One of the beautiful things about small groups is that they're highly customizable—at least that's the beauty for the group leaders. Tracking multiple types of small groups, on the other hand, can be a headache for the small-group pastor or director.
That's why it makes more sense to many pastors to use one model across the entire small-group ministry. It's efficient and easy to keep track of. Pastors are busy people who need all of the efficiency they can get.
In a perfectly efficient world, pastors could use one system to connect, train, and organize the entire congregation into groups. Unfortunately, there are no systems like this. On top of that, it's not what's best for the people who will be involved in group life. When there's only one type of group model, people are forced to respond with "yes" or "no"—take it or leave it. And the fact is that many will say "no" because that model doesn't fit their needs.
Now, don't get me wrong, I like systems and control (especially the second one). A single group model is easier for me to manage, lead, and develop. There's only one thing wrong with this picture: there's just too much "me."
We live in a world of infinite choices. Someone can walk into Starbucks and order one of 87,000 drink combinations—and that's just coffee. People can flip through hundreds of cable channels to find exactly what they want to watch, or surf the billions of sites on the Internet for hours to learn more about a specific hobby or trend. In the church, however, pastors believe everyone should fit into one neat system for discipleship. Then they wonder why only 30 percent (or fewer) of their church members are interested in small groups. One size simply does not fit all. People need a variety of ways to connect and grow.
Tending a Garden of Groups
In my early years of group ministry, I tried to identify the perfect strategy for small groups. I read some great books and attended seminars and conferences. Then God gave me a new picture of groups: an image of plants in a nursery with the small-group pastor as the gardener. All of the groups need water, sunlight, and nutrients. But they don't all need the same amounts, and they certainly don't grow at the same rates.
This image caused me to realize that some groups serve best by offering intensive Bible study, and others serve best by centering on support for a particular issue, or even on a common hobby. Some groups thrive when they meet to discuss the weekend's message. Others thrive when they can choose a study to meet a felt need. Diversity and variety work well with groups.
All of this begs the question: What is a small group? If we encourage our groups to (1) connect with and care for each other, (2) apply God's Word, and (3) serve others, groups can take on an infinite number of formats. This can happen in a women's weekday Bible study, an evening couples' group, a motorcycle group, and even a Sunday school class. On the other hand, if our definition dictates that a small group meets weekly in a home to discuss the weekend sermon, there's only one way to participate in group life. Some will take it. Others will leave it.
When the church I served in California managed to connect 125 percent of the average adult attendance into groups, we were using five different group models simultaneously. Some have asked me if that created confusion. The truth is each small group was only following one model—the leaders weren't confused. The only potential confusion was mine.