The Rise and Fall of Small Groups

Now, we in the UMC have heard this song and dance before – small groups are the panacea for our ills. So why is it, then, that when we’ve started small group ministries they either became cliques within the church or simply piffled out? “We tried that once, pastor, and it didn’t work.”

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On Tuesday I attended, along with three laymembers of the church I serve, the E3 workshop led by Doug Anderson of the Bishop Rueben Job Institute.  E3 stands for “Equipping, Empowering, Evangelism.”  I strongly recommend any workshop by Doug.  His material is great.

As I reflect, the chief insights I got from the conference are pretty basic and simple, but far too important to be overlooked or taken for granted.

  1. The spiritual life of the congregation, specifically the lay leaders of the congregation, MATTERS.
  2. The Wesleys formulated a great way of growing spiritual leaders in the church, and the chief problem is that we ain’t doing it.

Now, we in the United Methodist Church have heard this song and dance before – small groups, specifically Covenant Discipleship, Disciple Bible Study, and Emmaus Reunion groups, are the panacea for our ills.  So why is it, then, that when we’ve started small group ministries they either became cliques within the church or simply piffled out?  “We tried that once, pastor, and it didn’t work.”

Anderson and I would argue that the problem is simple.  We’ve done those things without having a clearly defined goal in mind.  What’s the purpose of the group?  How does our group stay focused on its goal?  How do we structure the group so that it addresses our goal directly?  The reason some small groups fail is because they don’t have a clearly-defined purpose that drives them, or a process that drives them toward their goal.

Anderson spoke of having a small group ministry specifically designed for evangelism, and the intentional process for getting there.  In a far-too-oversimplified nutshell, the group meets to:

  1. nurture one another in their daily walk with Christ, training them to look for God in their everyday lives and giving them language for sharing their faith within the group;
  2. discern faith stories that can and should be shared with the wider church during Sunday worship; and finally
  3. make the group members so comfortable talking about faith that they can give powerful answers to the question, “why should I come to your church?”
  4. and going one step further, to encourage the members of the group to become leaders of other small groups in the church, broadening the base of ministry and mission.

This is a PROCESS, not something that takes 6-10 weeks but perhaps a couple of years.  But the point is well-taken: without a stated purpose and clearly defined goals, a small group ministry is bound to become a spiritual kaffeeklatch, a an exercise in clique formation.  With a stated purpose and clearly defined goals, a small group ministry can be a powerful force in helping the church achieve its mission.

So my plan is to start an evangelism-directed small group ministry in this church focused on faith-sharing, and moving that faith-sharing from the group to the sanctuary to the sidewalk, to the town and beyond.  And I’ve got good people on board with me!  And with a goal and a process in mind, I’m pretty sure we have a far better shot at succeeding.

Author: pastorwillie

Husband to a beautiful wife, father to four awesome children, Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, pastor of a great church in rural southern Illinois, guitarist, songwriter, ukulelist, blogger.

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