To say that we’ve tried just about every small group approach out there would be accurate. When our church started, we knew we wanted to have the small groups be the main hub for developing relationships, discipleship, caring for people, reaching the community and engaging people in a real life journey with others. In the process of making this happen, we have tried a variety of ways manage the small groups systems at our church. We have had long term groups and short term groups, age graded groups and stage of life groups, interest based groups and gender based groups, book studies and sermon discussion groups, and many other varieties. We tried appointing people to groups and having people sign up for groups. We have tried groups that consist of only 2 to 4 people and groups that were just over 20 people. All of this was in an effort to discover what would work in our community and in the culture that we had been ministering within. Through all of this, we discovered some things that were true for our church and may prove helpful to you as well.
1. You can’t force relationships. We worked really hard assigning people to groups because we wanted to make sure they were with someone. We discovered that many times we were working against ourselves because we were the ones making the choices for the people in our church. They had no ownership in the decision. Because of this group attendance was hit and miss at best and the discussion seldom went past surface level. We even tried this with 2 to 4 people to create opportunities for one on one discipleship to take place. But there again, we were the ones matching people up and were in a constant state of frustration when many of the pairs/groups didn’t go well.
2. Group settings require a forum. We have discovered that really 6 to 8 people are the smallest forums we want to have healthy discussion and dialogue during the weekly group meeting. Fewer than this and it often moves into more of a lecture format or very little discussion taking place. In order to have this as the minimum, we try to sign up 16 to 20 people in each group. This allows for people to be MIA at times and gives and average weekly meeting of 8 to 14 people. (Special Note: Even though this is a forum, it’s not an open forum for discussing church business or openly criticizing direction, ministries or staff.)
3. Not everyone fits the stereotype. Not every empty nester wants to be in an empty nesters group and not every college student wants to spend their time in a college group. Because of this, we allow people to sign up for whatever group they feel would be most beneficial to them. An exception to this, of course, would be gender based groups. We have discovered that having a broad age range within one group often helps to add many different perspectives to the group setting.
4. Leaders must come from within. We have discovered that the leaders that excelled in their group are the leaders that had personally grown from being a part of a group within our church and had a heart to help others experience the same thing. Giving a leadership role to someone who is new to the church is very tempting but often would come back to cause us issues in the future. Even though new comers may show leadership skills and look like they would be a perfect fit, we discovered that waiting for at least 6 months would allow them to experience groups and us to experience them. This approach has eliminated some of our frustrations with groups.
5. Common Ground is essential. For any group to fully engage those who are in it, there must be some common interest, study or pursuit. This is why we now have implemented a lot of variety within our groups system. We do have groups that tend to be age graded, some groups that go through certain books together (i.e. parenting, marriage, finances, etc…), some groups that explore a book of the Bible together, and some groups that are centered around specific interests. This allows us to engage people where they are and let God work to shape them into He wants them to be.
6. Change can be good! Change is essential to any growing organization. The same is true with groups. We have found that within our culture, short term groups of 8 to 12 weeks work great. We then reshuffle the deck and sign up for new groups. This constant change makes it easier for newer people to jump in, keeps it fresh for people involved in groups, and allows many relationships to be cultivated throughout the church. Change is also a defining force in our culture. We know that once we have found “what works” that it will only be temporary, as the culture changes around us. We continually make adjustments to impact and involve more people.
The truth is you’ll never get to where you want to be if you’re afraid to fail in the process. We failed many times in our attempts to create healthy group environments within our culture. But in the process, we learned new truths that helped us get to where we are today. Don’t wait until you think you have all the answers. Get started and discover that there is a good chance you weren’t even asking the right questions. Enjoy the journey.
- A Few thoughts concerning our Small Groups (phillipbrande.wordpress.com)