Have you ever visited a church’s website and seen icons for small groups — but when you click on those icons, you find that the ministry you thought was a network of small groups is really just Sunday school classes that have been re-branded as ‘Life Groups?’
I have (and if you have visited many church websites, I imagine so have you). I have also experienced a number of churches that claim a small group ministry by cobbling together isolated and disconnected age-level ministries. A men’s coffee, a quilting group, a dinner-and-a-movie club, and the youth group do not a comprehensive small group ministry make! Cobbling together long-standing affinity groups and centering small group gatherings on Sunday mornings are just a couple of the pitfalls of claiming small group ministry without a clear sense of identity and purpose.
For an example of a church clear on its identity and purpose and with a solid grasp on the spiritual discipline of small groups, go to Dayspring United Methodist Church and check out Pastor Matt Stone and the culture of small groups they are creating – a move from “a church with small groups” to “a church of small groups.”
Also take a look at Pastor Matt Miofsky and The Gathering United Methodist Church and see CoreGroups that are spurring on spiritual growth and development across multiple church campuses.
Small groups have been a part of the Methodist movement since its inception in the early 1700’s, and unfortunately most Methodists today have not experienced the power and benefit of class meetings and bands that deepen the discipleship of entire congregations. There are countless testimonies recorded in the story of the People Called Methodist of professions of faith, life transformations, evidences of spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit, and community growth because of the work of class meetings and bands.
Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting and The Band Meeting are two excellent resources for helping your congregation better understand growth in their relationship with Christ in the way of the Methodist movement. Beginning with the Holy Club at Christ Church College at Oxford, Methodists have engaged in self and group examination with questions like:
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
- Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
- Can I be trusted?
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
- Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
- Did the Bible live in me today?
- Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Am I proud?
- Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
- Do I grumble or complain constantly?
- Is Christ real to me?
This can all seem overwhelming at first, but once a congregation does the work of knowing who it is, being able to articulate its identity creates energy. The creation of intentional small groups is a great way to expend that energy.
So, here are 3 common reasons small groups fail followed by 3 things that can help small groups grow!
3 Reasons Small Group Ministries Fail
1) The congregation isn’t sure of its identity
This issue isn’t just about small groups. A church that is not clear on its identity and its purpose is going to stall in most initiatives that require a deep connection to identity and purpose. A small group ministry led by laity cannot put down roots in a congregation if the congregation cannot articulate its own roots.
Before launching a small group ministry, ask these questions of your church, your leaders, and people in the community not affiliated with your church:
Who are we?
Who is our neighbor?
What is God calling us to do right now?
It is worth waiting to collect good answers to these questions and receiving help interpreting the answers before launching small groups. Because these are questions the church already needs to have answered, gathering and distributing the data collected from the vantage point of your new small group ministry will generate interest and energy early on in the process.
In the church I serve, the language we use every week is that we exist to make disciples. We also weekly embrace the core values of mission, children and students, and worship and spiritual formation. When we make decisions, they are centered on this mission and these core values. When we make decisions that are not centered on these values, it is very apparent in the congregation. We can quickly see when something we decided to do did or did not help make disciples, enhance mission, engage children and students, or deepen our worship. We also know that we’re a church that focuses intensely on welcome and on casting a wide net. We know who we are as a place with a church plant culture and a countryside aesthetic. We know our worship brings tradition and today into the same room. Knowing who you are doesn’t keep you from making mistakes or failing, but it certainly makes mistakes and failure more meaningful and clarifies purpose instead of merely discouraging laity.
2) Instead of starting a new small group ministry, the church uses existing groups or classes
This truth is undisputed: the number one way to reach new people for Christ and to extend influence into neighborhoods and communities is to do a new thing. Start a new worship service. Plant a new church. Launch a new mission. There is nothing on earth or under heaven that will reach new people more or better than a new thing. So, when a congregation launches a new small group ministry with Bible studies or affinity groups that already exist, problems emerge. First, the groups all have different lifespans and different DNA. Second, they are organized and scheduled for the people already involved. Third, there is no connection between them, and there will certainly be no meaningful connection between these groups and whatever new groups a congregation manages to start using this model.
The danger of this method is also that a large emphasis on scheduling is settled on Sunday mornings as or alongside a Sunday school ministry. Sunday school classes are designed to accomplish continued learning through study of curriculum. Small groups in the Methodist movement are designed to accomplish mutual edification and spiritual growth through conversation, prayer, searching scripture, and singing.
