The objections go along these lines:
- The best time to meet is Sunday night, but we can’t give up Sunday night church.
(Yes, you can. Or you can give small groups permission to skip Sunday night church to meet. The time for two-worship services on Sunday are past — and that model only appeals to Church of Christ members age 70 or older.)
- They might teach something unauthorized. (I suggest a camera in each meeting as well as a couple of spies. And maybe some wire taps. Get over your paranoia and learn to trust your fellow Christians.)
- They aren’t authorized by scripture. (In Acts 2 a single congregation split up into separate houses to study and eat together — while also meeting as one in the Temple courts. Maybe this is a binding example? I can make a better argument that it’s mandated than you can make that it’s prohibited.)
The literature on small groups often makes the point that groups can be formed for several purposes. Chapter 1 of most books gives examples of small groups for assimilation of new members, evangelism, Bible study, personal accountability, counseling, etc. Chapters 2 through 13 talk about evangelism — because church is about nothing but going to heaven when you die.
However, recently I observe a more mature trend — that is, to have groups that form for multiple purposes and so take multiple shapes. Sometimes what people need are friends. Sometimes they need a place to volunteer. Sometimes they need help growing as disciples. Sometimes they need a third lesson on the same topic as the sermon and Bible class (okay, not really, but it’s a common theory because it’s easy). Sometimes they need a time to talk about the sermon (you’d better have a Cracker Jack preacher or else the lesson will be about the deficiencies in the sermon). Sometimes they just need a place to go to talk about raising children and marriage and such.
Now, if you’ll recall the posts on group dynamics, the size of the group impacts what the group can do. It’s okay to have some four-person accountability groups that meet over breakfast while other groups have 30 members and a great teacher who works to mature the group in the faith.
So watch out for small group books and small group leaders who come with a model and template in mind — who talk about multiple types for multiple needs but really just want one kind of group. Bait and switch tactics are no more right in church than in business. Just be honest.
Group purposes can change from year to year. And the old idea of multiplying groups is largely discredited. People who find a group that meets their needs don’t want to change because of some unproved theory. Form new groups out of new members and old members not presently in groups.
Sometimes a group gets too big — if they can’t meet in someone’s house they’re too big — and they do have to multiply. But rarely do both halves do as well as the group as a whole, because successful groups are usually built on the leadership of a gifted hostess or teacher. Be sure the new group has real, proven, trained leadership, or it will fail.
So I’m pretty laissez faire about group purposes and size — so long as the groups don’t attempt the plainly impossible — such as being a 20-person accountability group. Contrary to thinking 20 years ago, a group of 20 may well work very well evangelistically because there are so many people that a visitor might connect with — and personal connection matters much more than doctrine to most people not raised in a Church of Christ. Friends matter.
On the other hand, I also believe that anything worth doing is worth doing right — and “right” includes —
- Measurement. Take roll. Ask the staff how many were in attendance last week. If they don’t know, ask them to please find out. Insist that we take roll and turn it in to the office. And this is really hard, but you can’t oversee that which you don’t measure. It’s not that attendance is sufficient or the only measure — but if you don’t know the names and numbers, you won’t see the warning signs when a group starts to fail. You won’t even know if things are going well. But it’s really hard to get group leaders to get you the numbers. The solution is a new invention: the telephone. If people won’t log into the website and give a count, and if they won’t email the names, then call them. Nothing works like Alexander Graham Bell’s invention — and no one has really tried until they’ve called.
- Volunteerism. We asked small groups to take on service projects several years ago, and we had good success with that idea. But the point wasn’t to use the groups to get church work done. It was to get out into the community and serve. Unfortunately, some churches want to assign all unpleasant tasks to the small groups. Need meals cooked on Wednesday night? Have the small groups take turns. Need groceries bagged for the food distribution program? Have the small groups take turns. Need the grass cut? Small groups can take turns! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Why? Because it quickly makes small groups very unattractive. If you sign up for a small group, you’ve also signed up for 20 unpleasant jobs. And it doesn’t match gifts to service. The members will quickly figure out that they can meet “off book” and then no longer have to report attendance and do 20 chores that no one else will do — all while doing what they always wanted to do. They might even be evangelistically effective off book — since they don’t have to cut the grass and cook the meals and sack the groceries. (When you start passing chores out to small groups, you’ve obviously lost interest in using them for evangelism.)
- Read the literature. Saddleback is the place to start since they have 120% of their members in groups. Most books for 15 or more years ago are badly out of date. Find something current. The times have changed.