It’s become common knowledge that small groups are the most effective discipleship making tools in the church. For over a decade now, small group initiatives have been launched in church after church and according to many studies, the vast majority of Christians have attended a small group as an adult.
The problem isn’t with our small groups; by and large they accomplish exactly what they’re designed to do. And therein lies the problem … our design. Every effective small group accomplishes what it’s designed for. What follows is an overview of small group designs found in churches around the world. Choose from these designs, or a hybrid of these designs, to accomplish the life-changes you’re looking for.
Classes: These are often called “small groups” but that’s a misnomer. A class, such as a Sunday School class is typically age-graded and exists primarily to accomplish a task. This task might be Bible study, it might be prayer, it might be choir practice, and so on. The point is, although there are other “benefits” of classes, the focus is on getting something done. There may or may not be fellowship, relationship building, etc., but there is unlikely any real discipleship work going on. In other words, except for being more informed about something (the Bible, personal needs/concerns, the anthem, etc.), there is very little life change taking place. Most people leave in about the same spiritual state as they came and behavior is seldom changed. In general, though not always, classes tend to be one hour or less in length.
Task Groups: Most small groups in most churches fall into the task group category. A task groups is any group that comes together to complete a particular “task.” Obvious, huh? Maybe not so much. Most Bible studies are task groups. The group gets together to read, reflect, and learn more about a particular book in the Bible or a specific passage. With the goal clearly understood, the group’s bond tends to remain somewhat superficial, particularly if the meetings are time-limited. Individuals engage intellectually first and emotionally/spiritually secondarily … and then only if the group lasts long enough for relationships to be created. One potential problem with task groups is that when the task is done the participants are ready to move on. This is what happened back when The Purpose Driven Life became a popular small group resource. Many church leaders believed they would launch a small group initiative in their church by doing this “forty days of purpose” study. But forty days later, most groups disbanded and by the end of the year, less than 10 percent of the groups still met. Why? Because the task was to digest the book and seven weeks later they were done – there was no good reason to continue because they’d completed the task.
Small Groups: A small group is a group of eight to fifteen or so who gather to accomplish some given task, but also intentionally practice fellowship and care. These groups tend to be Bible study groups, although they can be affinity groups that meet for other purposes such as mission, prayer, quilting, golfing, etc. Affinity groups generally include a devotional study, check-in for personal issues, and intentional prayer for one another. The goal of many small group programs is to help build relationships beyond the small group, though this goal is variously achieved depending on the emphasis of the congregation’s leadership. Small groups are age-graded and last one to two hours. Many churches try to treat their small groups as if they are cell groups, but only rarely do they achieve that level of intimacy, care, and discipleship and rarely do small groups produce life-change. Resources: Lyman Coleman, Serendipity Bible (and their small group materials).
Discipleship Small Groups: A discipleship small group is a small group that exists for discipleship. These groups are a bit of a hybrid between the house church and the cell group in format, though the rites of passage (marriages, etc.) remain the purview of the organized body (the church building/staff). Discipleship groups are focused on mentoring one another into the fullness of discipleship. Their gatherings may be unstructured so that Bible study, prayer, etc. bubble up naturally during the gathering. Participants become responsible for personal Bible study, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines during the week. The gathering of the discipleship shall is a time for delving into questions and issues that have been encountered during the week. Bible study tends to be generated by discussion of what participants have read during the week. Accountability, responsibility, and Christian behavior are the tripartite foundation stones of this group format. Discipleship Small Groups tend to be age-graded, often meet over a meal, and generally last two or three hours. Resources: Bill Tenny-Brittian, Train Don’t Teach: Retooling Disciples and Small Groups (Summit, Nov. 2007).
Cell Groups: Cell groups are clusters of small groups that are related to a geographically central congregation/church building. The Yoshido Full Gospel Church in Korea (Yongi Cho, pastor) is the world’s most stellar example (over 850,000 members). The cell church model is also called the meta-church model. Cell groups do everything a traditional church does, except that they gather for worship at a central location, such as “the church building.” The difference between a cell church and a church that has lots of small groups is that a cell church is a church of small groups, whereas a traditional church is a church with small groups. The focus of the cell church is the cell (aka, small group). The central gathering exists for worship and to support the small group. Pastoral care, discipleship, missions, etc. are accomplished through the cell, though in many cases (but not all), baptisms, communion, marriages, and funeral take place at the central building. There is a clear hierarchy in a cell church with a senior pastor who leads a team of coaches/mentors who oversee the cell leaders. Some cell churches designate/dictate/or approve any curriculum that may be used in the cell. Cells are occasionally intergenerational, though more typically, cells are age-graded. Cell meetings may last as long as two or three hours and may or may not include a meal. Resources: Joel Cominsky, Groups of Twelve.
House Church: A house church (sometimes called micro-churches, simple churches, organic churches, etc.) is a church that meets in a home or some other informal setting for the purpose of “being” church. They accomplish everything a traditional church takes on, though it often looks and operates quite differently. They do their own baptisms, communion, marriages, funerals, worship, missions, and discipleship. In general they do not have a “sermon” and many don’t have a designated leader/pastor. House churches are intergenerational and tend to meet over a meal. Their gatherings often last three or more hours. They may or may not network together for accountability purposes and they are seldom related in any way to a traditional church. The house church movement worldwide is the fastest growing and most evangelistic model of church planting and about 90,000 new Christians come to faith daily through this model of being and doing church. Resources: Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World; Robert & Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home; William Tenny-Brittian, House Church Manual.
What’s your small group mission?
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