While serving conventional churches, many have experienced difficulty in getting small groups up and running. It might make you wonder what makes it so difficult to get them started. Here are a couple of thoughts, as well as a few suggestions, for getting them started.
- Status Quo. Many in church like the status quo, and they do not care for changes. Getting involved in a small group involves changing patterns.
- Time. Many in church "give" their one hour (or however long) to the church and are not willing to invest more.
- Value. Many in church have "been there; done that; got the t-shirt; don't need to do it again." They did not get much out of a small group then, and they figure they will not get much out of it this time either.
- Intimacy. Many in church either fear intimacy, are uncomfortable with it, and/or do not want to be held accountable. As Bill Easum wrote in the forward to House Church Manual, in a small group "…it is next to impossible to be fake about your faith or lack of it."
- Credibility. Many pastors, in a flurry of excitement after they have returned from a Group Magazine or Serendipity House small group seminar, launch a new group program using leaders who have little or no credibility as disciples of Jesus, and everybody in the community knows it. If attending a small group is supposed to deepen someone's spiritual life, then the leader had better be a credible spiritual example.
With that said, here are a couple of suggestions I would offer for launching effective, multiplying small groups.
- Begin with You. One of the number one complaints I hear from pastors is that they cannot get their congregations to do evangelism (or inviting people to church, etc.). They confess that they preach about it, teach about it, and even send people to workshops on evangelism to no avail. The problem, however, in most of the cases I have noted, is that the congregations are doing exactly what the pastor is actually teaching by example. Most of these pastors keep expecting their flocks to do what they themselves are not doing. Until it is important enough for the pastor to do, and to do well and often, it is not likely to be important enough for anyone else to do either. If you want an effective, multiplying small group, the best thing to do is for the pastor to start one.
- Begin with the Right People. Do not begin your first effective, multiplying group with your elders, board members, or even the leadership team. Instead, look for the spiritually restless who are hungering for their faith to really make a difference in their lives rather than an add-on to cap the weekend. There are differences of opinion on how many people to have in an effective small group, but the consensus seems to be between five and twelve (We do not start a new group without at least eight participants).
- Do not Focus on Bible Study. I know that sounds pretty radical, but as Juan Carlos Ortiz points out, Jesus did not lead Bible studies—he taught discipleship. There is a big difference. I am not suggesting we stop referencing the scriptures, but the focus of an effective, multiplying small group needs to be more on application of biblical truth to everyday lives than on anything else, outside of prayer. How, one might ask, would we apply biblical truth without Bible study? Perhaps focusing on the Great Confession, the Great Commission, and the Great Commandments and how to apply each of them might be enough to keep the discussions going for a couple of weeks. It is perfectly okay to bring in Bible stories, axioms, etc., but the focus is on application and behavioral change.
- Do Focus on Evangelism. The purpose of an effective small group must be more than internal naval gazing. The group has to be outward focused. It is not, however, focused on inviting people to the small group. That is a ministry of attraction, and we do plenty of that in the conventional church. Jesus did not send his disciples out to "invite the crowds to the Sermon on the Mount." They were, instead, sent out to announce the kingdom and to heal, cast out demons, etc. (and not to change cities or social structures, but to invite individuals to change their lives). Inviting people to attend a church service or to join a small group is not the point. The point is to build the kingdom. However, those who make a connection with Jesus are going to want to be in a small group like the one you are leading. They may come for a time, but when the person who shared Jesus with them is ready to start a small group of their own, they will probably go with them.
- Do Focus on Apprenticeship. Here is the key to the above. When those in a small group start to experience life-change and discover that they do not need the preacher to pray for them and to do their ministry for them, they start doing it themselves. As they do, they will be ready to build and lead small groups of their own. Facilitate this by starting to apprentice every person in the small group from day one. Teach them to pray. One of the biggest mistakes we made from the beginning of our house churches was asking for prayer requests and then praying "for" them. Today we ask if anyone in the group needs to be prayed over. If so, we gather around that person and pray for them. Otherwise, if Bob's cousin has cancer, we expect Bob to pray for him. We join in as the Spirit leads, but Bob does the praying. Anytime the "pastor" leads the group, they are enabling dependency. We model, but we are apprenticing disciples whom we expect to start and lead small groups in their homes, workplaces, etc.
- Do Focus on Multiplication. Talk about the expectation. Look at Luke 10 and Matthew 10 when Jesus sent out the disciples to the towns and villages. Talk about how to multiply disciples and how to share faith (Pastor, you need to be modeling it first and foremost). Talk about how to multiply leaders (This is pretty much what you are doing in the small group). Talk about how to multiply small groups, from small, two person accountability partnerships to discipleship small groups like the one you are leading. Show them that they have all the skills they need to start a small group today. If they are committed followers of Jesus, they only have to be one step ahead of those they lead.
- Do Maintain Accountability. When new groups start, insist that the new leaders continue in either the original group that you are leading or, when the group has multiplied a couple of times, start a leadership small group. All leaders need to be in an accountability group where they can continue their own faith journey and ask the tough questions they may not be able to ask in their own small group (i.e., "How do I disciple someone in my group who dominates the conversation all the time?"). As Jesus said, "I will not leave you like an orphan," and we need to be there for these small group leaders as they model, apprentice, and equip new disciples. This is the place for you to ask the tough questions like, "What are you doing in your personal life to grow your faith?" and "How have you been a testimony to the greatness of Jesus Christ in both your words and actions this week?" It is also the place to go beyond the elementary teachings and into the depth of the wisdom of faith (1 Cor. 2).
There is nothing inherently difficult or easy about starting effective, multiplying small groups (How's that for a post modern paradoxical statement!?). Start fresh with you as the leader, and invite those who are looking for a real spiritual adventure. Mentor, apprentice, expect multiplication, and hold each other accountable. Finally, remember that the purpose of the small group is not to educate, it is to train disciples of Jesus Christ. It is not about information … it is all about formation.