It seems my consulting conversations as of late tend to focus around programmatic thinking. There are more and more churches that are either just now beginning to start and develop small groups or are reassessing them. Frankly I'm surprised that some churches are just beginning small groups. I thought everyone by now, would know about the potential of small group ministry in the church. But surprisingly that is not the case.
Here are what I believe are the core requirements to starting, developing and maintaining healthy small groups in your church.
- A clear vision, focus, purpose for small groups. I don't care what you call it...but if you shoot at nothing you'll hit it every time. What is it you believe God desires to do through and in your groups? What is your church's vision and how do small groups support it by their focus? What role will they play in developing disciples? Hopefully that is the ultimate focus of your church too. Know why you're developing small groups in your church otherwise it's just another program of many which may or may not develop disciples.
- Know what they are. At times when I ask folks why they have or want to have small groups in the church they will say something along the lines of, "because we feel it's important to have our people learn more about the Bible." So they want a Bible study that meets in a small group format. When I ask how they believe that Bible Study will transform the lives of the participants, they begin to struggle to clarify. What I have discovered in some churches is that they are not certain how a small group is meant to function. Every group needs a sense of community, purpose and accountability if it is going to develop people as disciples. Most of the resources we've included in this Small Group Network will help to clarify these things.
- The value of coaching and training. This is often the most overlooked part of developing small groups in our churches. A programmatic mindset often approaches new programs via the "if we build it they will come" principle which more than not falls flat perhaps over a few years, leaders burn out and groups become stagnant. There seems to be the idea that if we just get this new program going it will take care of itself. Not the case. There needs to be constant encouragement and support for the leaders to help keep them focused and confident that they can accomplish what they have been called to do. Put $$ toward leadership development in your church budget and keep your leaders trained and focused. You will not regret it.
- Never underestimate a group covenant. When I bring this up to people starting new groups they cringe slightly and sometimes respond wondering if a group covenant is necessary. I recently posted an article by Allen White called "Why Do We Need a Group Agreement?" which gives a great argument for this point. The short of it is that you agree to your purpose as a group, the logistics of how the group will function and necessary commitments to one another for accountability and support. It takes the guesswork out of the functioning of your group and gives you an avenue by which you can evaluate based on your common agreement.
- Do mission together. I've said it many times before, a group that loves, prays for and serves others in their local communities—not just in the church—grows and stays together. Isn't that what the Gospel transforms us into being and doing?
- Disciples make disciples and discipling churches make discipling churches. I borrowed that from Alan and Deb Hirsch in their book Untamed: Reactivating a Missional a Missional Form of Discipleship. The church's primary calling is to make disciples who make disciples. They don't just grow in their knowledge, but as the gospel of Christ changes their lives they naturally and intentionally reach out to others to share it and pointing them to a relationship with Christ. If it's not happening then something needs to change.
- Pastor as champion. Again, I've written earlier on this topic "Are Small Groups Just Another Program?". If the pastor does not participate and challenge others to participate the true value of small groups will be missed by the congregation. They will feel that small groups are not all that important and they can take them or leave them.
While there are other areas I could raise, it has been my experience and the common belief throughout the movers and shakers of the small group movement that these are key areas of focus. Without them, small groups struggle to survive, stay focused and truly transform lives making disciples. For many churches, they just become another program of many never really accomplishing the mission of the Church, but rather being programs for programs' sake.
I'd like to know your thoughts.