Why Small Groups?

At Maranatha, the schedule for March 16-20, 2020, included four student-wide chapels in the gymnasium, ending with a special chapel led by the student body council. But March 16, 2020, was the last chapel of that semester; the university transitioned entirely online to fight the pandemic. From that day to the first day of the fall semester, the Student Life Office was busy finding ways to retain the value of Maranatha’s chapels while social distancing. What they came up with was called Small Groups, and its value has outlasted the pandemic. 

What Are Small Groups? 

At its simplest level, Maranatha’s Small Group chapel is the division of the student body into fifty groups to study a passage or topic of the Bible. Each group (from 6-9 people each) has one faculty or staff member to lead them through the booklet that the Student Life Office has put together. Typically, groups have prayer, Bible reading, discussion, and teaching. 

Small Groups seemed a good way to retain the value of Maranatha’s chapel hour during the worst months of the pandemic, but Dr. Andrew Goodwill, dean of the students, saw its value long-term. “It started off as a COVID plan,” he says, “and it was one of those things where when we got into it, it had possibilities, and that’s why we have kept it. It’s not around right now because of COVID. It’s around because we think it’s a good idea.” 

Of course, the fulfillment of this idea does not come without effort. Much time went into the booklets that each group works through. Ten different faculty and staff members wrote individual lessons with discussion questions and case studies coming from six others. This semester, the booklet is entitled “Cultivating Fruit” and takes its lessons from Galatians 5, mostly the fruit of the Spirit. After all the writing, editing, rewriting, and compilation, the result is Maranatha’s personalized discipleship tool designed specifically for the small group setting. 

What is the Goal of Small Groups? 

The idea of Small Groups has never been about simply getting through the booklet, like a homework assignment. As Dr. Goodwill says, “The goal is to create an opportunity for relationships to form that are centered around God’s word. It is first and foremost a relationship-building time. Until somebody knows how much you care for them, they’re not going to listen.” This fusion of truth with relationship fuels small groups. 

As the concept has been developed and improved, this vision has become a reality that works itself out in the small groups. For the most part, students have understood and accepted the vision to build relationships around God’s Word. For example, Katie Jean Lingle, a senior studying biblical counseling, says of her small group, “I think the importance of small groups is that it’s a closer look at pursuing Christ on a personal level. Everyone likes to feel loved. Small group gives you that personal care from someone that also is seeking the Lord and loves you.” 

And Lingle’s group demonstrates that relational discipleship. Lingle meets with a group of all girls led by Mrs. Jamie Saxon, a teacher at Maranatha Baptist Academy. For Lingle’s group, the session starts by taking prayer requests and having group prayer. “It’s not an added thing at the end,” Lingle says, “And [Mrs. Saxon] really does a great job of getting personal prayer requests and making sure that the individual is prayed for.” Also, Lingle’s group does not read the booklet verbatim, instead taking out important parts of it and reading the given Scripture passages and discussing the content fully. 

Through these close personal interactions, Lingle has been encouraged by the faithful example of her Small Group leader: “It’s like Titus 2 where the older women need to be teaching the younger women. I know we’re not a church here, but it’s cool to see that. We get to see [the leaders’] goal, how God worked through their goal, or through their life, and they’re still faithful to God. I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s a blessing to me.” 

Of course, every group goes about small groups differently. Dr. David Saxon, a bible and church history professor, tries to take time at the beginning of every session to talk about the past week and get to know the students in his group. He begins with prayer requests and prayer and then offers context for the lesson: “I try to not be a teacher in the room. Sometimes I’m unsuccessful. Some things are on my heart. But usually, we just circle our chairs in the back of the room, and we just read around. After each section, I’ll say any comments. Everybody talks pretty well. And they have interesting things to say.” 

Dr. Goodwill mentions this mixing of various styles as both a benefit and a challenge, saying, “Forty-nine faculty and staff members, forty-nine different people, different comfort levels. I give a lesson and discussion questions to a certain person, and they’re going to be like, ‘That’s too restrictive.’ I give it to another person, and they’re like, ‘Where’s my narrative of notes that I need to read?’’ 

