and people through our gatherings.

Personal application

  • In what circles of your life might mutually agreed-upon guidelines serve a useful purpose?

  • How do you see an open-ended question facilitating group learning, in contrast to a yes/no or a leading (try to guess the answer) question?

  • What are some ways your own small groups/ministry groups could benefit from and implement these kinds of changes?

om Smithson, Salem Evangelical Free Church, Fargo, N.D.

Life groups to life-giving groups

By Tom Smithson, Salem Evangelical Free Church, Fargo, N.D.

Several years ago, our church made a concerted effort to ramp up small groups. We had a variety of studies where the focus was Bible study. Too often, prayer requests and prayer time got pushed to the very end of the study. The groups lacked adequate time for meaningful caring and sharing. We also realized that if people were going to develop deeper friendships, they would need to get together at other times to do so. With the pace of our culture, that was going to be difficult.

As we looked to start life groups, we took our cues from the philosophy of “doing life together.” To that end, we suggested that life groups share a meal together before the Bible study and find a service area they could all do together once a month in lieu of the meal and study. Our hope was that this structure would draw people into the word together AND into one another’s lives. And it did. I would estimate that about half of the new life groups formed were successful and are still going today. Adding additional time for fellowship (the meal beforehand) and adding a common mission/activity greatly enhanced the Bible study experience. This success was good for some groups, but why was it not successful for others?

In spring 2019, I received Entrust’s Facilitating Relational Learning training, which opened my eyes to how to further enhance our life groups. While adding a meal and a mission to our typical Bible studies benefitted some groups in some ways, we still did not have a strong tool for helping group members strengthen relationships with one another. The principles we learned and the many opportunities we had to put those principles into practice during our FRL training showed me how we could turn our life groups into life-giving groups.

small group working around a table

1 John 1:13 describes rich fellowship. “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Fellowship is more than a nicety or bonus in the life of a Christian. It is life. It is to be life-giving. In his letter, John shows deep concern about fellowship. The people he was writing to weren’t experiencing the fullness of fellowship available through Christ. They knew that Jesus died for their sins, but missed the truth that Jesus saved them from sin for fellowship. Faith opens the door to fellowship with believers and even with God. What could be more life-giving than fellowship with God and other believers?

What can we do to help maximize fellowship between believers and God? Facilitate relational learning. This was the missing link for our life groups. Open-ended questions during the Bible study portion of a group meeting, allowing group members to observe, interpret and apply the passage together, enables the group to think together, to share their common knowledge and to be led by the Holy Spirit together.

This power was made clear to me as I led a study recently. I had prepared my learning objective and open-ended questions to facilitate the discussion. At one point in the study, something struck a chord for one of the participants, to the point of tears. As she shared, I found that she was applying what we were talking about in a way I had not considered. Her sharing and the way she did it also struck a chord for me in a way I had not considered. If I had prepared the study as a teacher instead of a facilitator, we would have both missed out on a moment of vulnerability and healing. If I had my one point that I wanted to make during the study and made sure we stayed on my narrow path through the text, the fellowship we experienced would not have happened. This was a life-giving experience for me. Our group experienced fellowship with one another and with God in a beautiful way.

It is often said that the local church is the hope of the world. I would go further and say that life-giving small groups are the hope of the church. As inspiring as church services may be, fellowship with each other and God happens best in small groups that are life-giving.

Personal application

  • What areas of your life, work and ministry might benefit from applying these types of practices?

  • What could you do to start something like this in your own circles?

  • In what ways did the challenges Pastor Smithson faced in engaging small groups resonate with your own experiences?

Next steps

Consider taking Facilitating Relational Learning at a time and location that works well for you. View our training calendar here.


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