Anyway, let’s cover some of the practical issues small groups present —
* How do we divide the church into groups?
There are as many ways as there are churches. Some divide geographically. Some divide based on personality profiles. Some divide by age or Bible class. Some divide by life stage — the ages of their children. Some divide by ministry talents (those wanting to work with abused women join one group, those wanting to help in addiction recovery join another).
We started with multi-age groups in an effort to help our members get to know each other better. But we found that most (about 80%) of our members prefer common-age groups. They were looking to make friends. And common-age groups allow young leaders to learn to lead people of their own age.
Our Bible classes are also based on age (roughly). And so most of our groups are formed out of the classes, making it easy to recruit members and visitors to small groups in class. And from an evangelistic standpoint, common-age groups are helpful, I think.
However, we aren’t rigid on this. We have some multi-age groups, too.
* What should a group meeting be like?
Well, most eat. Some don’t. Some have full meals. Some eat snacks.
Some meet at a social agency to go to work. Some meet in restaurants for lunch. Most meet in homes when not doing ministry, but some meet in a coffee shop or even in a breakroom at work. Some meet at the church building.
Some sing, have a lesson, and pray. Some rake leaves for elderly members. Some adopt a neighborhood of elderly folks who aren’t even members.
Some sing in houses. Some sing in nursing homes. Some spend a lot of time in prayer. Some spend most of the time on a lesson.
There’s no pattern. No rule. It’s all quite pragmatic — what best serves God’s mission in Tuscaloosa.
* What should the group study?
It’s hardly a given that they have to study something. I mean, they’ve already had a sermon and a Bible class Sunday morning. It’s quite okay for Christians not to study when together.
I’d far rather that they spend their time in ministry and ministry planning, and some do. Prayer is a better use of time, too.
But most of our groups do study a lesson. If they have non-Christian participants, they cover something fundamental and practical.
Some years, we’ve studied a lesson based on the morning’s sermon. The experience has been uneven, because even excellent sermons don’t always make into great lessons.
We’ve sometimes bought small group lesson material, and some has been good, some not so good.
Normally we look for lessons that require very little preparation and that encourage group discussion. We want the lessons to draw our members closer to each other as well as to God.
Lately, many of our groups have found their own material, as the leaders have grown in their faith and become aware of the vast array of excellent material available.
And as our groups have grown more active in ministry, the lessons have become less important.
The best groups, I think, spend more time eating and “fellowshipping” than in lesson study. They encourage and support each other.
* How do you get started?
Obviously, the elders need to agree. They really should support and participate. The staff, too, should actively participate.
The staff should never be involved in Sunday night services at the building because they should always be fully involved in small groups. And I think this is essential. Let a member who desperately wants to keep Sunday nights alive teach the lesson at the building. Move from the auditorium to a classroom. Post a sign for visitors.
When to meet
Don’t dare add small groups to an already full church schedule. No one has the time. Rather, you have to give up either Sunday or Wednesday nights for group meetings.
We chose to give up Sunday night worship because, well, it’s entirely redundant with Sunday morning and because Wednesday nights have too much good stuff happening, especially with the children and teens.
We continued to have Sunday night services for those who declined to participate. This quickly changed to a small group meeting of its own, as there were very few members at the building.
However, groups have freedom to meet when they prefer, and some prefer lunch or a weeknight.
Select leaders with great care. But don’t underestimate your members. We’ve had quiet, relatively uninvolved members mature into leaders for our most effective groups. If someone feels a passion, let him try (unless he or she is obviously not gifted. I mean, don’t be stupid).
Dividing into groups
Early on, you may want to assign members to groups. Or you may want to allow sign ups in the classrooms.
We used to assign people, but it was way too much trouble for the numbers we have participating. We’ve tried open sign up — first come, first served. We’ve tried to sign up in classes. Presently, we place sign up lists in the foyer with the leader’s name at the top of the page. But this is just for newly formed groups.
Don’t insist that unwilling people participate or lead. Let them go to church like before. Soon enough, the groups will recruit most of the members into the group structure.
Train the leaders. Teach them to insist that their members be responsible. If you sign up to bring the three-bean casserole, you bring the casserole even if you have unexpected company or your kid gets a cold or your dog dies. Groups don’t work if people don’t keep their word.
I think the members should rotate hosting duties. Start with the most modest homes, but let’s be honest enough with each other that we don’t mind people seeing where we live. But many of our groups have one or two families that host every week. Just be careful not to wear the wives out.
The two biggest problems we face are members who don’t keep their promises and women worn out from hosting more than they should have to.
Take breaks. We love each other but sometimes we just need to do something else for a while. Break from Thanksgiving to New Years, except for Christmas or New Years parties. Break over the summer.
Don’t feel compelled to offer a church service during breaks. Break means break. Let people stay home a few weeks. God really won’t mind, and your groups will be healthier for it.
Structure a support mechanism for group leaders. They need to meet periodically with the leader of the program to discuss problems and share ideas. Some leaders will need help dealing with problem members. (All churches have obnoxious members who require special handling. It’s the nature of things.) Let the leaders support and encourage each other.
We’ve found that when the leaders meet in large groups — 20 or so — they’re reluctant to share personality issues: a wife tired of hosting, parents who won’t help with the kids, etc. There have to be smaller meetings, no more than 5 leaders at a time, with a coach — a minister or program leader — to sort these issues out.
Of course, the answer to most of these problems is to (1) be clear about expectations in the very first meeting and (2) insist that the members keep their word. Being tolerant of irresponsibility destroys a group quicker than anything else.
Groups should begin with an explicit promise to keep secrets and not gossip. People need a place to share their struggles without fear of word getting out of the group. If you have a group member who just has to gossip, well, you may have to ask him or her to leave, after giving sufficient warnings. Do not allow gossips to victimize your group members. Treat sin as sin.
Finally, be patient. The first year will be rough. You’ll make lots of mistakes. Some groups will fail. Some leaders will have to be removed. Learn and do better next year.
We’ve had great experiences in our first few years, but we’ve had our fair share of problems. We’ve learned a lot. And our members’ needs and abilities have changed.
We couldn’t have started by asking our groups to do ministry in the community. That was 7 or 8 years into the program. Start easy. Work up.