I’ve never been too caught up in trying to understand the different generations like Boomers vs. Gen X or Millennials, etc. My general thought has always been that people are just people: all are sinners and need Jesus regardless of their generational trends. No need to complicate it! Early on in ministry I would get annoyed with all my fellow Gen Xers who complained about and resisted “programmatic Boomer” church and instead wanted everything to be “organic” – whatever that meant.
However, when I tried and tried to implement small group systems into the local church primarily as a program it was very frustrating. I read the books on small groups being “the key” to church growth and how to implement a small group model into the church. I’d try, rigidly, to plug the model into my church with the proper leadership flow chart in place. It would work for a season but never seemed to sustain.
Believing deeply that small groups are essential for a local church to have authentic fellowship, be healthy, and grow both spiritually and numerically, I was committed to seeing them through. An interesting thing happened. In frustration, I gradually became less rigid about how group systems should work and took a looser, more relational approach. And low and behold, we started having more groups that formed and continued and even spun off new groups. It was just sort of, wait for it…organic!
Yes, small group ministry is still a program that helps fulfill the Biblical purpose of authentic community, but I found that taking a less rigid and more relational approach was much more effective.
Maybe you’ve had frustrations as I did in getting small groups going in your congregation. Here are five ways to try a more relational approach:
Five ways to take a more relational approach to small groups:
- Have a core conviction that small groups are essential to authentic community. This will allow you to stay committed to them and persevere until they become a natural part of how your church lives together in community.
- Part of my becoming less rigid was just admitting “I can’t, God can, so I think I’ll let him!” The Holy Spirit is much better at moving on people’s hearts and helping them experience the joy and support that comes from belonging in a small group. He’s been gathering people in small groups ever since the church began, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:46 NIV) More than 3,000 believers couldn’t fit in one home, so they met in small groups! My point is that God knows how to do this better than we do. So pray. Pray for the Holy Spirit to go before you and guide you and the church in developing groups. He’ll do it.
- Create environments for groups to gather. Being in the South, Wednesday night is still considered a Church Night, so we used that time to gather into groups after a potluck dinner. It became a habit for many people to come out and meet with their group. When and where could you make it very convenient for people to experience a group? Using spiritual growth campaigns were also very effective environments for people to just “try” a small group for six weeks without fear of a long-term commitment.
- Give natural “get in” and “get out” times for people. Using seasons is very helpful. At the front end of a season (Lent, Easter, Fall, New Year, etc.) give clear “on ramps” for people to join a group. At the end of the season have the groups take a week or two off. Everyone seems to enjoy a little break and it gives people a chance to gracefully leave a group if it’s not a good fit.
- Observe potential leaders and quickly give them small leadership opportunities. This is one of the ways I struggled when I was being too rigid. The program model says you need a co-leader who can later split off a new group so I’d try to force people into the role so the box was checked. Sometimes it’s better to let leaders emerge naturally. And they will. If existing leaders are constantly looking for potential leaders, they will see them. Then, simply letting them take the lead in discussion or lead the prayer time or whatever, their confidence will increase and sooner or later another group leader will be ready. If will just happen, if you’re looking for it.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization & Coaching at the American Anglican Council.