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Stages into Deeper Small-Group Fellowship
by Tom Goodman
September 9, 2010

About 95 percent of our worship service attendance participates in a small group.  That's a remarkable level of small-group participation!  A Common Ground group or Sunday School class provides the environment where real fellowship can develop.  So how do we develop it?  How do we turn group members into "soul partners"?

That's the title Rick Howerton gives to those enjoying the richest experiences of Christian fellowship.  "My experience as a small-group leader," he wrote, "has led me to conclude there are ten stages the heart goes through before newcomers to a small group make the group members their soul partners."  He describes these 10 Stages in a recent LifeWay article.  To illustrate, he imagines a woman named Grace moving through the stages in her interaction with a small group:

Stage 1: Invitation.  Grace is honored to be asked to join the group, believing there must be something about her the leader appreciates.

Stage 2: Anticipation.  Prior to the first meeting, Grace is somewhat eager at the possibilities that could come from joining the group.  Some individuals will experience other emotions including hesitancy and maybe even fear.

Stage 3: Intimidation.  As Grace shows up at her first meeting she feels the need for acknowledgement and acceptance.  She may be overwhelmed by what seems to be the depth of biblical knowledge and the spiritual passion of others in the group.

Stage 4: Inhibition.  Once the reality sets in that she is not as relationally connected as the other group members -- and not as understanding of the subject matter -- Grace experiences a meaningful level of self-consciousness.  It is at this stage that a group leader must step into Grace's life to help her overcome the obstacle of inhibition.

Stage 5: Exploration.  Grace begins to explore what her role in the group is by being a bit more verbal, even being given the opportunity to take on tasks as needed.

Stage 6: Evaluation.  Grace asks herself if her role is perceived as meaningful to other group members and vital to the group's life.  She wonders, "Is what I'm experiencing here substantive enough to give my time to this group?"

Stage 7: Actualization.  Grace mentally accepts the role she perceives is hers.  The others in this group acknowledge her as a friend, not just an acquaintance.  Grace concludes she is on board with the vision, goals, and expectations of this group.

Stage 8: Reconciliation.  In this phase Grace accepts, deep in her being, that she can trust the others to know her needs and respond, to keep conversations confidential, and to be completely reconciled to living the principles and practices espoused in the group covenant.

Step 9: Exhibition.  Grace begins to show the core of who she is.  She begins sharing more and more of her story, being honest with the group even to the point of embarrassment.  She will show evidence of a willingness to hold others accountable as well being held accountable.  It is at this phase that many people experience conflict between themselves and other group members.  When conflict occurs, if the group leader doesn't step forward to help individuals reconcile their differences attendees may exit the group or find themselves awkwardly reverting back as far as the Intimidation stage.

Step 10: Elation.  Once Grace is living healthily in stage nine, she reaches this final stage.  It is at this point that a group member will remain on board over the long haul.  She understands these new relationships have become her family.  She is part of an inner circle that encompasses something her heart has longed for -- authentic Christian community.

Think about the names of members and prospects on your small-group roster. What stage is each one in?  And what can your group or class do to bring each person to the next stage in deeper fellowship?


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