Small Groups Jesus Style: a book review.

Chances are your church has small group resources: curriculum, handbooks and user friendly guides. If you have led small groups (or been apart of one for any length of time) you probably have a few ‘techniques’ and tricks in your back pocket to help people get spiritually deep and foster a sense of community. A lot of ink has been spilled on how to lead small groups and lead them well.

Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus is a different book entirely. M. Scott Boren is a noted expert on small groups. As president of the Center for Community and Mission he consults and trains churches on how to have a vibrant small group ministry. But this isn’t a book about having the right vision, the right personality, the right gift sets or the right methods. Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus is about being relational and attending to where God is at work among those who are gathered. Boren writes:

The search for the ideal personality, the ideal vision and the ideal actions will send us off on detours that might look like the way of Jesus but in reality have little in common with it. We need to reframe leadership greatness so that our way of leading begins to reflect the way of Jesus. For this, Jesus does not give us much in the way of vision clarity or specific actions. Instead Jesus specialized in telling stories and using metaphors, one of which can help us see leadership as he did (23).

That metaphor is Shepherding. Boren points to our good shepherd, Jesus, who led the sheep by being with tthem as he guided them. Shepherding is relationship (or relationship with a purpose). If we are to shepherd small groups in the way of Jesus several practices which help nurture us on the way. Boren suggests eight:

  1. Hearing the rhythms of the Jesus way (chapter three)–help people press into (i) communion with God, (ii) relationship with one another and (iii) engagement with the world (55).
  2. Gathering in the Presence (chapter four)–creating a communal space for each person to encounter Jesus and find where He intersects each of our stories.
  3. Leading Collaboratively (chapter five)–sharing leadership with in a group (92-6),  having ‘elders’ who speak into each group (96-100), and partnering with other groups and ministries (100-101).
  4. Being Yourself (chapter six)–leading authentically out of your own gifts, passions and personality rather than a one-size-fits-all model.
  5. Hanging Out (chapter seven)–engaging in the holy inefficiency of ‘wasting time’ getting to know one another (rather than hoisting burdensome commitments on people who aren’t ready).
  6. Making a difference (chapter eight)–through paying attention to neighbors and networks, reflecting on them, acting locally and being a faithful presence for the wider culture (153-60).
  7. Fighting well (chapter nine)–moving past passiveness or aggressiveness towards mutual listening, sharing and affirmation
  8. Pointing the way to the cross (chapter ten)–helping people make the journey of surrender in a manner that transforms intentions, relationships and our very being (189).

As the above summary illustrates, leading small groups in the way of Jesus is not ‘technique-less.’ It takes purpose, intention and a little bit of know how if we are to shepherd people well. However, relational leadership requires flexibility and adaptability in our programs and approach. People (like sheep) do not always go where we as leaders intend. Boren illustrates that wise relational shepherds, know when to leave the flock to pursue the wanderers, when to speak truth  and most importantly when to listen.

So despite eschewing technique, Boren has a lot of practical advice. His chapter on Gathering in the Presence (chapter four) is about attending to Jesus in our midst but Boren also advises weekly meetings, welcoming people, sharing communion, managing the space or location, explaining again and again what you are doing, facilitating conversations, and ending on time (77). He touches on how to listen well, the importance of eating together and  the importance of listening and welcoming children as God’s agents in small groups (79-81).

Much of what Boren says about small group leadership, applies to Christian leadership in general (the way youth ministry books apply to ministry in general). I think there is a lot that is fruitful here for any small group leader, regardless of their level of experience. I agree with his emphasis on relationship over techniques and think that experienced leaders will nod, and make good use of his insights. Yet I still think those ‘technique-driven’ accounts on small group leadership have a liminal place, giving new leaders baby steps. As affirming as Boren is, and as attentive as he is to practical considerations, I still wonder if the small group noobs would benefit from something simpler, at least for the short term. But Boren’s approach is robust, relational, holistic and compelling. I wouldn’t want new leaders to stop short of the vision that Boren shares here. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review. I receive no monetary compensation and was not asked to write a positive review.

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