Assessing Small-Group Success

A new set of questions can tell us whether our groups are on the right track.
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New Questions for Group Life

Recently, I consulted with a small church in Pennsylvania that embarked upon the small-group journey about 10 years ago. They were promised growth, evangelism, and success. However, to this day they remain a congregation of fewer than 50. They brought me in to assess why they were not growing. As we talked, I found a few things they could do differently to get bigger, but more than anything I found that they were doing a lot right. There was so much good going on in the church, but it was all hidden beneath the discouragement that has resulted from their asking the common questions about small groups.

I asked a different set of questions. I learned that they were actually sharing life together. They were counting the cost of being in relationships that mattered. They were investing in people who did not know Jesus and seeing them drawn to the Lord. They were involved in their communities and sharing life with the poor. They were practicing simplicity and mutual sharing. When I entered this group, I sensed the small seeds of something awesome, but they were not seeing the quick growth promised in all the small-group literature.

This church is practicing an alternative way of being the church—a way that stands in stark contrast to our culture and to the "easy believism" found in many churches in their area that are seeing groups grow. What they have developed over the last 10 years is beautiful, but it does not fit what most people expect and want from a church.

We do not need more small groups that just assimilate nominal Christians into another form of Churchianity called "small groups." We need a mustard seed movement of something different. We need a remnant who, like these pioneers in Pennsylvania, will ask different questions and form a grass root movement of group life that moves beyond small group structures and numbers.

Like this little church, most of us have been trained in the discipline of asking questions about numbers. While these questions are not totally irrelevant, we need a new set of questions that will shape our imaginations regarding what it means to live as a society that is distinctively Christian and which would, therefore, stand in contrast to the patterns of the surrounding culture.

In the monastic tradition, this imagination was shaped by what they call a "rule." For example, Saint Benedict created a rule of life for all those who were to enter into a Benedictine community. While I am not advocating that small groups become monastic or that they adopt the specific rules of a certain monastic tradition, we should learn from Benedict's specificity. We need to develop questions that identify specific patterns for living as God's people during this time and that, therefore, cause us to stand in contrast to the surrounding culture.

I believe that every church should establish its own set of "rule" questions that would shape the imagination of the people for a specific context. I do not have the space to address this issue here, but what works in one context and with one congregation should not be something that universally fits all contexts.

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