Making the Small Group Transition
Christianity Today calls it "The Great Small Group Takeover." Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes it as a "quiet revolution" happening across North America. Experts on church renewal usually link some form of small group vitality to the revivals and breakthrough churches they study.
Today's small group movement has already impacted many churches in your community. Congregations old and young, large and small have vibrant small groups. Their widespread influence has been documented in everything from Gallup polls to sales trends at local Christian bookstores.
For 30 years I've watched churches experience the miracle of dramatic life change that occurs when the Holy Spirit works through outreach-minded, caring small groups. I've seen Portland, Oregon, touched for Jesus Christ, where an eventual network of 500 trained lay pastors at New Hope Community Church provided effective, ongoing pastoral care to more than 5,000 people.
This return to New Testament community has shown up with many different faces-from Serendipity Groups to generic follow-on small groups that start spontaneously after Promise Keepers rallies. It doesn't matter what you call "social kinship units," as Peter Wagner describes them, but it does matter whether your church is experiencing their many benefits. Do you know how to help your church take part in what God is doing? Is your church experiencing the positive transformation that can happen as one-another ministry ripples through the body of Jesus Christ?
Small group ministry is not an option if people are to be cared for, nurtured, and equipped for ministry. If you follow the listed positive transitions in your church, you will be amazed at what God will do. These 14 principles have been tested and proven-often with exciting results-in hundreds of charismatic and Pentecostal churches.
1. SHARE YOUR VISION WITH KEY LEADERS.
Why do you want to lead your people into a strong small group environment? What do you hope God will do? What needs in your church and community can be met through regular gatherings of 6 to 10 people?
How do you cast your vision for small groups? By spending time with your leaders. Expose them to your dreams by the stories you tell in the pulpit, the books you cite, the seminars you suggest for them to attend, the topics you select for board retreats, and one-on-one conversations.
By sharing your vision, you will help bring your main influencers on-line. They will become, as church consultant Lyle Schaller says, "your allies for introducing planned change."
2. HONOR YOUR CHURCH'S HISTORY AND TRADITIONS.
What role have small groups played in shaping the congregation you presently serve? You might discover cottage prayer meetings or some other form of small group that played a significant role in the past. If so, emphasize the then-and-now parallels. You can lead into the future by building on the past.
More likely, you'll need to follow the pattern of how trees grow. The growth rings on a tree indicate that the newest growth always occurs near the outside bark.
I learned this principle while pastoring a more traditional church in Kansas. I was initially unable to get the membership interested in small groups because they were schooled on the midweek prayer meeting model. So I went into town and started an evangelistic Bible study with some businessmen.
A handful came to faith in Christ, and some of them began attending our church. The next group of church leaders came out of those newcomers. Their contact networks opened the door to even more new growth-a neighborhood group, a ladies group, a married couples group, and other groups targeted at specific needs and life stages. In the process, I left the traditional church members in place while I wrapped the new growth around them, just like the growth pattern of a tree.
To bring new people into church, follow the analogy of tree growth: Start at the edges. These people are the most disconnected anyway. Involving them doesn't require you to change much, just to do something more, such as adding a new track.
3. TAKE AN INVENTORY OF THE GROUPS, RESOURCES, AND OPPORTUNITIES YOU ALREADY HAVE.
Does your church have a cluster of women who meet regularly for prayer? A team of youth sponsors who gather for fellowship and planning? A long-standing care circle? A home Bible study? Try to improve these groups or start new groups out of them.
Be careful to start new groups only when you have a leader ready. Lots of people may not be strong teachers, but they might be strong facilitators. Build leaders, and they will build ministries.
Don't aim for classroom teaching settings, which center around the task of information transfer. Small groups must be relationally focused to have maximum effectiveness.
4. WORK WITH YOUR PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE.
People congregate in small groups by common ground, common interests, or common needs. Effective pastors know how to find and promote those connection points.
I spoke recently with a pastor who knew his people well enough to design different kinds of groups for them. His young adults needed relational groups, but his older people were afraid of being forced to "share." He patiently took his widowed members by the hand and said simply, "Go find a friend." Now that the widows have bonded, their group is the most important hour of their week.
5. PLAN WHERE YOU WANT THE SMALL GROUP MINISTRY TO BE 5 YEARS FROM NOW.
What percentage of the church will be involved in a group? How many newcomers from the community will your small group network draw in each year? How many leaders will you need in the next 6 months? How many apprentice leaders? What level of impact will you have on the unchurched?
Prayerfully set faith-stretching goals that can be met only with God's clear intervention.
6. BREAK YOUR MASTER PLAN INTO MANAGEABLE STEPS.
The more clearly you can see how to get from here to there, the better you'll be able to lead your people.
