By Joel Comiskey
Appeared in Small Group Network, January 2002
“But what about the Spirit’s leading in the small group,” a lady asked me during my lesson on small group agendas in Krosnodar, Russia. By the way she asked the question, I perceived she was questioning the “spirituality” behind following a pre-planned agenda. “After all,” she thought, “wouldn’t a pre-planed order hinder the Spirit’s work?”
This Russian lady sincerely wanted to follow the Spirit, not a man-made plan. And I could fully relate to her concern. I’d rather have a Spirit-led disorderly meeting than an orderly meeting in which the Spirit has no room to work.
An agenda, in fact, is not the main reason for a successful small group. If you’re a veteran small group leader, you know plans and preparation can help-but they’re insufficient. You’ll agree that Spirit-anointed common sense will hit the home runs. Following rigid, preconceived plans when someone is hurting results in a strikeout.
I remember visiting a small group at the Love Alive Church, a famous small group based church in Honduras. I was impressed how the female small group leader skillfully stirred everyone to participate. When I interviewed her after the meeting, she said, “We’re instructed by our leadership not to follow the same agenda each week. We’re encouraged to intentionally switch things around (worship first one night, worship last another night, etc.) in order to prevent boredom among group members.”
My experience that night in Honduras reminded me that there’s nothing sacred about an agenda. Agendas are simply road maps to guide us to the destination of transformed lives. An agenda must be critiqued by whether it accomplishes that purpose.
On a number of occasions, I’ve felt led to throw out my small group agenda. My carefully planned agenda suddenly didn’t feel appropriate with only four believers in my living room or with a hurting person who desperately cried for more attention. On those occasions, I felt led by the Holy Spirit to scrap my planned agenda-but notice carefully that at least I had a plan. Ninety percent of the time, I’ll follow that plan. You also might feel impressed to change your plans and do something unique-just make sure you have an agenda for your small group. The dictionary defines an agenda as “a formal list of things to be done in a particular order, especially a list of things to be discussed at a meeting.”
The agenda that I use is called the 4Ws: Welcome, Worship, Word, and Witness (or Works). I like this order because it allows the group:
- To experience the one anothers of Scripture. The Welcome time enhances the open sharing of our personal lives.
- To enter the presence of God. The Worship time helps members to receive God’s fullness in their lives.
- To interact with God’s Word. The Word time allows God to speak to group members through His inerrant Word.
- To reach non-Christians; The Works time helps the group focus on outsiders.
The four Ws will not automatically produce life in the small group. They will, however, enhance God’s work among group members.
Introducing the 4Ws
Welcome (15 minutes)
Most small group members are tired when they arrive at the group. They’ve worked hard all day and probably don’t feel like being spiritual. Some will attend because they know they should be there, not because they feel like attending. Begin on a joyful note. Let them ease into group life. The Welcome time normally begins with a dynamic question that breaks the ice. The best icebreakers guarantee a response. You can buy entire books on lively icebreakers, so you shouldn’t experience a shortage in this area.
Worship (20 minutes)
The goal of the Worship time is to enter the presence of the living God and to give Him control of the meeting. The worship time helps the group go beyond socializing. Without Christ’s presence, the small group is no different than a work party, a family gathering, or meeting friends at a football game. The worship leader should pick five to six songs before the worship starts. Or the worship leader might invite members to select the songs before the worship time and then sing them in sequence. I think it’s best to concentrate on God during the entire worship time, rather than stopping and starting to pick the song. I like to intermingle praise and prayer between songs. Entering God’s presence through song is an important part of the worship time. Make sure everyone has a song sheet. Why?
- First-time visitors will feel uncomfortable without seeing the words.
- Some new Christians or church members don’t know the worship choruses of your church.
- You’ll have more liberty to sing new songs.
Word (40 minutes)
The Word time is when God speaks to our hearts through the Bible. Resources abound to prepare a top-notch lesson. One of the best resources is the Serendipity Bible. Many small groups follow the same theme and Scripture as the Sunday message. Even if this is the case, it’s best NOT to discuss the sermon. The people should interact with God’s Word, not with the sermon. If the sermon itself is the reference point, visitors and those who missed the celebration service will feel isolated. Even though the church provides the lesson, it’s essential that each small group leader examines the lesson and applies it according to the needs in the group. Without fail, God speaks to the group through His Word and people recognize their needs. I find it very effective to ask for specific prayer requests after the lesson time. Often we’ll lay hands on those with special needs. The lesson, or Word time, normally lasts forty minutes. I like to take ten of those forty minutes to pray for specific needs of the group.
Works (15 minutes)
The last part of the small group, the Works time, helps the group focus on others. There is no “one way” to do this. The main thought that should guide this time is OUTREACH. The type of outreach might vary on a weekly basis:
- Praying for non-Christians to invite
- Preparing a social project
- Planning for a future multiplication
- Deciding on the next outreach event for the small group(e.g., dinner, video, picnic, etc.)
- Praying for non-Christian families
The leader might ask the group, “Remember to pray for our new multiplication that will begin in two months. Pray for Frank, who needs to complete the last training course. Pray that he’ll be ready to start the new small group.”
During this time, you might promote and plan a social outreach project. I’m convinced that small groups are perfectly positioned to meet the physical needs of those both inside and outside the group. A small group offers a unique, effective way to reach deeply into the heart of a non-Christian person.
The New Testament church grew and prospered through need-oriented group evangelism. God is calling His Church back once again to this exciting method of outreach.
Were the People Edified?
Edification literally means to build up or construct. Paul says to the Corinthian church, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening [edifying] of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
The issue of building-up should be the guiding principle of the small group. A successful small group meeting is one in which everyone is built up and encouraged in the faith. The standard for success is whether or not Christ’s body went away edified-not whether or not you fulfilled the 4Ws.
The focus of the small group must be Jesus. Some want to convert the group into a Bible study, others an evangelistic crusade, and still others a worship concert. Some don’t think it’s a real small group unless someone speaks in tongues or delivers a red-hot prophecy.
Lift Jesus high in your group, and He’ll give you a gentle balance of study, worship, evangelism and fellowship. Perhaps one week you’ll spend more time in the Word, while another week you’ll tarry in the worship time.
Remember the 4Ws are not four laws. They’re guidelines to help you focus on Jesus and to maximize participation. Focusing on Jesus helps provide the proper balance.