Depending on how you keep track, small groups, as an identified ministry within the church, has been around for approximately 40 years. Somewhere in the 1970s it showed up after a millennium-and-a-half hiatus. Sure, there were variations on the home-gathering theme through the centuries but we didn’t use the term “small group” to identify a gathering of disciples until I was born (the timing is a coincidence). Since that time groups has fought for respect, a seat at the ministry table, and relevance in the broader church landscape. It got it. Regardless of size, style, or age of congregation more and more churches are implementing small groups.
Having said that, I think small groups as a distinguished ministry in the church is at a crossroads. Sunday School enjoyed about 150 years of respect before people started threatening to kick it to the curb. Church leaders won’t be as patient with small groups. For the last decade, many small groups ministries have over-promised and under-delivered. Not the majority, but some. This has lead a few pastors to suggest we “euthanize” small groups. For now, such an opinion is in the irrelevant minority. But that won’t last as sordid stories of small group implosion and failure circulate. So what needs to happen for small groups to thrive for 150 years? In my humble opinion, here are six suggestions for the small groups movement:
- We need professors. Would someone to get a PhD in education and help lay the research-based foundation of small groups? We have far too many books and articles that are hearsay, anecdotes, and inspiration but not rooted in reality. One popular book on groups was written with only 30% of the author’s church in the program. Hardly a note-worty trend. We could really use research that helps us improve! So, would a few of you go to a state university (not a seminary that is already biased), get a PhD and come back and help us? I recommend Michigan State University – Go Sparty!
- We need Senior and Executive Pastors. Want to know why nearly every church has a youth pastor? Because nearly every senior pastor started out as a youth pastor. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it would help the small group team if some of you would jump up a level or two and lead and preach with the underlying assumption that we were designed for Christian community. What if some of us who were completely captivated with Acts 2 preached it, organized staff around it, and lived it. I’d listen to your podcasts.
- We need theological articulation. Yes, we have Acts 2 (I just mentioned that) but we need good writers who can exegete scripture, understand layers of theology, and love church history to explain, defend, and champion the cause of 10-20 people who meet for fellowship, to become like Jesus, and live missional lives. There’s a lot of scripture that speaks of God’s dream of community so let’s hear it (and preach it)!
- We need a common shared language. We’re pretty close to this, actually. But I’m jealous of Sunday School (by the way, I oversee our Sunday School ministry :-)). For a century and a half it had the same name. “ABF” showed up later. But We have groups, clusters, communities, clubs…we have leaders, facilitators, helpers, journeymen (OK I mad that last one up). Diversity is fun but a shared language would be cool. Let’s just commission Bill Donahue, Carl George, and Lyman Coleman to take care of this for us.
- We need honest assessment. There are some things small groups do very, very well. And there are other things small groups do poorly. Let’s be honest. Let’s assess and set up small groups to do what small groups do best. How can they hope to be the family of God, reach out to the lost, disciple the immature, serve the needy, and deploy during church emergencies by meeting for two hours every-other week. Not going to happen even if you say it in a book.
- We need next-generation leaders. We need men and women in their 20s and early 30s who bleed and lead. The last large small groups conference I attended could have been a convention for the AARP (no offense to you all). I felt young and I’m not—I just look it ;-). I know this is already happening in movements like Acts 29, but it would be sweet to see younger and older leaders/pastors hang out together, collaborate together, and learn from one another.
OK, that’s my…er…”six cents”…I hope I inspire someone to do something.