At New Hope Community Church, we continually spoke of reaching Portland's unchurched thousands for Christ. Our vision was inspiring, but it wasn't specific enough for people to say, "I can do that." You'll be amazed how much your church can accomplish through a number of manageable, incremental steps.
7. WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO IN THE NEXT 3 MONTHS.
Be specific. What steps can you take to go to the next level of small groups in your church?
Try any of these possibilities:
- Preach on the one-another commands of the New Testament.
- Lead your main boards in a study of Christian community.
- Take some of your key influencers to a conference on small groups.
- Feature testimonies in your church newsletter of lives that have been touched through a small group.
8. EXPAND WITHOUT THREATENING.
Don't plan to do away with anything. Instead, add more options. Avoid the phrase, "We are going to cancel.Ã¾" It's better to say, "We are going to offer an additional track."
After attending one of my 20/20 Vision seminars, a pastor from California decided to go home and start a new track of Tender Loving Care groups. In the meantime, he supported and encouraged the existing track of closed Bible studies. He invited people in the Bible study groups to switch to the Tender Loving Care groups, and about half did. The others were free to choose.
He projected it would take several years for the existing track to discontinue. He later told me that the fade-out was complete in 3 years.
9. BEGIN WITH A MODEL GROUP OR GROUPS.
This is perhaps the most important of the 14 transition principles. I've helped hundreds of churches of all sizes launch a small group ministry by beginning with a model group. I recommend 1 model group for every 100 people in worship. In 4 or 5 months, move the model group members into second-generation groups. Go public only after you have entered a second generation of group life.
A pastor from Canada whose church had 20 people in attendance asked me, "Can I do small groups?" I challenged him to start two groups himself and begin to train small group leaders. In 15 months he reported having 6 groups with 60 people total.
10. TAKE TIME TO MAKE CHANGES GRADUALLY.
I heard of a pastor who during his first months of ministry in a church in Alaska moved the piano to the organ side of the sanctuary. Members pointed out that the plaque on the piano to Grandpa Moses, who seemed to be related to everyone in the church, was not showing. They asked him to move the piano back, and he refused. Friction escalated, and he moved to another church.
Five years later he went back to conduct a wedding. He noticed the piano was next to the organ. "How did you get the people to move it?" he asked.
"They didn't," replied the current minister. "Every week for 5 years, I moved it 1 inch at a time."
This leader understood how to bring about change. Do what you can with what you have where you are.
11. BUILD FLEXIBILITY INTO YOUR SMALL GROUP SYSTEM.
This principle represents the main difference between the U.S. and Eastern and African countries. If you will encourage variety-in the kinds of groups offered, meeting times, locations, and even child-care options-you'll have many more groups.
12. LOVE PEOPLE INTO THE GROUP LIFE OF THE CHURCH.
One of my favorite stories involves a handicapped boy who knocked over a rack of shoes at a department store. The store manager yelled at him, demanding that he pick up his mess. The boy didn't move. Then his older sister crawled down on the floor and started putting the shoes away. The boy soon joined her. When all the shoes were back in place, she looked at the manager and said, "Mister, you gotta love him into it." By comparison, don't assign people to groups. Instead, help them connect. Suggest that they try a group. Model your own joy at being part of a group.
13. BUILD A STAFF COMMITTED TO SMALL GROUP MINISTRY.
Work toward the goal of having all your pastoral staff focus on leadership development. Over time, gradually build your staff into people who will build their ministries by using small groups.
In 1984, New Hope Community Church had 50 groups. I almost made a big mistake. I began looking for a pastor to lead our groups. Had I brought in such a person, our group life would have become just another ministry. Instead, I taught all our staff to work through groups. Consequently, the care and evangelism continued to expand and multiply.
14. GIVE PRIORITY TO PRAYER AND THE PERSON OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
According to Ralph Neighbour, 19 of the 20 largest churches in the world have small group systems-whether home based or Sunday school based-with a strong emphasis on prayer and the Holy Spirit.
The church's success in Korea is not by accident. It's far more than an organizational system; it involves an intentional dependence on the Holy Spirit and a priority of prayer.
I once heard missionary E. Stanley Jones say: "In a small group, everyone becomes a teacher, and everyone is taught." I would dare to add that today's maxim for healthy groups is even more empowering: In a small group, everyone becomes a caregiver, and everyone is cared for.
Even smaller churches can move beyond a single group identity by starting multiple groups. Larger churches can greatly increase their care level by starting a small group system.
Small groups help any church break out of confinement created by time and space limitations. What hour can you get everyone together? You can't. With small groups, your church can transition to expanded ministry, greater evangelism, and deeper discipleship.
The priesthood of believers best becomes a reality in a small group.