Sometimes we can get so caught up with perpetuating the success of growth and larger congregations that we lose sight of the small things that give the support to be able to sustain that growth. This can be the case with regard to small groups and the growth of the church. As we move from church start up, to growth, to Ephesians 3:20 kind of growth, we can easily lose sight of the power of small.
When launching church plants and multi-sites, the power of small is a natural part of that environment with core groups being formed and small gatherings of the faithful being developed to lead and grow the different ministries. Generally the smaller church congregation is well connected as they meet at regular services and get introduced to each other by friends. As the church grows and it gets harder to know everyone walking through the door, the small group ministry is the natural next step and plays a vital part in connecting the masses. The leaders in these beginning small groups are often the same people that played an important role in the core group. These small groups are the catalyst for community, perpetuating the lead pastor’s vision, and communicating the next steps for the Christian walk.
As the church continues to grow, the power of small in these groups is found in how the new members are led by example and assimilated into the church to become the volunteers supporting ministries and leading them. These are the people who have caught the vision and are committed to stick with it even when it comes time to make the huge faith moves that will be required to move the church to the next level of growth, and obtain the resulting impact for God’s Kingdom. Much of this commitment can be attributed to the power of small groups, where trusting, faith filled relationships were grown and built upon.
Back in 2004 when Bay Area Fellowship had reached capacity with services and space at the existing building, we prepared to purchase land, build a new facility and move into it. All this required a giving campaign of monumental proportions given the size of the congregation and the demographics of that congregation. One of the keys to success for this campaign was the army of small groups that had been grown over the years since the church began. As mentioned, the people in these groups consisted of leaders that had grown from the core group and then developed other leaders and committed followers. The commitment level of the people in these groups was due to the life change experienced through the church and through their growth in the small group ministry. Lead Pastor, Bil Cornelius often says, “The weekend services are where it’s taught, but small groups are where it’s caught”.
The giving campaign was a success and BAF was able to move into its new facility in 2007. Keeping with the power of small, committed small group leaders and members did much of the build-out work at the new facility. The new larger facility brought a substantial increase in weekend attendance, which was great, but, never being a leader to stand still, Pastor Bil moved to grow a multi-site ministry along with the growth at the broadcast campus. Over the next three years there was the addition of six new multi-site campuses, (a stretch for any multi-site church). This great success was indicated by the rating in Outreach Magazine’s Top 100 for 2010 placing BAF at #70 for attendance and #15 for fastest growing.
Along with all the benefits of growth, however, came a potential problem in that over this time the small group ministry did not grow. This problem was not going unnoticed and in fact, Pastor Cornelius spoke about it in an interview with Outreach Magazine done in 2009. The interview was with Bill Easum and Bil Cornelius on the subject of mentoring and coaching. In the interview, Pastor Bil says this of Bill Easum as a mentor, “And he, (Easum), still challenges me. Just the other day we talked, and I told him our attendance was up but our small groups had stayed the same. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Bil, you’re going to have a wobbly church here; you need to start increasing your structure again.’ He definitely made me rethink and realize we need to retool what we’re doing with small groups. That’s the power of a good mentor – he tells you when you’re stuck and helps you get unstuck.
Bay Area Fellowship has always been able to do more with less, most of that attributable to the incredible faith lessons lived out and taught weekly by our pastor. Staff members understand that we aren’t locked in to just taking care of our own ministry, rather, it is often an “all hands on deck” to be able to pull off a special event or mission. We have been able to accomplish some incredible growth and sustainability with a staff that by most church standards would be considered small.
However, the focus that had grown us to a very healthy small group ministry that helped support the growth into the new facility had been diminished, in part due to the added staff responsibilities for all the growth and activity going on with the new broadcast campus and with the many new multi-sites. All of these other activities and growth were great things, but as Pastor Bil and Bill Easum so rightfully noted in their interview, the loss of focus on the small groups had potential to create a “wobbly church”.
Fortunately God has a way of re-directing us when we veer a little off course, sometimes through revelations, sometimes through circumstances, and many times through both. And fortunately we have a staff that is finely attuned to both areas. In looking at how our volunteer staffing, our budgets, and our missions were all in need of a shot in the arm, it became evident that the foundational structure of healthy, growing, disciples involved in the small group ministry was an integral part of what would be needed to once more get back on track. You can’t build a skyscraper without a very solid foundation and that foundation for the church is in small group ministries.
So, as we began to look at what needed to be done to refocus on small groups, we began to consider and analyze the systems to manage and grow the ministry. What we find in most ministries, and in life, is what got us to where we are may not necessarily be what it will take to get us to the next level of where God wants to lead us. The system for coordinating and growing the small groups in a congregation of 3-4000 in two locations, may not be the most effective for managing and growing a the ministry in a congregation reaching 8000 regularly in eight, soon to be nine locations. We began to reach out to churches around the country of equal or larger sizes to compare systems and see what we will be able to modify for what will work best for BAF.
One of the things we’ve found common in talking to high-energy pastors involved in growing small group ministries around the country is that everyone is constantly chasing a moving target. There is no “perfect” cookie cutter system or model that is going to work best for everyone for all times. The difference in the lead pastors’ vision, the difference in demographics, and in parts of the country all play in to what may work best for each particular church. And there’s always the dilemma of trying to please everyone, which of course will never happen. The point being, there are many different small group models that work well, and the key is in finding the mix that works best for your church and your pastor’s vision.
Bay Area Fellowship has always been about reaching the un-churched and along with that comes a congregation of new Christians, hungry to know more. This is why it is so important to make that focus and that effort to get these baby Christians into groups where they can share life together and have someone to help them get through the difficult transition years from secular mindset to developing the mind of Christ. Learning the principles of spending time with God, serving, tithing, and acting in love, are all easier when we see it being lived out in the people around us in our small group.
Regardless of the maturity of the Christians attending your church, the small group is essential for connecting them. As churches grow larger, the atriums can seem more like an un-personal shopping mall full of people than the inviting environment of caring and love that people are so anxious to find. Small groups change that. They allow people to connect, to attend services together, to serve together, and to see real life change through the trusting relationships they build there. Small groups take the social network of society and make church more personal, a place where they can find real friends and build real relationships.
All this boils down to the fact that to grow bigger, we must grow smaller. The power of the big church to accomplish great things for the Kingdom lies in the power of the small groups to raise up the body. In order to build the foundation to support the ministries and the missions of a great church doing great things, it requires a body of believers sold out to Christ, sold out to each other, and sold out to the vision of the pastor. All these are accomplished by connecting people in life changing and church growing small groups.
There’s an old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees. That can happen when things, good things, are happening so fast that we get caught up in them and lose focus on the basics that got us where we are. Don’t ever lose sight of the power of small.