I recently met with the pastors and small group leaders at Element Church, a great new church plant in Woodruff, South Carolina. Their church and small group ministry is just months old. Josh Bradley and his team are doing a great job bringing a contemporary church into a small community. Here are some essential building blocks for a successful small group ministry that I shared with them last week:
1. Balance Produces Growth
Everyone who joins a group has different needs. Others have an actual agenda. Some members want to create an exact duplicate of a group they were in years ago. Still others want a group to meet their needs. Still others will want a group that is more social or more spiritual or more evangelistic or more, more. The good news is that each group can accomplish a great deal, if they agree on the direction together. Well, except, for resurrecting the great group from the past. You would need a time machine for that one.
The first groups of believers in Acts 2:42-47 met together for Discipleship, Fellowship, Ministry, Worship and Evangelism. Some have tried to say that Acts 2 represents the epitome of what an accomplished church or group should be. The truth is that this passage reveals what the church was doing on its first day! These weren’t things built over time. These were things that needed to happen all at once.
That doesn’t mean that each of these five things should happen in every meeting. But, your group needs to decide together when these things will happen. A group agreement is a great place to start. Read more about forming group agreements here.
2. Shared Leadership
Ownership is huge in developing and sustaining groups. Every member needs to have some skin in the game. As the leader, you should do everything you can to give away every task in the group to a willing volunteer. The only thing a leader shouldn’t give away is responsibility for the group. But, everything else from leading the discussion and hosting the group to bringing refreshments and following up on prayer requests should be delegated.
In the group I lead, I will announce to the group after the first lesson in a new study, “Today is the only day I will be leading the discussion. I’m passing around the calendar, and everyone needs to sign up for a week to lead.” It works every time. Now, a group member can pass, but they all can’t pass.
Another way to share leadership is to listen to what your group members care about. “I think our group should have more socials” or “It would be great if we could all come out on Saturday and help my neighbor build his fence.” Rather than the leader taking on one more responsibility, ask the person who suggested it to put something together. This strategy is known as “you spot it, you got it.” It works well.
3. Group Life Cycle
Every group goes through distinct stages in group life. Just like understanding the path from infancy to adulthood, every group needs to understand their awkward teenage stage and that their mid-life crisis is coming.
Steve Barker from InterVarsity maps out the group life cycle this way: Exploration, Transition, Action and Termination. In Exploration, the big issue is inclusion. Group members want to know that they fit in. They need to feel wanted and accepted.
Next is Transition, which is characterized by conflict. Hopefully, the end result of conflict is shared goals and objectives. This is the review and implimentation of your group agreement.
The third stage is Action. Once the group has agreed on the steps forward, now they have the freedom to act and move ahead together in ministry. The final stage is termination. This is the time to celebrate the time the group has enjoyed together.
The Group Life Cycle usually lasts about two years. Unless the group has made a concerted effort to invite and include new people in the group, most groups will stagnate and eventually fold at the two year mark. Rather than keeping a group limping along, it might be a good idea to plan when the group will end, then regroup and start over again.
While most of us are aware of groups that have lasted for decades, these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The same leader might still be leading a group, but odds are that the group membership is quite different from where they began. There is nothing wrong with lifelong groups as long as they are bearing fruit.
4. Group Mission
The mission of the group is no different than the mission of the church: “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). The goal of group life isn’t the comfort of the group members. The goal is to reach others for Christ and grow them up in the faith. And, that makes group members uncomfortable.
The issue groups face is that they develop close relationships over time and want to continue with the group members they are close to. The reality is that given the Group Life Cycle, most groups will stagnate or end after two years. If the group continues to invite and include new people, they can avoid this two year deadline. But, if the group continues to invite and include others, then the group will outgrow its meeting space, overload the leader, and bloat the discussion. These are good problems.
As soon as your group reaches eight people, sub-group. This will allow everyone to get their word in. This is also a great opportunity for an up and coming leader to get their feet wet by leading all or part of the discussion. Who? Since you have rotated leadership in your group, you have an idea of which members are on their way to leadership. Some will do a great job. Maybe they’re 75-80% there. Others will show some potential and might be 40-50% there. A few might need a lot of help.
John Maxwell said, “If someone can do the job 30% as well as you, give them the job.” The reality is the person can probably do it 60% as well, but we haven’t given them credit for it. As your group grows, sub-grouping is essential for discussion, group care, and leadership development. If your meeting place is big enough, keep growing the group. When the meeting situation becomes a problem for the whole group, then it’s time to figure out something else. Caution here: this will be a problem for the leader before it’s a problem for the group. Hang in there. When the group feels the need to change, change will come.
There are many other questions on the minds of new leaders, but this is a good summary of where to start. When you feel overwhelmed, pray and ask God for help. When you need training, seek out your coach. If you need a little information, check out the other posts on this blog.
Great Resources for Getting Groups Started: