Small Groups—Our Current Small Group Structure is a mix of "fully-functioning" groups and short-term ones for families or adult affinity groups as well as weekly groups for teens. At our "max" in 2004, we had 9 Family/Affinity Groups & 6 Teen Groups
# in Small Groups – 130
Our congregation is a 130-year-old congregation in a rural community of 700 people where we are the only evangelical church in town and, in fact, the only one in a 6 town "radius". For a large part of our history (100+ years), we existed as what I would term a "family" church. One where most additions came through pregnancy. The small number of other additions came when people from our church heritage moved into the area and sought us out.
Less than 5 years ago that began to change drastically. Our Worship attendance began to grow on a regular basis and most of those coming were coming from little or no church background or from a background of religion but not relationship; with the majority coming from Catholic backgrounds. Seemingly overnight, we became a congregation with more spiritually immature (milk-only) members/attendees than mature ones. At almost the same time, we contributed to the planting of a congregation in a nearby city which had us sending even more of our mature members elsewhere. That left our Eldership with a pressing realization that we needed to make disciples and we needed to make them in the most biblically productive way possible. That decision led to the hiring of a Discipleship Minister (me) charged to encourage our congregation to grow toward a closer relationship with God and one another and to develop their gifts for service. I became convinced, through study and experience, that the "small group" was the best (but not sole) and most biblical way to go about making disciples.
The Vision and Leadership Environment
It is the desire of the Discipleship Ministry and our Elders to encourage every member/attendee to become involved in an accountable relationship with others within the Body. This pursuit is a brand new concept for this congregation. In the past, because of the make-up of the congregation, Bible study was just "what you did" and fellowship naturally happened because most everyone was related. It is now a new world. Our Elders and Staff expressed a commitment to influencing this new world through a modified small group format. Unfortunately, to date (less than 2 years in), the commitment from the Elders and Senior Minister have chiefly been lip service. Those Elders actively involved in a Home Group are in the minority. The highlight in this area, though, is that when we had a campaign of short-term home groups (8 weeks) every Elder and Staff Member led or joined a group.
The actual leadership of the small group ministry falls at the feet of the Discipleship Minister, ultimately. I operate with a team of congregation members that we call our "Vision Team" to pray and prepare for God's leading in this area. We have a required training for all those wishing to serve as Small Group leaders that also incorporates an interview process and a commitment to a doctrinal statement. Once approved by the Elders to lead, regular check-ups are held with small group leaders on a one-to-one basis. As the number of leaders grows, we will also begin to have regular leader gatherings that will bring all our small group leaders together for encouragement and continuing education (i.e. developing the prayer life of your group, supporting a missionary…).
What happens in your church's small groups?
The small group leader training seeks to show potential leaders that the goal of our small group ministry is to create "fully-functioning biblical communities." This means that balance is the key and biblical application takes precedence over just Bible knowledge. We structure our groups on the model of Acts 2:42-47, where each group leader creates champions for each function of the group. These champions include: prayer, benevolence, fellowship, missions, and the leader and apprentice leader. We encourage our leaders to let these champions naturally rise up based on gifts and passions rather than a random appointment.
This said, the central event of the actual "meeting" time is what we call our Focus Time which chiefly, though not always, is a Bible Study time. It is our belief that the best way to build community and create disciples is to have them search the Scriptures together. With the goal always being to discover what I need to do about these passages of Scripture beyond just knowing them.
What has been done to grow the involvement of people in Christian community?
We have pursued the marketing of small groups on two fronts. Our first front is the development of men and women to a maturity level that allows them to not only to be willing to lead a small group but also be prepared and equipped to lead one. Our second front is to show the value of small groups to the congregation and, I am finding, a culture that sees accountable relationships and spiritual growth as a foreign concept. For this reason, we started with only one small group, made up of a selected number of people. That small group was/is led by me. Our goal being to teach those in this group WHAT a biblical community is and why it is so valuable. We then are encouraging those folks to share that experience with others through personal and public testimonies. At the same time, we are offering a variety of opportunities for general spiritual growth that will then increase the pool of candidates for small group leadership.
Once we were down the road a bit, we introduced potential leaders and potential small group members to an opportunity to stick their foot in the water of group life through short-term groups. We created what we called a Sermon & Study Series where we had congregation members leading small group studies based on a Sermon Series on topics of significant interest to our congregation. We intend to pursue a similar format in the coming year along with other initiatives. We/I have come to rely less on plans and more on preparedness. We are seeking to be very fluid in how we develop groups and promote groups. We have some basics but are avoiding putting details in a concrete format. We have learned that "plans" often cause us to miss God-provided opportunities.
What has happened as a result of what has been done?
To date, I would say the development of discipleship as a whole and small groups in specific has gone "okay." If I were grading us on where I thought we would be compared to when I first got here, I would give us a D+. Reality, however is that this type of change to community based living takes time, I would say a fairer grade would be a B-. I believe the slow-as-you-go approach we have taken was the right direction to take; it is just slower than I had imagined it would be. I came in, because of past experience, expecting a large group of willing and able leaders anxiously awaiting my arrival and ready to dive in headfirst. When I found something very different, a change of direction was required. I discovered what I thought would be a 2-3 year building process would likely be a 4-5 year process instead. I learned to temper my expectations and learned that before I could lead leaders, I was going to have to develop leaders. It taught me to chuck my experience and lean heavily on God.
Out of the Sermon & Study Series promotion came many positive results with increased talk about small groups becoming a part of our culture, and, with several initial leaders pursuing training toward becoming leaders of fully functioning groups. Along with that, others are beginning to rise up to question, in a positive way, the value of small group life. With some exceptions, I believe we have charted the right course and the Holy Spirit is blowing us in the right direction.
The biggest challenge now is getting a foundation laid and not allowing distractions that prevent building on that foundation, or worse, chip away at it. Specifically, we are dealing with opposition from a handful of individuals who are questioning our decision to remove a small group leader from her position because of a change in her belief about a basic tenant of the faith. How our Elders and Staff respond to this challenge, I believe, will prove to be a turning point in the development of the discipleship ministry and small groups within our congregation.