As a pastor, I learned early that small groups are essential to a church. They provide opportunities for growth we could not offer in a large group setting. Members cared for each other when I could not possibly be there to meet every need in the church. More specifically, small groups became a central player in our church’s evangelistic strategy.
Most healthy churches have both open groups and closed groups. Open groups use an on-going curriculum that allows guests to enter the study at any point, emphasize evangelism (with the goal of becoming an entry point for guests) and strive to grow enough to multiply at least annually. Closed groups use a set curriculum that limits entrance once a study has started, typically meet for a set number of weeks and emphasize discipleship (with the goal of strengthening a believer’s walk).
The problem in most churches is this: Open groups become closed groups when steps are not taken to avoid this direction. Because evangelism is difficult, many open groups see few unbelievers attending their group. The evangelistic focus thus quietly disappears as the group slowly becomes closed.
How does a church make sure that open groups remain evangelistic?
1. Be aware of indicators that an open group is losing its evangelistic focus.
I know of no open group that intentionally decides to be inwardly focused. I have, though, seen many open groups lose their evangelistic focus. Watch for these indicators that an open group is moving in the wrong direction:
a. A failure to reproduce another group at least every two years.
b. A leader who refuses to raise up an apprentice to lead another group.
c. A steady decline in the number of guests who attend the small group.
d. Group members who complain that “the curriculum is not deep enough for us”—thus showing they believe the group is more for them than for others.
e. No new group members within the last six months.
f. No planned fellowship/outreach events within the last six months.
2. Choose the right small group leaders.
Most, if not all, problems in small groups can be fixed by selecting the right leaders. A strong small group leader will teach anywhere, reach out to anybody and make any curriculum work. Likewise, the right small group leader will help the group keep its focus on evangelism.
If your groups are intended to be evangelistic, seek these characteristics in leaders:
a. Good teaching skills so that believers and nonbelievers alike will want to attend and learn. A boring small group leader will lull a group into irrelevance.
b. A stated willingness to reproduce the class—that is, to reach people, train them and send the strongest out to begin another class. A small group leader who is unwilling to send out “class missionaries” will not lead his class to be evangelistic.
c. A lifestyle of personal evangelism. Few small group leaders suddenly focus on evangelism when they start to lead a group.