I See Dead Groups

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By Mark Howell

"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.

[video:"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSNyiSetZ8Y&feature=player_embedded"]

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.

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My questions is - how do you end a group well once you've realized it's dead? I think this is the hardest part of things.

Participant

Most certainly it's the hardest since people find it difficult to admit it.  While it's never easy, I have found that if the church has a good small groups director they can meet with the group and lead an evaluation with the members.  The hardest part is when there is little support like that and someone in the group is left to raise the issue of the elephant in the room -- very difficult indeed.  This is the reason why we always say that small groups ministry must have clear vision and mission so that it is easier to see when groups are not on the page.

Someone should give groups permission to die if that's what is necessary.  This is true for any ministry in the church.

And then say good bye WELL, rather than a few key people dropping out, and it limping along on life support for a while before the others also acknowledge the elephant. If the group ends, then there's opportunity for each person in that group to find something MORE fulfilling to be involved in, which perhaps, would be a good direction for the emphasis when ending a group...

Just a question:   if a group only is effective for 18-24 months, is this because it is new?   Is the excitement of newness what sustains it?   Can a small group mission be achieved in 24 months?    How is a small group, or a large group, perceived to have purpose beyond the excitement of "newness"?   In a family (which is a type of small group), it takes 16 years to raise one child.  And it doesn't always seem new or even effective.   Yet there is a need to continue to fulfill the purpose and vision.   Is there an analogy here with a small group? 

Participant

John, these are good questions worth asking.  Of course groups come in all different shapes and sizes; some churches have small groups based on principle (the CRC used to promot principle-based groups, but not so much anymore), that is people created small groups in the church based around interests mainly.  So people gathering to do scrapbooking could be seen as a viable small group in the church's ministry.  That is nice and all, but by-and-large wasn't really focusing people to grow in Christ and focus on the mission of God - -perhaps in small respsects some of this naturally happened, but that was not their purpose.  But when the focus of the ministry of the church is the misson of God to reach a lost and hurting world with the gospel and develop disciples as active kingdom members then the life and health of the group is very important as is it's focus to support the mission of the church.

Newness helps groups for sure as everyone is pretty much focused on the same page or at least should be.  Leaders direct that energy to foster community and engagement in the life of the group.  But what often happens is that enemy "comfort" rears it's ugly head already within the first year.  It doesn't take long before the group just wants to be a place of comfort and even subconsciously work toward that end.  They don't have a problem talking about God, Jesus and the bible, but they don't want the application questions to get too personal.  This is where things usually begin to break down in group life.  And it's hard to maintain the momentum of continued growth without a leve of dissonance.I think that if groups are honest with themselves and regularly take inventory and evaluate they may be willing to regularly deal with this, that is unless they'd prefer to stay comfortable -- safe and comfortable are not the same thing.  Such groups that evaluate regularly and stay committed can be the ones that last longer.

While a small group can sometimes be like a family it is not and the dynamics are significantly different.  For one, people arent' bound to the small group like blood kin and so people don't have that kind of intimacy with one another.  I think Mark raises imporant questions for groups to stay focused on the mission of growing disciples and reaching people.  If that's not happening are the groups being effective in the mission of God?

 

I've always appreciated something Rick Warren once said, "God is more interested in your character than your comfort." Where there is not dissonance there is no growth.