I'm going to stick my neck out here (for those who know me, that is not an unusual occurrence), to say my assumption is that most of our denominational churches are churches "with" small groups as opposed to ones "of" small groups. I have to admit that is my church at present, but our leadership is looking to change that mentality and focus our church into a family of God that functions as mobilized groups for discipleship and ministry.
Like many churches in our denomination, we are struggling to shed the mentality and pedagogy that all ministries in the church are programs and are an end in themselves. As long as you have some leaders and a curriculum you're set. However, for any ministry to be healthy and purposeful they need a clearly defined vision and mission.
I would contend that without a vision and missional purpose the programs become extremely self-serving. They have minimal benefit to the overall mission of the church to reach the lost and disciple them for works of ministry in the kingdom or for challenging injustice and caring for those in need. It's like throwing cooked spaghetti at the fridge door hoping something sticks . What, you don't test your spaghetti that way? You get the idea. If you aim at nothing you'll hit it every time.
Small groups in the life of the church ministry are no different. Without intentionality, they will falter or become extremely inward focused. I know many groups in another church I recently attended where people prided themselves for having been together in their group for over 10 or 15 years. They studied and prayed together, but their lives never changed; a marriage fell apart and another couple left the church. They had never once served in the community together nor come together to help a neighbor in distress. They watched their children grow up together and had lots of good desserts and refreshments while talking about the loving God of the Bible. But of what value was it all? How did it make them better disciples?
Another issue that arises with Small Groups in a programmatic church is seeing them as just one of many options for your spiritual growth. You can take them or leave them, whatever your personal preference is. The church needs to decide how they will disciple their congregation or most of these groups will turn into a feel-good Bible study like I mentioned earlier. Without a churchwide plan for building disciples, small groups just become another program.
In a programmatic church where small groups are one of many options you often find leadership giving their blessing, but not championing them as a key to building disciples. And let's face it, if the pastor isn't supporting such a valuable ministry through words and personal participation, the rest of the congregation will not see it as valid.
I recently read a blog by Mark Howell, a small group guru and consultant, about The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many People in Groups, and I wasn't surprised by his findings. Rick Warren the senior pastor and the other pastors are the small group champions. The value of small groups are mentioned at every service no matter what. Whether it's a recovery ministry or spiritual growth ministry, or new members ministry, they are done in small groups. Even Youth Ministry is done at least partially in small groups. Without the pastor and leadership being the champions of the small group ministry, it will only be another program in the church.
I can't begin to tell you how many times I've read and heard this as of late. Recently at the Right Now Leadership conference in Dallas the pastor as small group champion was reiterated by Larry Osborne (Sticky Church) and a host of other leaders. I never met one person who didn't talk about how vital their small groups were to the mission of the church and their champion pastor. And I keep reading in other blogs and books such as Simple Church, Comeback Churches, Small Strong Congregations, Natural Church Development, and Deep Church to name a few, of the absolute necessity to have a foundation of small groups to mobilize church members to mission, growing people in discipleship and reaching the world for Christ -- championed by the pastor and church leadership.
Small Groups is the way the early church did church (Acts 2:42) and lived the mission of God. It wasn't a program, it was a way of life and discipleship.
'til next time