Sunday schools classes: Main focus – completing curriculum
Affinity groups: Main focus – gathering around common interests or lifestyles
Bible studies: Main focus – a particular book of the Bible or biblical theme
Small Groups: Main focus – “How is it with your soul?” – digging down into how we are doing following and serving Jesus
The aims of these multiple groups – especially if some are already long-standing – are too different to have the cohesion needed at the launch of a small group ministry. Don’t make the other groups stop meeting! Rather, help them have the vocabulary to articulate the differences.
3) The church is using small groups to handle dense curriculum
I once received a phone call from a member of a HomeGroup we had just launched through our church. They met at a local restaurant each week. The reason for the call was that attendance was shaky and the members were overwhelmed. I immediately asked what they were focusing on during their time together. It was Richard Foster’s A Year With God: Living Out the Spiritual Disciplines. What happened was that some members didn’t like the book, others had fallen behind, and still others were at varying levels of Christian spiritual maturity. The book had become a millstone around their necks! By removing the book and focusing on Wesley’s Holy Club questions for self-examination, emphasis returned to conversation and sharing and the weekly preparation became more manageable.
I also consulted with a church who used their new small group ministry launch during the season of Lent to engage the Lenten sermon series. When the Lenten sermon series ended and Easter came, the groups stopped meeting. They launched again during Advent with the same purpose, but by the next Lent the small group ministry had all but gone. Changing course on curriculum and lifespan damages the growth of small groups.
By focusing your group’s energy on sharing their lives together, praying together, and serving together, there is less anxiety about meeting together and greater buy-in from people in a culture of crammed schedules.
Know who you are before you start, really start fresh, and exchange curriculum for community building.
3 Things That Can Help Small Groups Grow
1) Create a ranching model for care and communication
If you are a senior pastor, discipleship pastor, a professional lay staff member, or a small group coordinating volunteer, the advice is the same: create a ranching model. Most churches in the United States right now are small. In my conference of the United Methodist Church, over 300 of our 496 churches have an average worship attendance of 60 people or fewer. 100 of those 300 churches worship 17 or fewer. In this setting, the pastor-in-charge is the chaplain. Everything runs through her. She is in hospitals, homes, neighborhood gatherings, and Friday night football games. This chaplaincy model will burn out your care and communication from the very beginning of a small group launch. Create clear areas of care and communication that flow up to the pastor, like this:
Small group of 6-10 people caring for each other during the week, cared for by a HomeGroup facilitator who monitors the care, cared for by the pastor who shepherds the facilitators
In this way, multiple expressions and gatherings of your small group ministry can continue to develop without relying on the capacity of the lead or associate pastor to maintain one-to-one meaningful connections. This also creates a smooth flow of communication from the pastor to the facilitators, from the facilitators to the members, and back again.
2) Establish a common thread through every single small group
All class meetings in the Methodist movement shared common experiences that allowed moving from one class meeting to another not so daunting an exercise. In the same way, smaller gatherings of bands for intense spiritual development shared the same commitments to mutual edification regardless of the church or location. Common threads encourage shared vision, and shared vision is powerful.
In my own network of small groups, every single group begins with the question, “How is it with your soul?”, every group ends with the last two stanzas of St. Patrick’s breastplate prayer, and every group selects one act of mercy every quarter that gets them serving together in the community. Common threads and shared vision mean more people in your church have the ability to articulate and expect the same things.
3) Intentionally show them the power of community
By bringing your small groups together, whether you have three, or thirteen, or thirty you are enforcing the truth that there is no Christianity without community, and that our strength is in the fact that Jesus has given us authority to bind and loose things here on the earth that are ratified in heaven. Even the desert fathers, who escaped culture and community to more deeply encounter Christ and receive spiritual awakening, ended up with so many disciples that they moved back into communities and founded the first monasteries.
Bring your small groups together to dance, to sing, to pray, for trivia nights, worship services, revivals, and large one-time service projects. Even the people in your congregation who choose not to be a part of your small groups will be energized by and proud of this. People in your community will notice. You can’t put a price on that.
As the cultural trends of church attendance on Sunday mornings continue to play out, having another way to show the power of community is incredibly important. Also, if your church is changing into the next category of size, the power of community in small groups is a wonderful way to shepherd returning guests into devoted followers of Jesus.
Streamline care and communication, establish common threads, and flex the power and influence community can have