There’s a lot we can disagree about when it comes to church. We can argue about the Mega Church phenomenon. Things could get pretty heated when it comes to worship styles. We probably disagree about some of the finer points of theology and let’s just not discuss politics.
One thing I think we can all agree on is the value of a thriving small groups ministry. Most of us recognize the importance of relationships in the process of spiritual growth.
Some of us serve and lead in churches that were planted more recently, where small groups are part of the DNA of the culture. Others of us serve and lead in churches that are older, and often, the small groups ministry is either fledgling or non-existent.
So, here’s the question: How do you build a small groups ministry from scratch? Or, how do you take a fledgling small groups ministry and make it great?
Here's a few ideas that I've picked up along the way...
The most important question to ask when building a small groups ministry, or attempting to implement any new program or strategy in ministry, is WHY?
Why do we need a small groups ministry? What is it going to accomplish? A lack of clarity around this question will lead to all sorts of problems.
For us, it all comes down to a core value of relationships. At our church, our mission is to lead people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that transforms them. And, we believe that meaningful relationships are one of the key ways that God leads people to Jesus and into the process of transformation.
Other churches answer this question a little differently. North Point Community Church is very clear on the why of small groups. “Circles are better than rows.” In other words, small groups are a better place to process spiritual truth and learn what following Jesus looks like.
If you haven't listened to Simon Sinek's TED talk on starting with why, it's well worth the listen. It does a beautiful job at demonstrating why it's so crucial to start with "why":
My point is this: If you are sensing the need to build a small groups ministry in your church, start with why. Take the time to clarify this question.
HERE AND THERE
Bill Hybels defines leadership as leading people from here to there. I love this simple definition.
If you want to build a small groups ministry, it will take leadership.
You’re going to have to articulate a compelling vision. Vision starts with “there.” In other words, you must convince your people of the value of “there.”
Here’s an example:
“Imagine our church in three years. We have a vibrant small groups ministry. 80% of our people are part of a small group in which they are sharing life, praying for each other, serving each other, and discussing the weekend sermon in more detail. Imagine the spiritual growth that would come out of this!”
Paint a compelling picture of why “there,” is worth the effort. Next, help your people understand that “here” is unacceptable.
“Where we are right now, without a vibrant small groups ministry, is unacceptable. The majority of our people are missing a vital component of discipleship because they aren’t engaged in meaningful relationships. We simply can’t stay here!”
In order to build a vibrant small groups ministry, you must create a compelling vision. A simple template for vision is “here” to “there.”
In our church staff, we have a saying: compelling vision, comprehensive strategy, relentless implementation.
It’s is the second component that answers the “how” question — comprehensive strategy. You see, a beautiful vision of the future is important but, in the end, meaningless without a strategy for getting there.
So, if you want to build a small groups ministry you need a strategy. Here are a few important questions to help clarify the how:
- What will be the purpose of small groups?
- Who do we want in small groups?
- Are the small groups open or closed?
- Are the small groups built around the sermon or something else?
- When and where will the small groups meet?
- Who will lead the small groups?
- How will the small groups be formed?
My suggestion here is to do your homework. There are a bunch of great books on small group strategy. Visit churches who have great small groups ministry, interview their staff. Learn everything you can. The truth is that there are several effective models for small group ministry. I could share our model with you but honestly, it might not be the best approach for your setting.
The point is, you need a comprehensive strategy. Putting in the hard work of determining the right strategy for your context is imperative.
When it comes to building a vibrant small groups ministry, WHO is important.
First off, you’ll need a champion. In other words, you need someone to wave the banner of small groups, whose primary purpose is to make small groups great in your church. This person can be staff or volunteer.
My only caution is that this person needs to live and breathe your culture. One mistake I’ve repeatedly seen in churches is hiring an outside small groups expert who then implements a strategy for small groups that doesn’t fit the church culture. This can be disastrous because the naysayers in your church will then say, “See, I told you small groups were a bad idea.”
Once you identify and empower a champion, that person needs a team. In my experience, building successful small groups ministry will require you to recruit, train and mentor a team of people who deeply believe in small groups and in the particular strategy you have chosen.
I would suggest a season in which you pilot small groups, specifically with the people you hope will eventually lead small groups. Essentially, you are saying:
“Come be a part of this small group so that next year you can lead a small group just like it.”
In every church or business endeavor, there are critical resources and when there is a shortage in these resources, the endeavor grinds to a halt.
Think construction and steel. When there is a steel shortage, construction grinds to a halt.
In small group ministry, a critical resource is leaders. You must work hard to be ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying, training and mentoring leaders. Your first wave of small groups might be wildly successful but when the next season hits, double the number of people sign up for a small group and you have a shortage of leaders your momentum will grind to a halt.
Most successful small groups ministries contain some sort of apprentice leader role. I would suggest starting with model small groups that contain the leaders you hope to unleash. Then, when possible, leave room in your structure for apprentice leaders within your small groups.
You’re probably catching on to the idea that small group leaders are the critical component to a vibrant small groups ministry. I would go as far to say that the quality of your small groups ministry is directly dependent on the quality of your small group leaders. Because of this, it is very important that investing in small group leaders becomes a high priority.
A mantra in the student ministry I lead is that "small group leaders are the real pastors in our ministry". By this, we mean that our small group leaders provide the first level of pastoral leadership with our students. I think it is the same with any type of small group.
Here’s the thing: even if you disagree with our mantra, this is how small groups actually function in real life. When Sally brings up her failing marriage during her small group, the leader of that small group will say something and that something will either be pastoral and point Sally to Jesus or... well, let’s just say, you probably want to invest in your leaders really well so that they respond like pastors.
What does this investment look like? I think it looks like coaching conversations. The small groups champion should be meeting with small group leaders regularly to discuss how things are going in the small group — encouraging them, asking questions, listening well, and mentoring them in the art of leading small groups.
This of course means that the larger your small groups ministry becomes; the more champions you need. Stay ahead of the growth curve. Constantly identify, train and mentor new leaders and the people who will coach these leaders.
So, how do you build a vibrant small group ministry? Clarify why you want small groups, define your strategy, identify who will be the key players and invest in your leaders.
The plan is actually fairly simple. However, the execution of the plan is deeply challenging.
Here’s a great first step: Pull together a small team, even it is only three people and start dreaming about why, how and who. Then, get moving! If there’s one thing that will dramatically impact your church, it is a vibrant small group ministry.