Discipleship Journal Issue 84 Nov/Dec 1994
If Jesus Led Your Small Group: Seven surprising insights from the Upper Room
What would it be like to be a part of a small-group meeting led by Jesus? Until recently, I never presumed that it would be possible to answer that question with any kind of authority. Then I realized the Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17 might provide a clue.
As one who oversees the small-group ministries in a church, I am always looking for information that would be helpful for our leaders. As I read through these chapters, it struck me that I was listening in on what in essence was a small- group meeting, and the leader was none other than Jesus Himself! A great deal can be said about small-group leadership by simply applying general biblical principles, but rarely do we get the opportunity to see Jesus in action as a leader in a real-live small-group meeting. Consider what we learn in the Upper Room from Jesus, the quintessential small-group leader.
Jesus intentionally prepared for uninterrupted time with His small group. This meeting wasn't just thrown together; it wasn't a spontaneous affair. Sensing the need to be alone with the Twelve, Jesus chose a special room in which they could meet. He gave careful instructions as to the preparation for their time together ( Lk. 22:10-12 ). Things like food and furnishings were important. Providing a place that was private and conducive to intimacy was important. Once they were in the room, we can assume that the door was shut and the multitudes were not welcome.
Jesus teaches us that small groups don't happen by accident; they require intentionality on the part of the leader. Leaders must be intentional about focusing on their small group, sometimes saying no to other people and other needs. Leaders must be intentional about the planning and preparation of place. Will the place we meet provide an atmosphere that is conducive to intimacy? How will phone calls be handled during the meeting? What about children? An effective leader will carefully think through these seemingly mundane details.
Jesus modeled what He taught. For example, He desired His disciples to be people who served one another in genuine humility, so He washed their feet in a shocking display of divine meekness. He also desired that they be people of prayer, so He fervently prayed to the Father in dependence and gratitude. No doubt, these vivid messages left an indelible print on the disciples' minds.
Small-group leaders who wish to pass on life-changing truth to their group members would do well to heed this principle. One authentic act of righteousness displayed before the group is worth a thousand lectures. Effective leaders will look for opportunities to serve others in the natural course of a group's life together and thus model what they seek to teach.
Time for Questions
Jesus allowed room for questions. Most of what Jesus taught in the Upper Room was in response to questions that the disciples asked. The Upper Room Discourse was, in fact, a dialogue. Jesus didn't rebuke His small group for asking what may have seemed to Him to be "dumb questions," many of which reflected their hard-headed forgetfulness of what He had previously taught. Though His answers were often very different from what His group expected to hear, He always responded patiently and thoughtfully. One of the most beloved and memorable claims Jesus ever made was a response to an honest query on the part of Thomas: "'Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?' Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" ( Jn. 14:5-6 ).
Successful small groups are ones in which many questions are asked by the group as well as the leader. Fielding questions is as much of an art as asking them is. Leaders must learn to welcome questions, even when they seem unimportant or threatening. Often these questions are opportunities provided by the Holy Spirit for the group to discover something new or uniquely helpful. This doesn't mean that the leader should feel it is his responsibility to answer every question asked, or even to make sure that every issue is brought to closure. Often the group itself will answer a question in the course of discussion. The leader's job is simply to create an atmosphere where questions are taken seriously and responded to with patience and care.
A Safe Atmosphere
Jesus created an atmosphere in which His group was free to fail. On two occasions in the Upper Room, Jesus told His disciples that they would soon fail Him ( Jn. 13:38 , Jn. 16:32 ). Though initially they protested these predictions, Jesus was in fact doing His disciples a great favor. Later, they would remember He made these predictions right alongside promises of His continued presence and committed love. This combination of personal failure and committed love would come to be the raw material for an entirely new understanding of their self-worth and adequacy for ministry—one rooted not in their own performance but in God's love and sufficiency.
Effective small-group leaders will prepare their groups to confront the reality of their own sin. They will provide a context within which people in their groups can fail in their spiritual journey and still survive emotionally because they know they are loved. Leaders can go a long way toward creating this kind of atmosphere by being transparent about their own sin and by being quick to reassure others who are willing to talk about theirs as well.
