Bishop Michael Rinehart
Inviting people to be a part of a small group will help them grow in faith, in giving, and in welcome. Small groups are a great entry point into your congregation, becoming an evangelism tool. Small groups that study the Bible and devotional materials grow in faith. Small groups pray together, serve together, and take care of one another.
Launching small groups in increasing numbers is not as difficult as it might seem. It simply takes consistent, sustained, focused effort overtime. The key to small group ministry is leadership development.
A lot of overhead coordination and record keeping is not necessary. It’s probably not sustainable either. Books like Simple Church and Sticky Church have made the case that the flatter the organizational structure, the more likelihood there is for success.
The key to small group ministry is leadership. Most congregations will have as many small groups as they have small group leaders. If you have two small group leaders, you will have two small groups. If you have 20 small group leaders, you will have 20 small groups, more or less. So, small group ministry is really an exercise in leadership development.
This is worth your time. Let’s take a moment to consider some of the benefits of small group ministry:
- Small groups will get people in Bible study, acquaint them with prayer, and invite them into service. It is one of the best tools for growing people in faith and spirituality.
- Small groups are an outreach tool. Many people find it easier to invite friends to an informal small group gathering rather than to invite the to church.
- Small groups help newcomers connect. Worship doesn’t give people much opportunity to interact on a deep level. Studies show if a new church member doesn’t connect to a ministry, a friend, or a group within six months, they will be out the door. Newcomers find it difficult to break into existing small groups, so starting new small groups constantly will help them connect.
- Small groups are Biblical. Jesus was a small group leader. He had twelve.
- Small groups help people develop lifelong friendships. Although pastors may not see this as the primary purpose of the church, the fact remains people report “making friends” as one of the top reasons they search for a church. Small groups help people make friends.
- Small groups close the back door on your church. If people have made lifelong friends, they’re less likely to leave if they have a conflict with someone else in the church or if the church is in the midst of conflict.
- Small groups become a tool for pastoral care. As a church grows, the care responsibilities (listening, hospital visitation, homebound visitation) can become too much for one pastor or even a growing staff. Small groups care for their own with a level of attention a church staff could not possibly give.
There are many more advantages of small groups. These are just a few. Consider this. If you could get every person in your church in a small group Bible study, would you? Most would answer, “Yes.”
Think of the various groups in your church. Is there a choir? A youth group? Women’s groups or men’s groups? Adult classes? People tend to organize themselves into small groups anyway. It only takes a little bit of help from church leadership to see this blossom. With focused effort, you can have an explosion of small groups in your church.
Half of all new small groups stop meeting within a year. Most church leaders find this discouraging, so they stop trying. This is, however, okay for several reasons:
- It is the natural course of things. Just as not all the seed scattered in Jesus’ parable of the sower bears fruit, so not every small group will continue.
- The group will have value even if it only meets for a month or two. You may never know what seeds are planted in people’s lives.
- Most people won’t find a group that “clicks” the first time around. Not every group works for every person. People need to have freedom to shop around for a group that works for them, without fear of anyone guilting them.
Because half of all new groups stop meeting in less than a year, you need to be starting new groups constantly. If you want 10 small groups you have to start 20. Don’t lose heart. Be focused and diligent in your work, and God will give the growth in time.
How to start
A series or spiritual growth campaign is a great way to get started. Once you do this, you may find you want to do it once or twice a year perpetually. It’s great way to get people in groups and move your church forward by having everyone studying the same thing at the same time.
Pick a Bible study or book to study as an entire congregation. You won’t get everyone on board, but if you focus on everyone, you’ll get a majority. Schedule a time for the series. The series will consist of three things:
- Daily devotions
- A weekly small group study
- Weekly sermons on the study topic
These three things together, done by a majority of people in your congregation, will create a kind of synergy. If you choose well, it will move your congregation together. Getting everyone talking about the same thing at the same time has incredible power.
A few months before the study begins, start publicizing it and recruiting small group leaders. The series will be most successful if you can find the resources to purchase the book or study for everyone. This takes an investment, but it’s worth it. Budget for this or find some church leaders who will chip in to make it happen. If this is just not possible, then invite people to purchase their own materials. Have some on hand for those who can’t afford to purchase their own or wait until the last minute.
Think again of the various groups in your church. How many are there? How many would you like to see? Rick Warren suggests adding a zero to your plans. If you’d like 5 groups, then think 50. You may or may not get there, but thinking this way forces you to do things you might not do if you think one group at a time. What if you had 50 groups? What would that mean? Would that offer some advantages? How would you support that?
Pray about your goal, and discuss it with other leaders in your church. The whole leadership team needs to own the goal. Pray about it together on staff, on your council, or on your board. Once you have a goal in mind of how many small groups you would like, pray about who those small group leaders would be.
Leading A Small Group
Leading a small group is easier than you may think. You simply ask the questions and then get out of the way. Allow the conversation to flow. You will find that the session will lead itself. Here are some tips.
- Prepare by letting people know the place and time: beginning and end time.
- Have food. If you’re not having dinner, offer guests some snacks to eat and something to drink. Make it fun, like a party. Christian community has been about sharing meals from the start.
- Consider childcare. If you want young adults, some will have kids. A baby sitter watching kids in another room or one of the other participant’s homes will help young parents attend and also not be distracted.
- Give people 30 minutes or so to gather and visit, then gather them together. (You may need more time if there is a full meal.)
- Don’t go more than 60 minutes for the study. End on time. Even if the conversation is good, if the group goes long, people will consider dropping out in the future because of the time commitment.
- Gather with some time for prayer. Have someone ask for prayer requests and pray. If the group is accustomed to praying, have a time where anyone may offer a prayer.
- Simply ask the questions in the guide. The first set of questions is easy, fun-to-answer icebreaker questions. The second set digs into the text. The third set explores what the text might mean for us today.
- Be flexible. Feel free to reshape the questions. You will likely spend more time on some questions than others. Be prepared to skip questions if someone brings up something heavy. (If someone consistently dominates the group, read some books about small group ministry to learn ways to handle those special folks. Sticky Church and 12 Keys to Effective Small Group Ministry are good examples.)
During your series, invite each small group to participate in a service project of some sort. Imagine the impact of a couple dozen groups from your congregation serving in the community. So often we think of mass events – one service project with as many people as possible. Perhaps 30 show up on a good day. A battery of small groups serving requires less central planning and can result in 100 folks serving.
Most importantly, you will find that relationships will grow in small groups. When relationships grow, many good things happen. People learn and grow. They feel heard. They serve. They share their lives with one another and true fellowship happens.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.