Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Click here to read Part 2.
When churches start small-group ministries, most hope that new groups will continue to grow both numerically and in relationship with Christ and one another. One of the keys to sustain this type of growth over time is something the Bible calls "oneness." Here's my definition of oneness: "Relationships characterized by unity of purpose and love for one another even in the face of extreme opposition or internal conflict."
Genuine oneness, while an internal quality, is almost always noticed by outsiders, drawing them to the source of that same oneness. That's why oneness is one of the main engines that will drive small-group growth.
In John 17:20, Jesus prayed perhaps his most urgent prayer for his disciple group: "The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they'll be as unified and together as we are—I in them and you in me. Then they'll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you've sent me and loved them in the same way you've loved me" (The Message, emphasis added).
It's startling that Jesus prayed his disciples' oneness would be comparable to that of the Trinity! But he did. Because the result of that type of oneness is a changed world—one where Christ followers are in community with the triune God and in community with one another. And as a result, the unbelieving world will stand up and take notice of the source of that oneness, which is Jesus Christ.
Oneness does not come naturally in churches where there are crowds but little community. That is why in most church settings, a small group is a prerequisite to oneness. However, a small group is not a guarantee of oneness. This is why we need to prayerfully consider the selection of our "oneness strategy."
Funnels to Oneness
One way to think about the oneness pathway from crowd to community is to imagine a funnel. A funnel is a device that has a wide opening at one end and a small opening at the other. Funnels help get things into small, hard-to-reach places by making one end very small and focused and the other end broad end easy to access. Likewise, churches can use "funnels" to help guide diverse and relationally-distant crowds into smaller communities along their pathway to oneness.
Below are a few examples:
The Silo Funnel
The reality is that every church has small groups of some kind, whether or not they are aware of them. Every church has relational clusters that exist in Sunday school classes, choirs, specialized ministries, or even what some people call cliques.
One way to deepen oneness as a core value is to start with the relationships that already exist. As some church leaders would say, "All you have to do is add some intentionality to it—designate a leader, recommend a meeting schedule, provide a curriculum, draw a circle around them, and call them a small group!"
It may not be quite that simple. However, pre-existing relationships plus vision plus equipping can transform existing relationships into disciple-making communities. While pre-existing relationships help accelerate the group-life cycle and bring people into functioning biblical community more quickly, be aware that pre-existing relationships can also lead to carryover of pre-existing sinful relational habits that stunt the growth of oneness.
The Silo Funnel: Confessions of a Small-Group Director
"My experience has been that small groups that are formed through pre-existing relational connections are very strong and sustainable for long periods of time. These groups can also have great discipleship potential as existing relationships flourish from the added injection of intentional Bible study, consistent purposeful fellowship, service, and accountability. When these groups are continually engrained with strong values of outreach, service, and multiplication, they can become consistent communities of oneness.
"However, my experience has been that consistent coaching needs to happen because these groups easily drift toward non-reproducibility and, in the worst cases, become unproductive holding tanks. Good friends form a small group to do Bible study or service. The community is rich and the group instinctively protects the safety of the environment by either subtly discouraging new members from joining or turning down new opportunities for mission that might challenge group life. The result is that new people and ideas come and go, but the inner circle remains strong and resistant to change.
"By itself, pre-existing relationships can establish several stable groups. But many of these small groups never embrace the full vision and mission of the small-group ministry. Instead, they will remain 'out of network,' and in the long run, only a relatively small percentage of the whole church becomes connected to an intentional small group focused on oneness."
—Tom, from Indiana
The Fishing Pond Funnel
This strategy involves recruiting, raising up, and training new small-group leaders. These leaders then "fish" for group members in different "ponds" of people already connected to the larger church. The ponds consist of categories like: new members, singles, sports ministries, or the infamous "those not in a group" list. Launching and growing groups revolves around church leaders constantly directing new and existing groups toward the "ponds" and directing the "ponds" toward the small groups.
Because most of the small group prospects come from within the larger local church, there is already some familiarity with the vision and mission of the larger church. The goal then, is taking individuals from the crowd, sometimes with little prior relational connection, and supporting, nurturing and equipping them toward oneness where they reflect Christ more as a community than any one group member could on their own.
A couple of drags on group growth with this strategy are: 1) competing church programs and, 2) the lack of coaching support structures to nurture new groups and leaders. Over-programmed and under-coached groups get stalled in the process, leaving the group, at best, inward looking and, at worst, toxic. Of course, with good leadership coaching and healthy reproducible values, these groups can grow and multiply into many small communities of oneness!
Fishing Pond Funnel: Confessions of a Small Group Director
"The Fishing Pond Funnel has worked best when there is a steady flow of new people being drawn to large group events like worship services, and where there is a mechanism to continually raise up new leaders. In most cases, the bigger the pond, the easier it is to find both new leaders and potential group members.
"I have found the development of oneness with this strategy is really dependent on a combination of factors: initial training of new leaders, ongoing leadership support, and the curriculum/group agenda used to help groups navigate through the phases of community development and spiritual growth. This recipe of factors is vitally important since group members do not often have prior relational connections and leadership often lacks seasoned experience. When one of these factors is missing, I have found that these groups tend to be less sustainable.
"Additionally, my experience has been that the more you support and coach your leaders, the more genuine the sense of oneness will be. This leads to more group reproduction success, and therefore, a higher the percentage of your congregation will be involved in small groups."
—Michael, from Idaho
Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Check back next week to read about the Farm-System Funnel and how to choose which funnel (if any) is right for your church.
—Dan Lentz is an Editorial Advisor for SmallGroups.com and the author of Let's Get Started: How to begin your small-groups ministry (Standard, 2007) (Standard, 2007). Copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.