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   Small Group Shift? Pay Attention to What Really Matters.
Christian Leadership

Small Group Shift? Pay Attention to What Really Matters.

by Dan Reiland

Small groups are here to stay, but for them to be meaningful for those involved, there are some principles we all need to remember.


The first time I was part of a small group in a local church was in the late 70s. I was a college student and I was hooked for life (on small groups, that is). Small group life just makes sense. It represents the body of Christ in action with a near-family kind of bond.

Nothing new under the sun, right? From the house groups in the book of Acts, to John Wesley's "Methodist" classes, to Paul Yongi Cho's small group explosion in Seoul, Korea, to more current expressions such as "Free Market" groups (Ted Haggard), small group life has been here for a long time and is here to stay.

But how we do small groups is an entirely different issue.

For many years the "Apprentice and Birthing" model reigned supreme. Simply stated, this model endorses the leadership development of an apprentice and the natural birthing of one group into two groups over the course of about 18 months. And the beat goes on.

But that is not necessarily the answer for all time. It's a slow process. It requires double the number of leaders at the start of each group, and the coaching structures can be laborious. In large churches it is particularly slow and difficult for people to find their way into a group. I personally believe there is still great wisdom in this method, but new innovations and adaptations are needed.

One of the newer concepts is the "Point and Pick" model (not an official name, just the tag I'm giving it). Though it hasn't been around long enough to stand the test of time, it shows impressive results so far. This model embraces the concept of gathering a large (or very large) group of people all at once and providing them with some cool, relationally-engineered connection time. Then at the appropriate point in this well- organized and often church-wide gathering, the leaders/hosts are selected. There is usually a high quality, video-driven curriculum that accompanies this process.

There are many, many variations of this model. One of the most common variations of the theme is to gather a large number of people, and through creative means, get them into groups with pre-selected and pre-approved leaders. The primary challenge in the "Point and Pick" model can be who ends up leading the groups.

One of the newest models is called "Free Market" groups. This is a relationally- and affinity-driven model that is often based outside the church. It utilizes a nearly inexhaustible number of different kinds of groups based on people's interests, talents, and needs. There can be an excellent evangelistic edge to these groups. (Read Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century; Ted Haggard.) Like all other models, there are already variations on this idea, some more successful than others. One of the challenges in this type of group is that the interest, talent, or need may take priority over authentic life change.

The reason I am writing from a more general vantage point than usual is because though your model is important, it is not as important as executing the model well. Actually, doing it well matters. Discovering what works best for your church is the smart thing to do, more so than studying what the mega-churches are doing and then copying them. Study them, and adapt what you learn to fit your culture and community.

The most important thing is to make sure that whatever model, method, system, or process you use is values-driven. Stay true to your values and deliver your model with excellence, and you will grow your small group ministry.

I can't tell you what your values should be, but I will move from general to specific and offer you three ideas of what I think are crucially important core values that should drive whatever system of small groups your church embraces:

  • Connection/Community

    We joke on our team about the "A" word. I don't like its usage. Honestly, I'd almost rather hear people swear. "Assimilation" feels like something from a Star Trek movie where The Borg assimilates you into their collective conscience. Okay, it's just a word. We all know what we're talking about-but words do matter. If I say to my wife "I love ya," it's just not the same as "I love you." If you're married, try it and test the difference!

    Connection works for me. As a human being-and especially as a Christian-I want to be connected to other people. I'm not talking about networking. That's a great business concept, but I mean person-to-person connection. It is where people begin to feel like they are part of something. Connection leads to community.

    Community is that extraordinary kind of experience where people truly share life together. There is a genuine, heart-to-heart honesty that allows the body of Christ to be real and flourish. The best way to test for this often-elusive quality is life change. What fruit is seen among the people as a result of group life?

    Candidly, not all groups experience authentic community. Though I have a deep passion for all small groups to achieve this, I'm not willing to say that mere connection is a bad thing. For many people, simply connecting in a group at all is a difficult decision and a courageous starting point. If nothing else, connection is an environment of hope and opportunity from which true community may develop. In the meantime, friendships are established and people are not alone or disconnected in your church.

  • Transformation

    My wife Patti will tell you I like a good chocolate chip cookie. The truth is, I love a good chocolate chip cookie. If you add a great cup of tea and some friends to the mix-we're talking about a good night. That is a wonderfully enjoyable experience. In fact, I'm likely to come back. But... if that is all it ever is, I'm not going to keep coming back. There are too many other demands in life for me to continue to attend something every week that is enjoyable but never really makes a difference.

    We must lead people to connection, then to community, and then show the way toward true life transformation. Many pastors have confided in me, saying that they have all but given up on this happening in traditional small groups. I have not.

    A number of churches have abandoned "traditional" small groups in favor of ministry-based groups, believing that life change happens when people serve. There is great wisdom in the life changing potential of ministry-based (serving) small groups, but I can't deny personal experience. And my experience says that if a traditional (community) group will genuinely seek all that God has for them, life change can and does happen. The book of Acts is not a fable.

    We don't need to make this complicated, though we often do. Charts and graphs aren't mandatory. We don't need to have a college-like curriculum. We can simply ask the question, "Are people living more like Jesus because they have been part of our group than they did before they were part of our group?" That is really the bottom line. I do use a pattern of discipleship (Worship, Integrity, Community, Service, and Evangelism) to bring clarity to our approach but only because in a large church it is needed for alignment of hundreds of people so we can all lead in the same direction together. The bottom line is still the same: Are we more like Christ?

  • Leadership Development

    I personally believe, next to the power of the Holy Spirit, that leadership is the primary difference-maker in small groups. Leaders and leadership development matter. For me personally, I need more than a delightful person with gifts of hospitality and a VCR to lead a small group. Can such a person be raised up to be a leader? In some cases, yes-and that is great. But if leadership is not a value, then the effort and energy needed to see that happen never appear.

    Leadership development takes time, it costs money, and it demands energy, but it's worth it. Hey, I was mentored by the guy who said, "Everything rises and falls on leadership" (Maxwell). It's not true because John said it-it's true because it's true. John just makes it all the more believable! The people in the group never rise above the caliber of the leader or the quality of the environment. That's why sharp people won't follow a dull leader, at least not for long.

    I would be remiss if I did not urge you to develop your small group leaders regardless of the method of small group structure you employ. The good news is that there is an abundance of small group training material and conferences available to you. You don't have to create your own. But please, whatever it takes, invest in your leaders.

    Your small group values may look different than these. Just be clear on what they are and fight for them. They will shape and help determine what structure and strategy you use to build and sustain small groups. Measure your success not only by how many people you have in small groups, but by the quality of the community, the evidence of life change, and the ability of the leaders.


    This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter The Pastor's Coach available at www.INJOY.com.

    Copyright 2004, INJOY 4725 River Green Pkwy, Duluth, GA 30096