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In the past while serving more conventional churches, I’ve also experienced the difficulty of getting small groups up and running. I was pondering, as I read your email, as to why it is so difficult to get them started. Here are a couple of thoughts I have, as well as suggestions for getting them started anyway.
1. Status Quo. Many folks in a church like the status quo – and they don’t care for changes. Getting involved in a small group involves changing patterns.
2. Time. Many folks in a church “give” their one hour (or however long) to the church and aren’t willing to invest more.
3. Value. Many folks in a church have “been there; done that; got the t-shirt; don’t need to do it again.” They didn’t get much out of it then, they figure they won’t get much out of it this time either.
4. Intimacy. Many folks in a church either fear intimacy, are uncomfortable with it, and/or don’t want to be held accountable. As BE wrote in the forward to House Church Manual about being involved in an intimate group like this: “it is next to impossible to be fake about faith or lack of it.”
5. Other. Any other thoughts about why it’s difficult to start small groups would go here…love to hear them.
With that said, here are a couple of suggestions I’d offer for launching effective, multiplying small groups.
1. Begin with You. One of the number one complaints I hear from pastors is that they can’t get their congregations to do evangelism (or inviting people to church, etc.). They confess that they preach about it, teach about it, and even send people to workshops on evangelism – to no avail. The problem is, however, in most of the cases I’ve noted is that the people are doing exactly what the pastor is actually teaching….by example. Most of these pastors keep expecting their flocks to do what they themselves aren’t doing. Until it’s important enough for the pastor to do – and to do well and often – it isn’t likely to be important enough for anyone else to do either. If you want an effective, multiplying small group, the best thing to do is for the pastor to start one.
2. Begin with the Right People. The first effective, multiplying group is not the one to begin with all the elders, board members, or even the leadership team. Instead, look for the spiritually restless who are hungering for their faith to really make a difference in their lives rather than an add-on to cap the weekend. There are differences of opinion on this listserv as to how many to people to have in an effective small group, but the consensus seems to be between five and twelve.
3. Don’t Focus on Bible Study. Now I know that sounds pretty radical, but as Juan Ortiz points out, Jesus didn’t lead Bible studies – he taught discipleship. There’s a big difference. I’m not suggesting we stop referencing the scriptures, but the focus of an effective, multiplying small group needs to be more on application of biblical truth to everyday lives than on anything else outside of prayer. And how, one might ask, would we apply biblical truth without Bible study? Perhaps focusing on the Great Confession, the Great Commission, and the Great Commandments and how to apply each of them might be enough to keep the discussions going for a couple of weeks. And it’s perfectly okay to bring in Bible stories, axioms, etc., but the focus is on application and behavioral change.
4. Do Focus on Evangelism. The purpose of an effective small group must be more than internal naval gazing. The group has to be outward focused. It’s not, however, focused on inviting people to the small group. That’s a ministry of attraction and we do plenty of that in the conventional church. Jesus didn’t send his disciples out to “invite the crowds to the sermon on the mount.” They were, instead, sent out to announce the kingdom and to heal, cast out demons, etc. (and not to change cities or social structures, but to invite individuals to change their lives). Inviting people to attend a church service or to join a small group isn’t the point. The point is to build the kingdom. However, those who make a connection with Jesus are going to want to be in a small group like the one you’re leading. They may come for a time, but when the person who shared Jesus with them is ready to start a small group of their own, they’ll probably go with them.
5. Do Focus on Apprenticeship. Here’s the key to the above. When folks in a small group start to experience life-change and discover that they don’t need the preacher to pray for them and to do their ministry for them, they start doing it themselves. As they do, they’ll be ready to build and lead small groups of their own. Facilitate this by starting to apprentice every person in the small group from day one. Teach them to pray. One of the biggest mistakes we made from the beginning of our house churches was asking for prayer requests and then praying “for” them. Today we ask if anyone in the group needs to be prayed over. If so, we gather around that person and pray for them. Otherwise, if Bob’s cousin has cancer, we expect Bob to pray for him. We join in as the Spirit leads, but Bob does the praying. Anytime the “pastor” leads the group, they are enabling dependency. We model, but we’re apprenticing disciples whom we expect to start and lead small groups in their homes, workplaces, etc.
6. Do Focus of Multiplication. Talk about the expectation. Look at Luke and Matthew 10 when Jesus sent out the disciples to the towns and villages. Talk about how to multiply disciples (how to share faith – and pastor, you need to be modeling it first and foremost). Talk about how to multiply leaders (this is pretty much what you’re doing in the small group). And talk about how to multiply small groups – from small, two person accountability partnerships to discipleship small groups like the one you’re leading. Show them that they have all the skills they need to start a small group today – if they’re committed followers of Jesus, they only have to be one step ahead of the folks they lead.
7. Do Maintain Accountability. When new groups start, insist that the new leaders continue in either the original group that you’re leading or, when the group has multiplied a couple of times, start a leadership small group. All leaders need to be in an accountability group where they can continue their own faith journey and ask the touch questions they may not be able to ask in their own small group (“How do I disciple someone in my group who dominates the conversation all the time?”). As Jesus said, “I will not leave you like an orphan,” and we need to be there for these small group leaders as they model, apprentice, and equip new disciples. This is the place for you to ask the tough questions too, like, “What are you doing in your personal life to grow your faith?” and “How have you been a testimony to the greatness of Jesus Christ in both your words and actions this week?” It’s also the place to go beyond the elementary teachings and into the depth of the wisdom of faith (1 Cor. 2).
There’s probably more, but this is how we’re morphing, starting, and focusing.
What thoughts, concerns, or new ideas does this bring up? What looks intimidating and what looks “Duh!”?