Updated: Oct 29, 2020
At First Baptist Church (and this would be true of every Christian church), our primary reason for existence is to lead people to faith in Christ and help them become committed disciples of Christ. At the very least, that means we want our church members to think, be, and act like Jesus. And that means that our small groups need to be focused on the simple goal of helping our members think, be, and act like Jesus.
Of course, it's not that simple. We can "train" anyone to follow a set of rules and behavioral guidelines, but is that really what we're about? Not really. Those external measurables are important, but what's most important is what's inside -- the process that Paul calls sanctification. We can't sanctify ourselves; that's something God does to us and through us.
So then, what's a church supposed to do, if we can't do the thing that only God can do?
Let's let Paul explain how this works (1 Tim 4:6-10):
If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed. But have nothing to do with pointless and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness. For the training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. For this reason we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
In other words, being a Christian can be compared with being a gifted athlete. That athlete may have all the gifts in the world, but he must train diligently if he is to succeed in competition. Sanctification is like growing; it's something God does within us. But we can stunt that growth through poor choices, and we can prevent ourselves from making the most of the body we have been given.
Likewise, God gives Christians everything we need for spiritual growth -- His Spirit, His Word, His people -- but we must cooperate with that growth through our own commitment, diligence, and practice.
And that's where the church comes in. We need to create groups that put people in an environment conducive to spiritual growth. We cannot force spiritual growth, but we can promote it (and we can stifle it if we're not careful).
I was reading through Lifeway's long out-of-print Teaching Adults: A Guide for Transformational Teaching (printed in 2000) and found a list of principles that are just as relevant today as then (a good sign). They used the term "spiritual transformation" which I like because it implies an action we do not control. Here are their principles followed by my description of them.
Principle 1: Use the Bible
I've said this throughout this website. If spiritual transformation is from God, then we need to be using the words of God. Those are found in the Bible.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
If we desire spiritual growth in our church, our primary resource must always be the Word of God. Our clever statements may change someone's mind, but they could never change a heart.
Principle 2: Depend on the Holy Spirit
This is the obvious counterpart to the first principle. If we desire to see spiritual transformation, then we should be asking for help from the Holy Spirit! It's not something we will understand (review Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John 3), but it is something that we can rely on. God has not left us alone; He has given us the Holy Spirit.
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. (John 14:26)
Whatever plans we think we have for a class or a session had best be run through prayer diligently before we employ them, assuming God will work through them. And then as we teach, we should remain in an attitude of humble prayer, asking for the Spirit's continual help and guidance.
Principle 3: Teach God's Word in and through the Family
Because most of our small groups are age-graded, this one seems a little tougher for a leader to take on. Our kids, teens, and adults are all grouped separately. How can we work through the family? To me, this principle means focusing our applications on the family. Parents need to know how what they have learned affects their relationship with their children. Spouses need to know how what they have learned affects their relationship with their spouse. And so on. And beyond that, we need to create opportunities for families to live out their knowledge in the home. How can this be used in a family Bible study? How can this be used in family prayer time?
The point is rightly made that children learn best and need to learn most from their parents, whom they are around and shaped by daily. A one-hour Sunday morning Sunday School class cannot easily overcome a week of negative influence in the home. The book puts it this way: "Always be looking for ways to partner with the family in your teaching."
Principle 4: Magnify Relationships with Learners Wherever You Gather Them
That is the complicated way of saying discipleship happens best through relationships, and relationships happen best in small groups. (I would add that spiritual transformation is best aided by Christian discipleship.) We are more heavily influenced by the person with which we have a close relationship because (1) we spend more time with them and (2) we trust/respect them. Jesus impacted the world, but He had the biggest impact on His disciples, and specifically Peter, James, and John.
Well, relationships don't just happen. They have to be cultivated and protected (like a marriage). That requires time, effort, and intentionality. This is the Acts 2 model:
Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (2:44-47)
The more time they spent together, the better they got to know one another, the bigger impact God's Word had on them.
As leaders, then, we need to do what is in our power to build personal relationships with the people in our small groups -- especially the ongoing ones like Sunday School.
Principle 5: Hold Leaders Accountable
Something you've heard me say regularly (which I learned from Lifeway's leadership books) is "the leader is the lesson". In other words, the people in your groups will learn just as much by observing you as they will by listening to you. And that's great -- as long as the leaders have been learning the lessons they are teaching! It is incoherent for you to expect spiritual growth in your group if you are not seeking spiritual growth yourself.
What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 2:2)
Principle 6: Lead Learners to Be Accountable
The corollary to the previous principle is that we should also lead the people in our groups to be accountable. Why do schools give tests? For accountability that the lessons are being learned. How much more important in the Christian life that we take accountability for doing our part on the path of spiritual growth! But that's not natural for us. It's hard to follow Jesus! That's why churches need to help their members understand accountability.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:1-2)
Principle 7: Engage in Evaluation and Reflection
I don't think I can say this better than the author of the article I read, Judith Wooldridge: "No matter how well leaders feel they have done in teaching people the Bible, the key test comes in how well the Bible study group has done in 'drawing the net' or assimilating unsaved people into the group and introducing them to the gospel."
Well said! Numbers and visible results don't tell us everything, but the lack of visible results may help us see when we need to change the way we do things.