Jesus led from a position of mutual friendship rather than authority. While in the Upper Room, Jesus said to His disciples, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" ( Jn. 15:15 ). As a small-group leader, Jesus treated the people in His group like friends by sharing all that He knew with them. Rather than give orders He expected them to obey without explanation, He chose to lead as a friend, through loving dialogue. This method would insure that their discipleship was internalized, rather than born from mindless conformity.
Of course, most small-group leaders wouldn't admit they have a dictatorial style, but it's possible to violate this principle without even trying. For example, some leaders establish the purpose and direction of their group without ever consulting the group or even letting them in on what's ahead. They simply expect everyone to fall in line. The result is a group whose members outwardly conform to a standard, but feel very little personal ownership of what they are doing. In the end, this spells disaster for a small group.
Jesus could change His agenda in order to meet the needs of His group. Jesus recognized the overwhelming grief that the disciples were feeling because of His announced departure: "I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief" ( Jn. 16:5 ). As a result of their emotional condition, Jesus recognized their inability to benefit from much of what He wanted to say: "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear" ( Jn. 16:12 ). Jesus had a wonderful Bible study planned. He knew that if only they could grasp the truth of what He had to say, much of their grief would be gone. But, instead of cramming that truth down their throats, He held off. In essence, what He said was, "Let's hold off on the study right now. I can see that you are really hurting and won't get much out of it anyway. Let's deal with what you are feeling before we do anything else."
Effective small-group leaders are aware of the emotional pulse of their group. They are willing to change their agenda in order to deal with the pressing needs and feelings of just one individual. For example, if someone comes to a group meeting in tears, having just lost her job, she may not be able to benefit much from your planned study. Furthermore, the whole group will be distracted because of that one person's unmet emotional needs. The wise small-group leader will begin by recognizing that need, giving time for the hurting person to process her feelings, and allowing the group to respond in compassion and prayer.
Jesus ministered to His group by His absence as well as His presence. At several points in the Upper Room, Jesus told His group that His departure was best for them because it was necessary for the coming of the Holy Spirit ( Jn. 14:16 , Jn. 14:26 ; Jn. 16:7 ). Jesus recognized that through His absence a new and more intimate presence would be possible. In his book The Living Reminder, Henri Nouwen calls this "the ministry of absence."
Small-group leaders are rightly concerned about being present for their group both in and out of the planned meetings, but rarely do they consider that they can also minister to them by their absence. In the leader's absence, the group learns that the group is theirs, not the leader's. In the leader's absence, the group is set free from the leader's own compulsions and learns to depend on and listen to the Holy Spirit. When absent from the group, the leader himself is set free from his own need to be needed and learns to entrust his group to the Holy Spirit's care.
Effective small-group leaders recognize that withdrawal from the group doesn't always mean unfaithfulness, but trust that, at the right time, their withdrawal can set the stage for a new and better way of being present in their group's life.
The Upper Room Discourse was indeed the kind of small-group meeting that every leader longs for. It didn't happen by accident. It happened under the skillful and prayerful leadership of the quintessential small-group leader—Jesus Christ.
As leaders, we would do well to follow Jesus' example, with just one qualification: We must remember that we are not Jesus. There are certain things He did for His group that we can't do for ours. Jesus said to the disciples, "Where I am going, you cannot come" ( Jn. 13:33 ). Nobody could follow Jesus to that place, because no one else could be the world's Savior. While striving to follow His example in every other respect, in this we would do well to simply point our group to Him.
About the Author
Mark Mitchell is the pastor of
Someday Mark would like to write a book and run in a marathon (he's currently in training).
On Your Own
In His Steps
Use the following questions to make your leadership style more like the Master's.
Preparation: How can you prepare better for your next small-group meeting?
Modeling: How can you model a quality or action you've been trying to teach your group?
Dialogue: How can you create an atmosphere that gives your group members freedom to ask questions that aren't part of the "planned study"?
Freedom to Fail: How can you express acceptance and encouragement the next time a group member shares a struggle?
Friendship: If your leadership style has been authoritative, what one change can you make to relate as a friend, not a boss?
Flexibility: When someone throws your group discussion off-track with a personal problem, how do you respond?
Absence: How can you begin to share the leadership of your group so people aren't so dependent on you?