This question is mentioned last because it is last in terms of logical order. But, it may happen first in the class, and it may be the most important question you ask. Accountability questions go like this:
What did you do about what you heard last week?
The sad truth is, most of us didn’t do anything. We say that small groups are about changing lives, but are they really changing very much? Here is the question: how much do you think the average small group member has changed because of their small group in the past six months? How many could name specific, observable change that has take place in the last six months. Write your answer here:
Let’s be honest. In what ways has your life changed in the last six months because of something that happened in your small group? Write your answer here:
In what ways have you seen positive, specific changes in the lives of your students because of something that happened in group in the last six months? Write your answer here:
Did you struggle to come up with anything? Congratulations! You have a normal group. In my experience, this is typical. Sad, but pretty common.
A new vision for your group
What if we went at group a different way. What if, instead of teaching on a variety of topics and texts that went into detail of various word studies and background and what not—all good stuff. What if we went at it this way. What if we were to consider a number of possible goals for the next three to six months for our class members. Consider these possibilities.
- We want our group members to have a daily quiet time.
- We want our group members to memorize one verse a week and be able to recall the last twelve verses.
- We want our members to be able to tell the story of the Old Testament without notes in about five or ten minutes.
- We want our group members to follow biblical practices of handling money. We want them to have less debt six months from now than they have today.
- We want our group members to know their gifts and be ministering according to their giftedness.
We could go on and on with this list, but I think you get the idea. Now. Pick one. Pick one goal for the next three months. Let’s say we pick the first one: we want our group members to have a daily quiet time.
Let’s have some fun. Let’s imagine that I could pay you a million dollars if three months from now eighty percent of your members were having a quiet time eighty percent of the time. (And, no, you can’t pay them part of your million.) What would you do?
What I would do would have a lot to do with accountability.
I would come up with thirteen topics that had to do with the goal of getting everyone to have a quiet time. These topics might include:
- How to have a quiet time
- Quiet time in the life of Jesus
- Overcoming obstacles to having a quiet time
- Sweet hour of prayer: learning to love prayer
- Why God sometimes says no
- The reliability of the Word
- The treasure of the Word
- Praying the Lord’s prayer
- Prayer is not just about asking
- Three good Bible reading plans
- The power of habit
- Biblical meditation
- Scripture memory and prayer
- The benefits and limitations of discipline
- When Bible reading seems boring
Next, I would develop lessons on each of these topics. That is the easy part. The real key is this: I would be willing to set the lessons aside in favor of accountability. Every week I would prepare a lesson, but I would start the group by asking how we did this week in our quiet time. I would model this by having a consistent quiet time myself and sharing with the group how God spoke to me in my quiet time this week. Then I would ask how God spoke to them this week. I would let them share. If the conversation got good, I would let them share for a long time. I might even set aside my lesson if the conversation got good enough.
I would fully expect that in the early weeks few people might be having a quiet time. (This would vary quit a bit depending on the maturity of the group.) As each week went by, I would see a few more people having a quiet time, and those that are having a quiet time would get gradually more consistent. Accountability is the key to seeing this happen.
I would not get lazy and just not prepare a lesson on the hope that the conversation would get good enough. I would prepare a lesson each week, then listen and use my judgment, listening for the prompting of the Holy Spirit as to how much sharing and how much teaching would be useful to the group this week.
We would also spend a little time each week talking about why we are not having a quiet time. We would brainstorm together ways to overcome obstacles to having a quiet time. We would rehearse the benefits of having a quiet time based on the joy that we are all experiencing in our time alone with God.
This scenario is not theory to me. I have done it many times and I can tell you it is not that difficult to get 80% of your people having a quiet time 80% of the time if you hold them accountable.
I believe you could do this with most any discipleship goal you could imagine. Pick one area of life change that you are after. Go after it for as long as it takes. Hold people accountable. Watch the results before your eyes. Where you don’t have results, ask why. Discover obstacles. Remove obstacles. Solve problems. Find solutions. Provide encouragement.
It is this process that is at heart of life changing groups like Weight Watchers. They hold me accountable. We all know how to loose weight. Weight Watchers may teach some helpful things on how to loose weight but the main thing they do is provide an atmosphere of accountability.
Most of us know what we ought to do. We ought to read our Bibles. We ought to pray. We ought to give. We ought to live in authentic community and deep fellowship with one another. We ought to know our gifts and serve in the area of our giftedness. We ought to, we ought to we ought to, but many don’t. Why? It is not because they do not know. It is because they are not held accountable.
Can we do this in an open group?
There are two kinds of groups: open groups and closed groups. Open groups are ya’ll come groups. They are open to outsiders. They are for outreach. Closed groups—sometimes called discipleship groups—are for developing believers.
Many believe we can have accountability in a discipleship group, but not in a Sunday School-style open group.
It is true that you can set the bar too high. You can set the bar so high that it intimidates and runs off new comers. Imagine you are in a group that is holding one another accountable for scripture memory. At the beginning of the group, everyone gets into pairs and each person rattles off a dozen or so verses-near word-perfectly. This is great for discipleship, but not so good for outreach.
Maybe you can’t set the bar that high, but you can have some accountability, even in open groups. I did a series on the book of Proverbs once. We started with the observation that there are thirty-one chapters in Proverbs and thirty-one days in a long month. I suggested that if you were not reading anything else, you might consider reading the Proverb of the day. Each week I shared my own reading, and asked the group if they had read any from the Proverb of the day that week. By the end of the course everyone was reading the Proverb of the day.
But, here is the real point. This is accountability that does not run off newcomers. If you had visited the group two months into it you would have found that many of us were sharing from our reading of the Proverb of the day. Is this intimidating? Not for most people. Accountability can be done in an open group.
Accountability is the missing ingredient in most groups. Most people need accountability. Most church-goers know what they should do. They don’t do it because they are not being held accountable. You can do accountability in an open group. The bar cannot be too high, but you can do accountability in an open group. It is not likely that we will ever make disciples without accountability.
Josh Hunt, How to Use Questions to Stimulate Life-Changing Discussions, Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking (Las Cruces, NM: Josh Hunt, 2010), 119–124.