Leaders for Small Groups - the Potential and the Challenge

Written by Gordon Dalzell

You can download the PDF of this resource here.

The Vital Contribution of Small Group Leaders

In evangelical churches across the UK thousands of small groups meet every week to encourage believers in their discipleship with a mixture of reflection on the Bible, prayer and a deep sense of being the family of God together. Small groups are one of the most significant ways many believers learn to apply God’s word to their lives and to be supported in prayer by their friends. Church leaders appreciate the warm pastoral support and the community building that small groups provide.  And many of them long for the groups to become centres of growth and discipleship in an even deeper way.

Group leaders therefore occupy a vital place in the life of our churches.  But our prayer investment, training, development and encouragement of them does not always reflect their importance as leaders. We often pray for our pastors, missionaries, elders and other leaders in our churches and invest in their support and training when the leaders of our small groups rarely get the same attention.  

It is Living Leadership’s deeply-held conviction that this is a critical failure.  If small groups are to bring about, under God, the kind of robust discipleship that we all want to see in our churches then training, supporting and praying for small groups leaders needs to be one of our highest priorities. 


Christian Leaders’ Enduring Vision for Small Groups


In an address on “Body Life” Jim Packer said:

It seems that every time there has been a spiritual quickening anywhere the pattern of Malachi 3:16 has been fulfilled: “Those who feared the LORD talked with each other.”  They got together for this purpose.  I think that the small-group movement of our time if rightly guided by true ideals of church life holds tremendous potential for renewal in the churches.  The fellowship pattern is there, ready made; what it needs is the touch of God. 


And George Whitefield:   

If we look into church history we shall find that as the power of God prevails, Christian societies and fellowship meetings prevail proportionately.  My brethren, let us plainly and freely tell one another what God has done for our souls.  To this end you would do well, as others have done, to form yourselves into little companies of four or five each and meet once a week to tell each other what is in your heart, that you may then also pray for and comfort each other as need will require.  None but those who have experienced it can tell you the unspeakable advantage of such a union and communion of souls.  And none that I think truly loves his own soul, and his brothers as himself, will be shy of opening his heart in order to have the advice, reproof, admonition and prayers of his brethren.  A sincere person will esteem that one of the greatest blessings.


In this emphasis we see a vital, but off-neglected, element in the biblical ideal of leadership.  In addition to being teachers of the Bible and preachers of the gospel, leaders must be sources and facilitators of fellowship.  They must be shepherds and counselors who can care for the sheep one-to-one. One test of their work is that wherever they bring the word of life, they gather those who are alive to God and show them how to fellowship together in groups.

Julian Hardyman (Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge) preaching from 1 Thessalonians in 2009 commented:

"Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  There are two commands: “Encourage one another”, and, “Build each other up”.  What Paul is calling for means deciding to be outward directed and focussed on others.  There is an assumption behind his words: that we are in close community with other believers.  Notice also that what he’s calling for is mutual: one another.  We are both the encouragers and the encouraged. We are both builders and building.   


Christian community is like a building project.  Each member is like a wall that needs proper building AND a bricklayer who needs to build the walls well.  This is a privilege for ALL to share in - mutual ministry between all members of the congregation. This is a wonderful invitation to play our part in a Christian fellowship where every person is empowered by the Holy Spirit to encourage and build up others, something that small groups are uniquely equipped to facilitate.

This underlies the crucial importance of such groups.  Each of us needs a smaller setting than a main Sunday meeting where we can share our lives with other Christians, and where the relationships grow through which we develop as Christians. There are some things that can only happen as we seek to live Bible- centred, prayerful lives with a few people, encouraging one another and building one another up.


What We Want Small Groups To Be – Abounding in the Grace of God 


At Living Leadership we believe that the main purpose of small groups can be summed up in three words: growth in discipleship. We want to see small groups that help people absorb and apply the God’s Word in such a way as it leads to worship, trust in his promises, repentance, encouragement and wholehearted following of Jesus. We long to see more and more groups praying for one another with understanding and sympathy.  Being transparent with one another, sharing the challenges of daily life, family, sickness and the workplace. Becoming centres of mutual support and practical help. We long for the multiplication of groups that are open and honest, where there is no pretence because members share an overwhelming awareness of the love and grace of God.


Equipping leaders to lead grace-filled, God-glorifying groups like this means:


  • Cultivating in leaders the vision of their group becoming a growth-in- discipleship-group, a far greater vision than just a Bible study
  • Helping them know and receive the grace of God in Christ for their lives and know how to help others do so
  • Encouraging them to pray fervently for the group, love the group well and  not merely settle for being a group organizer
  • Getting good support structures in place for developing and encouraging group leaders in our churches


Our contention is that groups grow in discipleship when leaders are growing as disciples. When leaders have little investment tailored specifically to their own spiritual growth and their growth in leadership, it is very unlikely that their groups will grow spiritually.