Six Shifts in Small Group Ministry

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Guest Post by Bill Donahue

When individuals are able to make a meaningful contribution, feel a sense of belonging and connect significantly with others, the result is community. Ideally, small groups should provide a fertile environment for life change, but that’s only going to happen as the church rediscovers the centrality of community. In churches around the globe, a variety of shifts are occurring that are shaping the future of small groups. These shifts are not a rejection of what has transpired in the past, but rather next steps designed to meet the same goal of community.

From a program to an environment. 
The program is a model, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. But the best way to nurture community life will be influenced more by the environment we create than it by the program we administer. Safety, trust, real listening, authenticity, accountability, and care are the kinds of things that make the environment conducive to life-change.

From having meetings to building community. 
A small group will fail if it’s just about having meetings. If, when asked about his small group, someone replies, ‘We meet at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays,’ I’ll tell him that he just informed me about a meeting time, not what his small group is about. I’m trying to make this shift for people. The meeting is not important if it’s not all about becoming a family.

From small groups as a church system that delivers church programs to group life as a lifestyle. 
We want to create a communal lifestyle that is connected to Jesus and each other and eventually to the world around us. I speak to leaders around the globe about groups and group ministries in churches. Many view the small group network in the church as a delivery system for ‘products’ like care, growth, evangelism, bible study, outreach, and so on. You just cannot cram every ministry into the small group pipeline. Let groups do what they do best—produce disciples who live like Jesus.

From content to process. 
This is a move from Bible study for the sake of study to practicing the truth. The process includes authenticity, respect, appropriate listening and speaking the truth in love. Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, ‘…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand’ (NIV). Groups are great because they can both ask and answer the question, ‘So, what?’ We’ve heard it, now how can we live it? Groups are a laboratory for life-change, a place to practice truth in a safe, relational setting so that you can replicate that behavior in other relationships.

From an optional ministry to an essential practice of the church. 
For too long, churches have ignored the crucial role groups play in their overall ministry, even those churches that believe that small group ministries are important. God hard-wired us for community life. Intentional community, where we ‘spur one another on toward love and good deeds’ (as Hebrews 10 mentions), is no longer an option; it’s a mandate. The best expression of community – a certain model or strategy – may look different in each church, but this practice is something we can no longer ignore.

From an institutional approach to an incarnational approach. 
A friend of mine has said, ‘People don’t want to be invited to a strategy, but they do want to be invited to a relationship.’ He’s right. In any small group structure in a church, the structure should serve people rather than the other way around. Marching in line with the model is an institutional priority. Living out the presence and power of Christ in the world is an incarnational outcome. That means the goal is to act like Christ.

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