"Our small group just doesn’t have the energy it used to.” Seeming genuinely perplexed, he continued, ”We’re really not sure what we should do. We’ve decided to take a break this fall. But maybe it’s best to just move on? It just feels stale. Any ideas?”
Maybe you’ve had this conversation with a leader. Maybe you’ve had a group yourself and wondered why it seemed stuck. Most of us have been there.
Here’s a core assumption for me:
Every small group has a lifespan. They don’t live forever. Most groups have a lifespan of 18 to 24 months…max.
How you feelin’? Want to argue?
Maybe you’re wondering about a group or two that you’ve been part of that seemed to last a lot longer than that? Stick with me. There’s something you need to know.
Groups can be dead and just not know it. They can still meet, still choose curriculum, hang out. They can do all of that and be dead…and just not know it.
How is this possible? Read on…
The Sixth Sense and GroupLife
Let me give you a way to think about this.
The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan tells the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who “sees dead people,” and an equally troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him.
You know the movie, right? You may not have seen it. I did. It was a great movie. Although several of the scenes still spook me when I think about them, it was a great movie on several levels.
Can’t see the video? Click here to watch the scene.
(Spoiler Alert) Throughout the movie, the psychologist worked hard to help the boy. He was very understanding. He seemed to genuinely care about the boy. And then at the very end of the movie, in one of the greatest plot twists of all time, you suddenly realized that the psychologist was dead the whole time. The whole time! The boy could see him and even talk with him. But he was dead.
How This Relates to the Lifespan of a Group
In the same way that the psychologist seemed alive, some groups seem alive. The test for the psychologist is clear. What’s the test for a group?
Some diagnostic questions might help:
- Is the group still an environment where life-change* is happening?
- What are the spiritual growth issues being worked on?
- What are the spiritual next steps that are being taken?
- Are there group members whose spiritual vitality is confined by the limits of the group?
- Is it just comfortable?
Obviously, every group is unique. There are clearly exceptions to the 18 to 24 month guideline. How will you know which ones are dead? Can you tell when they’re dying?
I say yes. There are clear signs. If you ever watch The Sixth Sense a second time you see all kinds of signs that he’s dead. It’s amazingly more obvious the second time around.
In the same way, if you begin looking at the groups in your system with an eye for lifespan…you’ll start to notice a lack of certain vital signs. There are definitely steps you can take to revitalize a group (I loved Rick Howerton’s, 10 Tips for a Small Group Makeover). There are also times when you’ll see the wisdom of encouraging certain groups to consider taking a small group vacation.
The main takeaway? Groups have a lifespan. The objective of grouplife is life-change. If you’re paying attention, you’ll begin to notice dead groups. And you’ll have a better idea what to do.
Guide Notes from Allen Kleine Deters
This is very much up for discussion. What comes to mind for me is if churches are regularly evaluating, training and challenging their leaders to keep their groups focused on life-change will groups go on for a longer period of time? But if they're real missional and discipling groups won't they continue to grow and multiply anyway?
However, Mark does mention some very important things perhaps some churches really need to take notice of, namely, if your small groups are not growing disciples and bringing about life-change* are they valid or are churches having small groups, as ineffective as they may be, because you have to have small groups and have to be able to say you have small groups in your church ministry? Curious.
Let me know your thoughts.