An interesting phenomenon is happening in many American churches today. As churches develop a small groups ministry, they often begin to feel an identity crisis. This is exasperated by all of the church models, discipleship models, shepherding models, and small group models that are available to churches.
Diagnosis 1: Splintering
We live in an age when we can travel to successful churches, go to their conferences, read their books, and check out their web sites. Some churches pick up a little from here, a little from there; the youth guy loves one church's philosophy, the small groups minister uses another church's model, while the children's director uses a third church's ideas. This creates lots of overlap issues and a church where ministries are unaligned and not working as effectively and productively as they should.
Diagnosis 2: Incompatible Models
Numerous models are used by healthy, growing churches, but these models do not necessarily work in tandem with one another. The following models all utilize small groups, but in each, groups play different roles.
In Purpose-Driven churches (e.g. Saddleback), ministries are aligned under the purposes of the church. (These are often churches with small groups.)
In Program-Based churches (e.g. Southeast Christian), ministries are aligned under certain programs (i.e. men, women, singles, couples, young adult, etc.). (These are also often churches with small groups.)
In Community-Driven Churches (e.g. Meta Churches such as Willow Creek or Environment Churches such as North Point), ministries are aligned under community-driven events or environments. Usually, these churches organize primarily around span of care. (These are generally considered churches of small groups.)
In Relational-Based Churches (i.e. Cell Churches or Pantego Bible Church), ministry happens primarily in and through the relationships in small groups. Alignment is either geographical or affinity-based or both. These churches also organize around span of care. (These are churches where small groups are the church.)
In many churches, ministries are organized and aligned in a number of ways, and sometimes in several ways all at once. For instance, small groups may be aligned:
under the purpose of fellowship or membership. In this case, small groups ministry is geared primarily (or only) toward that particular purpose. People with purpose–driven mindsets see small groups as places where assimilation happens best, but not necessarily where evangelism, spiritual growth, or leadership development happen most effectively.
under the program of small groups. In other words, small groups are one program among many others that people can choose from.
under the environment of the Kitchen (North Point's terminology for the place where family is built). In this scenario, small groups can achieve a variety of purposes as long as they are a place where a sense of "family" is occurring.
in relationships. In other words, small groups are not a program or purpose; the community of small groups is the church. Small groups are viewed more holistically under this model. All the purposes of the church occur in community.
Overlap of ministries often occurs when one person views the church as purpose-driven, while someone else sees it as program-based, while others see it as environmental or relational. This creates competition, conflict, and confusion.
In talking with pastors and involvement with a variety of churches, I've found that many churches can be described as seeker-sensitive, purpose-oriented, program-based, community-driven, relational churches! At the church where I serve, we sometimes joke about being a North Pantwillowback model church. This multi-model approach can lead a church to becoming a "splintered church." In their book, Building a Church of Small Groups, Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson discuss the consequences of becoming splintered: "Some strong leaders with deep passions and expertise began viewing their ministry as an end in itself rather than an organic part of the biblical body. We have a term for this dynamic of unhealthy independence – 'splintering.' In some sense we became an association of para-church ministries housed at one location."
That is a good description of many North American churches: an association of para-church ministries housed at one location. This creates the problem that many churches face: competing ministry structures within the church – an unhealthy and ineffective way of doing church.
What Kind of Church Are We?
Willow Creek decided to work toward becoming a church of small groups. They made this transition by aligning every ministry under a common small groups infrastructure. This, they say, takes time, diplomacy, and determined effort.
Each church must develop their own model that will bring synergy, simplicity, and a focus that drives powerful ministry. This starts by knowing your overall philosophy of ministry, which drives your shepherding and discipleship models, which then determines your small group structure.
The question is, "Who are we?" It's really easy to say, "Well, we're a New Testament church!" or "We're a Bible-based church!" Other churches say, "We're a cell church" or "We're a meta-church" or "We're a _______ (put your denominational name here) church." But what does that mean to how you organize ministry? A philosophy of ministry is certainly shaped by God's Word. But how your church chooses to express that philosophy will look different from church to church.
This article has been more descriptive than prescriptive. It would take a book to go into all the possibilities that exist for fixing the problem. In 1996, I wrote a book titled The Synergy Church. A main focus of that book was to help build a strategy for integrating small groups and adult Sunday school. Beyond that, it helped a church utilize a variety of ministries and groupings in the church in a way that can effectively and strategically carry out the church's mission to make disciples. That book is now out of print. I have considered revising and republishing it, and will, God willing and if there is interest. But still I hesitate to promote such a book, even my own. I do not wish to throw out yet another model to try to follow. And I really do not think a book can adequately prescribe the correct solutions for every church's unique sets of circumstances. That will take prayer, a humbleness before God, a willingness to allow Him to build His church, a thorough study of His Word, possibly some consultation from others who have gone before us and can give insight and counsel into our specific situations, and a commitment to the long-term as we team with God in His great venture. Now is the time to start!