But the Small Group set-up allows these different styles to give their groups unique help. Dr. Saxon says, “There’s a fair amount of opportunity for creativity in the fact that we put six, seven, or eight students with a faculty or staff member in a room and say, ‘Study this book however you want to do it.’ And for creative people that’s a license to innovate.” The Small Group style allows the leaders to be themselves and lead as they are most comfortable to. 

What is the Advantage of Small Groups? 

While putting together all the logistics for Small Groups was complex, the idea itself is simple. Some would say it’s too simple. Why choose to continue this structure? For one, this simple, personal discipleship offers something that the regular chapel preaching hour doesn’t: participation. Dr. Saxon notes, “It’s more participatory. You can’t sleep and play on your phone when you’re in a small circle of eight people. There’s a little bit of an intensification of participation, and there’s more of an openness.” This time does not replace the twice-weekly preaching for all the students; it gives that teaching an outlet for questions and discussion. 

But more than just participation, Small Groups work because they have accomplished their purpose: relationships. The structure of Small Groups has led to more involvement and accountability between staff and students. Certainly, faculty like Dr. Saxon see the value in this. “Here’s a group of seven or eight that meet with me every week,” Saxon says, “and I know a little more about them: their hobbies and where they’re from, and their major. And I pray for them and encourage them to pray for me. The small group facilitates that. That’s very enjoyable.” 

But more importantly, students are recognizing the benefit of these relationship opportunities. Dr. Goodwill has received consistently positive feedback on the small groups—from students, faculty, and staff alike. Lingle says, “It’s an extra level of help. There’s a level of accountability that they can gauge our student body better as individuals.”  

In addition to the oversight and care that leaders can give to students, students can be watching the leaders as faithful examples. After only a semester meeting with Mrs. Saxon’s small group, Lingle has been challenged by Saxon’s example. “You hear about [your leader’s] life when they were younger,” Lingle says, “And now they’re here, and they’re still investing in you. I want to do that. I don’t know what my trail is going to look like. But if I get the opportunity, am I going to be willing to be a Small Group leader?” 

The cycle goes full circle. Maranatha’s faculty and staff sacrifice time to be servant leaders to a group of seven or eight students. And those students see the example of the leader and go out to do the same in other settings. Maranatha’s goal is for its students to go out into local churches and make their own small groups. “I would like all of those young people someday to be in a local church being involved in small groups,” says Dr. Saxon. “It could just be a get-together on Thursday evening–talk about God, talk about the Bible, and pray together. That’s how discipleship really ought to happen in a local church. I believe [our students] are being prepared for active engagement in mentoring and discipleship relationships later. And our local churches need more of that.” 

Small Groups encourage participation and relationships. As the students are willing, these relationships can foster more servant leaders who can go out into local churches and organize their own small groups. 

What Is the Future of Small Groups? 

Since Small Groups began as a safety precaution, are they likely to continue? Given the positive feedback and the spiritual encouragement from these groups, the answer is overwhelming yes. Of course, the structure of Small Groups may change and improve. Dr. Goodwill says, “I see [Small Groups] going on, continuing to improve, continuing to sharpen each other. A lot of us have never done anything like this. It’s going to be different every year but provide different opportunities. I see this becoming just one of the staples that we have. And pretty soon, people aren’t going to remember a time when we didn’t have it.” 

Small Groups have always been more than a second-best option. They are a powerful way to engage, involve, and grow Maranatha as a whole. After all, a huge chunk of Maranatha’s family has been a part of this process. “Now we’re involving almost all the faculty and staff,” Dr. Saxon says. “And we’re all getting to participate in these mentoring relationships, hopefully modeling for students but also learning from students. Small Groups created a venue in which we could really enhance our leadership training for our students. COVID forced us to do it, but, boy, was it a good idea! And I hope we keep doing it for years to come.”