I led my first men’s small group of four college students in 2007 as a twenty-three year old. I was in my first full-time semester in seminary while serving as a pastoral intern at a church in San Diego. I’ve led fourteen such groups since then with a constituency that has ranged from pastoral interns to seventh grade boys.
Through these experiences I have learned much about what makes for a fruitful small group. Well, I’ve had to learn much. For one thing, they don’t teach you much on how to effectively lead small groups in seminary. But equally important is the fact that leading men’s small groups isn’t an easy endeavor even for faithful, gifted, and biblically-sound ministers. A good friend of mine, a faithful man of God in every respect who loves Scripture and values fellowship, warned me before joining the group I was going to lead: “I’ve been a part of many small groups that have just been a waste of my time.”
We want to lead and be a part of small groups that are worth our time. Over the course of the last fifteen years, I’ve learned that though every men’s small group will be unique, there are some common marks in those that you can truly deem as profitable. Here are seven.
Mark #1: All of the Men in the Group are Serious about their Walk with Christ and Serving His Church
Paul instructed Timothy to flee from youthful lusts and pursue godliness “with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22). Men who call upon the Lord with a pure heart (Matt 5:8) are men who also hunger and thirst for righteousness and are willing to endure hardship for it (Matt 5:6, 10). I’ve been in small groups with men who would’ve readily debated R.C. Sproul on the superiority of dispensationalism over covenant theology. I’ve met other men who would have honestly rather walked Sproul’s German Shepherd (yes, he did have one) than argue over theological systems. Yet a good small group can have both such men when both are serious about their walk with Christ. Men who are serious about their walk with Christ readily admit to their imperfections (Phil 3:12), have a sincere desire to honor the Lord, obey His commandments (John 14:15), please him in all that they do (2 Cor 5:9), and minister in his church (I Peter 4:10-11). When you have a group consisting of such men, you have the making of a good small group.
Mark #2: The Men are Consistent and Punctual in their Attendance
Paul told Timothy to invest not just in fervent men, but in faithful men—men who function not only according to desire but also commitment (2 Tim 2:2). Because of some men’s tendency toward inconsistency, I’ve now started all small group sessions by telling the men that, if they cannot commit to attending at least 70% of our meetings, they should find another group. Just as it doesn’t benefit anyone to get a gym membership if they’re only going to attend once a month, it is simply not worthwhile being a part of the small group where you only show up half the time and show up late when you do. A profitable small group consists of men who are disciplined in their attendance and punctuality, as they understand the priority of godliness and the place of men’s small group accountability for such (1 Tim 4:7; Heb 10:25).
Mark #3: The Members of the Group are Held Together by Bonds of Genuine Affection
Worldly affection exists between people with common interests and personalities. Godly affection exists between people with a common Savior from whom such affection flows (1 Pet 1:22). I remember having a small group meeting where all nine adult men of the group—ranging from 17 to 39 years of age—were in a meeting room in our church’s education building, squeezed shoulder to shoulder around a table that sat exactly nine. The room itself was small, with some of the arms and legs of the men—several of them were over 6 ft tall—seeming to be dangling out the windows of the room. I asked them if they wanted to move to a bigger room. Their response: “No! We like being close to each other.” They were not only serious about studying the Bible, they loved each other, and loved being in each other’s presence. Such affection—evidence of the reality of Christ’s presence in individuals (Phil 1:8; Col 2:2)—is important for a worthwhile small group. No one wants to study the Bible with a spirit of aloofness or disdain toward the people with whom you study.
Mark #4: There is a Commitment to Honesty, Transparency, and Confession of Sin
As men, we want to think we’re something when, in fact, we’re nothing (cf Gal 6:3; John 15:5). Because of this tendency toward pride, confession of sin and transparency about one’s struggles is difficult for men. “Weakness” and “vulnerability” aren’t part of the male vocabulary. I’ve been in enough small groups where, when it comes time to share prayer requests, the men share little more than, “Pray that I would manage my time well,” or “Pray that I would pray more.” There is no real confession of sin (James 5:16). There is no real bearing of one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2-3). Thus, there’s no true growth (Prov 28:13). And when there’s no growth, there is no profit. Only when a man can boast in his weakness will he be truly strong (2 Cor 12:10), and small groups with a culture of honesty and transparency—necessary elements for depth of accountability—are where men can strengthen their brothers.
Mark #5: There is a Combination of Serious Bible Study and Enjoyable Activity
A men’s small group falls under the umbrella of the ministry of the local church, and the local church exists to for the edification of the saints. Thus, discipleship must take place in small groups. Christ said to make disciples, and not simply form social circles. In order for discipleship to happen, there must be a place for the study of the Word of God with other men (Matt 28:19). But the presence of serious Bible study can regularly take place in a group that also knows how to have plain old fun with one another (Psalm 19:5, Eccl 9:7-8). The two components do not need to be mutually exclusive. If anything, I’ve observed that the more fun a group of men have together, the more effectively they can study the Bible together and the more substantial the conversations that take place amongst one another. The strongest and most genuine of relationships are those where both depth and enjoyment are integrated.
Mark #6: Progress is Actually Happening in their Personal Walks
Vulnerability about the past must be matched by accountability for the future. A men’s small group where everyone habitually returns to their own vomit (Prov 26:11) is not a group fleeing from sin and pursuing godliness (2 Tim 2:22). Thus, a good men’s group is one in which the men both agree to change, are held accountable to change, and actually change in a manner that is evident to all (1 Tim 4:15). And when a man is either refusing to let go of certain sin habits or is slothful about them, the other men in the group must be willing to confront him and stir him up to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24-25). Only when there is such a commitment to progress can men truly sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). No matter how deep the Bible studies or enjoyable the activities, and no matter how honestly sins are confessed, only when change is actually taking place as stimulated by the small group can the small group claim to have actual profit.
Mark #7: They are Active in the Church and Build Relationships Outside of the Small Group (1 Cor 1:12-13, 12:26)
I’ve been part of small groups where the men in the group only really spend time with each other in the church, and they become a kind of ingrown toe-nail in the church. They’re not only with each other during the small group hour of the week, but interact with just each other even during Sunday services. I’ve been a part of Bible studies that are almost like their own underground churches: the rest of church never sees them! A good men’s group consists of men who, while existing in deep relationships with one another, are active in the life of the church as a whole and invest time in people outside of their small group. They rejoice when members of the church outside of their group are honored, and they suffer likewise (1 Cor 12:26). Such a group consists of men who are reputable both in the church and also in their community.
God has designed for Christ to be formed in the men of the church (Gal 4:19), and he has provided the means for that to happen. One of those means is a good, worthwhile men’s small group. Let every man seek to join such a group, and let every men’s group seek to exhibit these markers for the glory of God and the good of the church.