I get emails —
We are specifically looking at defining the role of small groups in our “process.” Currently, we have done no training of small group leaders, haven’t really reached any type of consensus on the goals and objectives of the small groups
This is a more challenging question than I thought after my first read. You see, the writer’s congregation is just now beginning a new small group ministry, and as is true of all such ministries, one of the most important questions is the goal of the ministry. And there are a number of possible goals for small groups —
* To do evangelism
* To build closer relationships within the congregation
* To provide instruction to the members
* To provide pastoral support and encouragement for members
* To provide a framework for doing community service
* To provide member accountability
Of course, a groups ministry might do more than one of these, but it’s unlikely that it can do all of these. For example, accountability groups ought to have three or four members at most, as the goal is to be very open about your personal walk with Jesus, including marital and parenting struggles. You just can’t get there in a group of 8, nor can such a group serve to accomplish evangelism, because visitors will feel extremely uncomfortable in such a frank and open setting.
But much of the literature ignores the impact of the size of the group or the gender mix (accountability groups need to be single sex), blithely assuming that people will want to share their struggles with sexual temptation in a mixed group of 30, with visitors present. It just won’t happen, nor should we expect it to.
If the goal is to build friendship or to do instruction (in lieu of classes), the group could be quite large, so long as it doesn’t put an undue burden on the hosts. Large groups can also be quite good at pastoral care. If a member is in the hospital and needs 24-hour sitters, a group of 20 is far more likely to be able to meet that need than a group of 8.
Just so, evangelism requires an “open” group, that is, a group that feels the need for more people. If the house is full, a visitor can be a problem. If the group is too large, relationships can be hard to form. It’ll be more like a party than a circle of friends.
Therefore, function drives such questions as —
* How many members?
* Mixed gender?
* Should there be a meal?
* Must there be a devotional or class?
* How often do we re-sort the groups?
* What about child care?
* Common age groups or mixed ages?
And the most common mistake small group leaders make, I think, is trying to do too much, and therefore doing nothing particularly well. Here’s my advice —
1. Put the books back on the shelves and think about real people in your congregation and neighborhood. How big are their houses? How far apart are their homes? How many will have child care issues?
2. Which possible functions of the small groups is a real need? Do the members feel the need to draw closer to one another? To build relationships? In a small or even medium-sized church, they may not. Do new members have any trouble fitting in and making friends?
3. Do we have classes at church? If so, I hardly see the need for another class. I’m not sure I see the need for a devo regardless of group purpose (many will disagree with me). I think, rather, in a church with classes the goal should be pastoral and service oriented. The best way to truly grow close to others and to grow spiritually is not through studying six questions about the sermon. It’s to serve together — doing something. Cut an elderly lady’s yard, maybe even a non-member. Find a social service agency that needs volunteers at night. Begin a mentoring program for young members. Tutor at the housing projects. Do something worthwhile, in the name of Jesus, as a group, and you’ll accomplish many of the other possible goals better. Don’t just be a party preceded by a bad devo.
4. But if you have no Bible classes, you may well need a groups ministry that accomplishes many of the same functions as a class. And this can be very effective. Indeed, for many churches this is how they do the Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples model. They meet to worship, and they do class in the homes through small groups. The classes are real classes but designed to be accessible to de-churched and maybe even unchurched.
5. Don’t get hung up on a single model. In many churches, if not most, you likely need several group types, and should be prepared to equip leaders for more than one kind of group. A singles small group may be all about being relationships and bringing in more singles through a social network. And just having a safe, Christian environment for finding and building friendships may be a great and necessary service for young singles. For new Christians, classes in a home setting may be a great way to accelerate their maturity. For teens and college students, groups with adults who can serve as mentors may be very key, provided the studies speak to the needs of that age group. And service-oriented groups work for all ages and even for new members. And some people may well hunger for smaller accountability groups to go deeper into their walk with Jesus.
6. You can train leaders in a class setting, but once the groups get going, they should be coached in very small groups — following Jay’s lunch table rule: no more in the meeting than will fit around a table at lunch, that is, four or so. The biggest reason is that a leader will refuse to discuss personality issues and child care issues and such in a group of 30 group leaders, but will gladly seek advice in a very small group. Therefore, the small groups leader must gather his leaders for coaching in groups of three or so, over lunch or breakfast. He can do large announcements and training once in a while, often by email. Real coaching has to be nearly one on one. And this, I think, is another of those critical mistakes many leaders make. You can’t mass produce small group leaders.
And so, readers, what’s been your experience? What kinds of group ministries have been beneficial to you and others? What kinds have missed the mark? What mistakes should the leader of a new group ministry avoid? What examples should he emulate?