Assessing Small-Group Success

A new set of questions can tell us whether our groups are on the right track.
  • How many groups does your church have?
  • How many people are in groups?
  • What percentage of your church is in groups?
  • How many groups have multiplied in the last year?
  • How many new groups have formed in the last year?

These are common questions in small-group literature and common measurements for determining small-group success. When I first started working with a small-group consulting firm in the early 1990s, these were common questions we would ask people to determine the status of their groups. And in coaching and pastoring groups since then, these are the statistics that I have tracked to see if I have been doing my job.

The questions we ask will determine where we put our efforts, because those questions shape our imaginations. Unfortunately, the questions listed above have limited our imaginations and hindered us from seeing what God wants to do through group life in our time.

For that reason, we need to learn to ask a different set of questions—questions that go way beyond the data that fits nicely on a spreadsheet and allows us to justify the value of small groups to decision makers. We need questions that will reshape the way we live in our culture and possibly how we do church.

Where the Old Questions Lead Us

I am not against success. I am not against numbers, growth, group multiplication, or having a large percentage of the church in groups. However, if these are our primary measurements of group life, then these questions can mislead us.

Simply put, there are many ways to get lots of groups started around topics that have nothing to do with God's kingdom. If the goal is to get all the people who attend the church on Sunday into a group during the week, then all I need to do is determine the interests of those people and establish groups around those interests. Then we poll the people and determine that individuals have enough time to attend a group twice a month, and then we make the groups bi-weekly. New people come to the church. They look at the options, find an interest, and sign up.

On paper, this looks great. New groups are starting. The numbers rise. A large percentage of people attend. People even like the groups! But the reality is that most of these people are just attending the meetings. They show up after a long day and try to get to know the eight other people in the room with whom they have had no time to share life outside of the meeting.

Is this the point? Is getting people into small groups so that they can go to another meeting really the point? I feel like sometimes the small-group discussion at conferences and in the books is like going to the airport to walk up and down the terminals. We feel like we are going somewhere, but no one gets on a plane. If we are only asking questions about group membership and attendance, we are not assessing whether people actually get on the plane.

Meeting attendance does not make a group distinctively Christian. Even talking about the Bible—I know that I am taking a risk by saying this—does not mean that we are involved in a distinctively Christian activity. Meeting attendance and Bible discussion had better lead to something else if we are going to be about what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Up until the last few years, I assumed that the magic was found in the small-group venue. I thought that if we just got into small groups, talked about God and our lives, and ministered to one another, we would actually soar into God's kingdom and growth would be automatic. The reality is that because we have focused so much on getting people into groups, we have actually hindered people's potential and even closed the door to their "getting on the plane." As a result, people just walk around the terminal, switching small groups or staying in the same one year after year. Enough good stuff happens that people remain faithful to group life—being in such groups is better than not being in them. But we miss out on the kind of success that we believe God wants for us.

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