Growth Groups

Passing the Baton-text-S2Growth Groups by Col Marshall has been around now for a couple of decades. For many of us, it’s been the ‘go to’ book on small group ministry. As I’m currently reviewing how we support and equip our growth group leaders, I thought I should read over it again. My immediate thought was it could do with an aesthetic refresh. The number-dot-number section headings makes it look out of date and rather academic. However, the content is as relevant and helpful now as it was back in ’95. If you were to get one book on leading Christian small groups, this would probably be the one to get. It gets you into the Bible, but it also explores the other aspects relevant to leading groups – such as group dynamics, prayer, personal ministry, evangelism, training leaders, and the like.

The real strength of Growth Groups is how it places small group ministry within the wider context of gospel ministry in church. God’s agenda for transforming lives shapes the agenda for these groups. The training course at the back of the book involves studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians and this anchors the earlier material in God’s Word. Colossians takes us from the grand themes of Christ’s lordship and salvation to their practical outworking in the Christian life. For this reason the best way to read Growth Groups is in conjunction with the training course.

If you’re not able to participate in a training course, the book still provides an excellent resource for leaders. It’s full of biblical and experiential wisdom on ministry in small groups. The following chapter headings show the breadth of material covered:

  1. The strategy of growth groups
  2. Growth group basics
  3. Pitfalls of growth groups
  4. Preparing a Bible study
  5. Leading a Bible study
  6. Answers about questions
  7. The games people play
  8. Praying in growth groups
  9. Gospel growth through growth groups
  10. Leading for growth
  11. Growing the individuals
  12. The healthy growth group
  13. Starting a growth group
  14. Selecting, training and shepherding leaders
  15. Developing the growth group program

It’s most logical to work through the chapters in the order they appear, but you can dip back into them any way you like. I’ve found that over the years I’ve written all sorts of notes, supplementary ideas, questions and links to other resources in the margins of my copy. It’s covered in underlining and highlighting, with various scraps of paper lodged inside. In other words its a tool – a workbook that I keep coming back to on the job.

Having read this book again in close proximity to reading Spice It UpI can see the overlapping ideas between the two. The latter builds on the chapters about preparing and leading Bible studies and it helps us to engage well with the text and with the people in our groups. Col’s book presents the foundational issues very clearly, and I believe its an indispensable ‘Small Groups 101′ manual. It offers a philosophy of small groups ministry, that’s anchored in Scripture, and from which our practise should flow. The best example of this is the opening chapter that draws us deeply into Colossians and expounds on receiving Christ as Lord and living with Christ as Lord (Colossians 2:6-7).

Chapter 3, on the pitfalls of groups, offered some helpful warnings. With the ubiquity of small groups in churches today, and the variety of purposes they seem designed to fulfil, this book warns how they can easily lose their way. Community, experience, and mission can all become divorced from their biblical significance and growth groups can become much like many non-Christian groups in our world. We’re encouraged to keep God’s agenda front and centre. Sometimes groups can take on an independent life of their own, reacting against the church, the minister, or the preaching. Our purpose is not to create isolated, independent mini-churches, but rather to help the whole church to build itself in truth and love by meeting regularly in smaller gatherings.

Chapter 9, on gospel growth, reminds us not to let groups become introspective cliques. God’s agenda of bringing people into his family through the gospel is to shape the purpose of growth groups. This might not mean regularly inviting and welcoming non-believers into our groups (though some groups could have this purpose), but it will mean keeping the gospel on our agenda. Growth groups are an excellent context to support one another in reaching out to others and to pray for friends’ friends to become followers of Jesus.

Growth Groups is intentional in developing leaders – it’s a training book, after all! But it calls leaders to be committed to expanding the numbers of groups by raising up and training new leaders. Apprenticing leaders is the preferred model, to be supplemented with the material in this book. The course itself involves guided reading of this book, plus a 10 week practical Bible study and training program. Our church is following a similar strategy by encouraging our leaders to have core members in their groups whom they are mentoring into leadership. We will also be offering specific targeted training courses later in the year for these apprentices and others.

If you’re a leader and you haven’t come across Growth Groups, then I recommend you get hold of a copy, read it and scribble what you learn all over it! If you’re looking for a training program for leaders in your church then this is a great place to turn, especially as it’s so comprehensive. If you’re feeling rather stale in your leadership, and you want to up-skill a bit, then why not read a few of the chapters of this book with a friend and discuss them together? If you’ve been reading The Trellis and the Vine then you will find that these books are singing from the same song sheet. And that’s a good thing because it’s about churches, small groups and individual Christians being shaped by the gospel.

9 thoughts on “Growth Groups”

  1. Hadn’t read this before but just downloaded the sample at and had a look through a few sections. (Hey, the sample has chapters 3 and 9. Did you read the whole book or just the sample?!)

    When I read your comment about the “number-dot-number section headings” I thought it sounded like something I would actually like. I didn’t find the section headings at all old-fashioned, but it is a bit odd that much of the text is written in dot points rather than paragraphs. It’s odd, but I don’t mind it, since many of the lists are checklists that don’t need to be more detailed. In fact, it’s rather refreshing and helped me to “dip in”. (But therein lies the danger of skipping some of the important explanatory text.)

    At the last meeting of my Bible Study one of the group made a gratuitous comment about Sydney Anglicans downplaying the significance of emotions in the Christian life — one of the usual canards. I instinctively, immediately pulled them up on that.

    And yet, as I now read section 3.1, “Dangers in small groups ministry”, which includes a sample comment from a participant in a study that includes the words, “We really felt the presence of God . . . There is a real sense of community . . . It’s great being able to let others know what is really going on inside and then feel accepted for what we are” and then goes on to describe “community” as one of a number of “buzz words” that “expose some of the dangers in Christian small groups — dangers which threaten the heart of the gospel”, I found myself cringing. As I read further, it did become clear that this is not pure reactionary nonsense, and I did get the point. But was it really necessary to caricature a particular style of Bible study and label it as “dangerous” from the very beginning in order to encourage the reader to want to do it differently? This style may be OK if you already agree (as I do), but if you don’t, it could be really off-putting.

    Thank goodness for page 100, which (at last!) says:

    Symptoms of a healthy group:
    • Emotions are expressed in the group.
    • Others are helped to express emotions.

    I found the “vision” of Bible study being offered on pages 27–28 attractive — yes, I would like to be in a Bible study group like that and I want to play my part in making it happen. But thinking of potential (and actual) group leaders in our church I think a number would have an instinctive reaction against the generally negative style of some sections of the book (i.e., chapter 3), and I would have to work very hard to keep them focused on the positive conclusions.

    But yes, lots of helpful stuff in the sample, and I will probably buy a copy to read as a refresher in the first instance.

    1. And your friends might like to check out:

      True Feelings: Perspectives on emotions in Christian Life and Ministry, edited by Michael Jensen. A series of excellent essays written mainly by Moore College lecturers and published by Apollos (IVP) in 2012.

      Great to see you on Sunday!

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