A Closer Look at Principle-Based Small Groups Pt. 1

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A recent comment by a reader mentioned their understanding of small group ministry was that everything from the choir to a group of people from the church who met to talk about gardening or scrapbooking was a small group. For years CRHM encouraged churches to adopt the Principle-Based model/philosophy of small group ministry almost exclusively. I thought it was worth another look.

Back in the days when I was a youth pastor in Calgary AB, I knew this model was out there, but it wasn't until I came on as a second pastor/youth pastor/worship pastor/small groups pastor….at a year old church plant in Grand Junction, CO that I saw Principle-Based (PB) small groups at work. Up until then I was sold on the cell-group model ~ study, care, share, grow, multiply.  During my seven years there I saw the value in the PB small groups. Then at age 43 a door flew open allowing me and my mostly grown family to finish my Mdiv degree at Calvin Sem.
 
In Grand Rapids I entered a part-time position at a CRC as their Adult Min Director which included overseeing and developing the small group ministry. The groups established were most PB and I was able to observe them in action in a different setting than a starting church plant. There I saw more of the down-side to using the PB model.
 
Before I do a critique of the system, I should help define what a PB group is:  
A small group is an intentional face-to-face gathering, varying in size and meeting regularly together to accomplish and agreed upon Christian purpose.
 
So basically any group of people meeting together over something "churchy" or "ministerial" in nature can be a small group. Your Pray and Putt golf group can be a small group.
 
Positive:
  1. The overall philosophy of PB Small Groups allows for the inclusion of other models, i.e. cell model, mission, task-oriented, etc. The reason it can do this is because the criteria for what can be a small group is based around this simple question, "What kind of small group would you rearrange your schedule for?". Small groups then fall into 6 motivations:
    1. Relationship-building
    2. Felt needs
    3. Affinity
    4. Passions
    5. Spiritual hunger
    6. Service-oriented tasks

You can develop almost anything into a small group with those criteria.

     2. Greater potential of gathering people. Because the criteria is so diversified, many different groups can be organized around a variety of tastes and passions…
 
     3. Many entry points. Similar to number two, PB groups can be an excellent way to introduce a pre-Christian to some of the life of the church. I've seen people come to Christ by joining the church's Pray and Putt group while other's have moved from just going to the ScrapBook group and then joining in with the Women's ministry as well. On the other hand if you're a life-long churchgoer and want something deep there are groups for that too.
 
PB groups have the potential for evangelism, equipping and growing disciples.
 
Negative:
 
     1. Managing discipleship is difficult. In any model or system keeping discipleship at the forefront of the mission in the church is difficult. But from my experience, I would say that the PB system is the most difficult to handle because it is so diverse by nature.
 
     2. Many entry points, little and difficult movement. If the churches mission is to make disciples, the PB system inherently bogs itself down. What tends to happen is that each group is happy to be just what they are. You may have 10 and maybe even 20 groups, but they may all have a different purpose and focus. While some groups by their Christian purpose were to grow in spiritual formation, many others easily became "clubs" rather than avenues toward making disciples. Even if the group included some time of prayer it did not necessarily mean that there was any intention to move people along in their discipleship growth. Sometimes someone might end up in a more spiritual growth focused group, but that was less the case. In making disciples there is always a forward movement; from pre-disciple toward a disciple making a disciple and all the steps in between.
 
     3. Probably the hardest thing for me to do was coach these leaders from such diverse groups. For some groups, the only thing they had in common was that they could both say they were a group and had a number of people. While a cell-type or discipleship groups were struggling with better ways to get people to open up about their walk with God, other affinity-based groups were concerned with whether the church might approve of them going out for beers after their game. Some leaders were serious about seeing people grow spiritually, while others just wanted to organize the card-making club without spiritual growth on their radar.
 
     4. PB groups can appease the need to have groups and create comfortableness rather quickly. I have seen this in many churches using this model. They get stuck in a rut feeling good that at least they have small groups and quite a few people in such diverse groups. So the focus becomes more on having small groups and people involved than on whether or not the church is making disciples.
 
But the question still arises, How are these groups making disciples? The answer to that question goes back to whether or not you can keep your leaders equipped and focused on the over all goal to make disciples in the church. I think then you can work any small group system into your church.
 
I hope to spend a bit more time on PB groups next week.
 
akd
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