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Programmatic thinking can be dangerous to the disciple ministry of the church.

I'm going to stick my neck out here (for those who know me, that is not an unusual occurrence), to say my assumption is that most of our denominational churches are churches "with" small groups as opposed to ones "of" small groups.  I have to admit that is my church at present, but our leadership is looking to change that mentality and focus our church into a family of God that functions as mobilized groups for discipleship and ministry.


Like many churches in our denomination, we are struggling to shed the mentality and pedagogy that all ministries in the church are programs and are an end in themselves.  As long as you have some leaders and a curriculum you're set.  However, for any ministry to be healthy and purposeful they need a clearly defined vision and mission.


I would contend that without a vision and missional purpose the programs become extremely self-serving.  They have minimal benefit to the overall mission of the church to reach the lost and disciple them for works of ministry in the kingdom or for challenging injustice and caring for those in need.  It's like throwing cooked spaghetti at the fridge door hoping something sticks .  What, you don't test your spaghetti that way?  You get the idea.  If you aim at nothing you'll hit it every time.


Small groups in the life of the church ministry are no different.  Without intentionality, they will falter or become extremely inward focused.  I know many groups in another church I recently attended where people prided themselves for having been together in their group for over 10 or 15 years.  They studied and prayed together, but their lives never changed; a marriage fell apart and another couple left the church.  They had never once served in the community together nor come together to help a neighbor in distress.  They watched their children grow up together and had lots of good desserts and refreshments while talking about the loving God of the Bible.  But of what value was it all?  How did it make them better disciples?


Another issue that arises with Small Groups in a programmatic church is seeing them as just one of many options for your spiritual growth.  You can take them or leave them, whatever your personal preference is.  The church needs to decide how they will disciple their congregation or most of these groups will turn into a feel-good Bible study like I mentioned earlier.  Without a churchwide plan for building disciples, small groups just become another program.


In a programmatic church where small groups are one of many options you often find leadership giving their blessing, but not championing them as a key to building disciples.  And let's face it, if the pastor isn't supporting such a valuable ministry through words and personal participation, the rest of the congregation will not see it as valid.


I recently read a blog by Mark Howell, a small group guru and consultant, about The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many People in Groups, and I wasn't surprised by his findings.  Rick Warren the senior pastor and the other pastors are the small group champions.  The value of small groups are mentioned at every service no matter what.  Whether it's a recovery ministry or spiritual growth ministry, or new members ministry, they are done in small groups.  Even Youth Ministry is done at least partially in small groups.  Without the pastor and leadership being the champions of the small group ministry, it will only be another program in the church.


I can't begin to tell you how many times I've read and heard this as of late.  Recently at the Right Now Leadership conference in Dallas the pastor as small group champion was reiterated by Larry Osborne (Sticky Church) and a host of other leaders.  I never met one person who didn't talk about how vital their small groups were to the mission of the church and their champion pastor.  And I keep reading  in other blogs and books such as Simple Church, Comeback Churches, Small Strong Congregations, Natural Church Development, and Deep Church to name a few, of the absolute necessity to have a foundation of small groups to mobilize church members to mission, growing people in discipleship and reaching the world for Christ -- championed by the pastor and church leadership.


Small Groups is the way the early church did church (Acts 2:42) and lived the mission of God.  It wasn't a program, it was a way of life and discipleship.


'til next time



Love it, Allen.  I think the key thing that stops most churches, especially in our tradition, from becoming alive to the idea of small groups is fear.  That may seem odd, since small groups are, by nature, small and unformidable, but I think its true.  The base fear of small groups is that people know your business, know your deep thoughts and struggles, know your pains and weaknesses.  The irony, of course, is that this is also what makes small groups so great in the life of the Christian.

In my opinion (maybe also in yours) the BEST way to make small groups work as the core contigent of the church is to eliminate programs that would compete with it (ie, the Simple Church) method.  While there are certainly some demographic groups that need programs (kids, people with disabilities, etc.), most other programs could probably be eliminated because they'll compete for time and energy with small groups.  Its a bod and difficult step, because people LOVE programs - especially those who fear most the idea of sharing life in a small group.  But we're attempting that bold move - running our service projects, adult ed, pastoral care and most other things through the channel of the small group (so, if you're not conected to a small group, you're virtually unconnected). If you really want Hydra to grow six new heads, you need to chop a few off first.

Mark, it seems that we are kindred spirits especially in regard to so many areas of ministry.  I should get you to write a guest article for this section of the Network.

I certainly agree with you about the traditional mindset and the fear factor.  And you are right about needing programs for certain demographic groups like the children, youth etc., but even some of those groups can have elements of what it's like to be in a small group as well so that by the time they reach adulthood, learning and developing in discipleship via the small group is natural for them.

We are also working toward making small groups the main avenue in connecting and growing as a disciple. 


Well said Mark.

Mark Hilbelink on January 25, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree with you there, too.  We're currently imagining what it would look like for our children-youth-adult transitions to be increasing amounts of small group presence in those ministries.  So many people have noted the problem of hemorraging people between transition points - children to youth or youth to adult, etc.  Maybe the problem is that our ministries are too dissimilar and not comprehensive enough.  What if we started kids at 3 years old with the idea of prepping them for small group discipleship slowly but surely over time?  How can we teach from the outset that the norm of our spiritual community is small group discipleship?

I often wonder at how strange of a phenomenon Sunday mornings are - a bunch of people faced forward singing songs and listening to someone talk at them.  Yet, everyone seems to accept this as basic to the life of the Christian.  We've created that phenomenon through intentional teaching and modeling.  How can we make small group dischipleship just as normal?

Don't have anything to add.  Just loving this discussion.  It gets at really basic things:  how do we get discipled? what is "church"? 

I belong to a small group and have belonged for about four years.  I can't begin to tell you how much I've grown in faith in that time.  I feel I can tell my group anything and they will be understanding and supportive, be it with prayer, advise, or physical help with things I may need done in my home.  I am so blessed.  It really puts actions to the word "disciple".  In turn I try to be supportive of each of the other members in an way I can.  It is a blessing to be able to help others too.

A thought that came to me when Mark commented on programs in CRC is that the Friendship group that I facilitate in our church is in fact less a program than it is a small group.  We have been meeting for about ten years and everyone who is able to communicate verbally feels they can discuss anything with the group during our time of group prayer, when each is asked if they have any thing we should pray about.  Most disabled are not shy about sharing, and those that are we encourage to talk about whatever is on their minds, by asking questions that they can answer with a simple yes or no.

Wow Bernetta, it sounds like you are in a great small group; one that is willing to expose themselves.  That is so valuable and vital to our spiritual growth. And I know that when a group gets missional and starts serving others, it gets contagious and you grow even more.  Great stuff.  Praise God for your group -- a group that gets it.

My wife and I were very involved with a Friendship Ministry years ago in Grand Junction, CO.  We had so many students that the only way they could work was divding into small groups.  There was no possiblility of one on one.  I think most of the students enjoyed it.  Their was a lot of peer learning going on there.  And prayer time was awesome.

Thanks for sharing.

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