I've concluded that small-group models are a lot like diets. Everyone is looking for the magic diet that will help them lose weight, feel great, and stay healthy for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, almost any diet will work in the short term, but seldom does a diet bring the long-term results that you seek. To be healthy and trim takes discipline and a discovery of what works for you, personally. There are no quick solutions that bring lasting results.
Like the person that jumps from one diet plan to another elusively looking for the one that really works, many churches jump from one small-group model to another—and are often disappointed. If only it were as simple as reading the right book or going to a 3-day conference.
Cautions About Small-Group Models
Here are my observations and cautions about any small-group model:
- All models look like the ultimate model when you are reading a book or attending a conference and listening to the person that designed it.
- Understand that following innovators can be a little risky. Many books outlining small-group models are written very soon after the model is first envisioned. Very seldom do the books outline a model that has stood the test of time. In fact, it is common for the books to propose things that are not yet tested but are only theory at the time the book is written! And the ultimate irony is that by the time you pick up a book and start implementing its concepts, the model church may have already abandoned certain parts of the model—or the whole thing altogether.
- Any model will work for about 10–18 months.
- Some ideas that work great in the short run actually work against long-term success. For example, there is currently a very popular trend to lower the qualifications for small-group leaders in order to increase the number of groups. So, instead of looking for "small-group leaders," churches recruit hosts that know how to work a DVD player. Such a strategy might give you a lot of bang this month, but long-term growth in small groups requires committed leaders and a thoughtful leadership-development strategy with an integrated support system.
- As helpful as small-group books and conferences are, too often they fail to clearly tell you the things beyond the basics that are essential to long-term success. These can include dynamic leadership meetings, quality training, and proactive coaching.
Finding the Right Model for Your Church
Still, it is often helpful (and even necessary) for church leaders to operate under some kind of structure, instead of trying to figure out everything for themselves. So what model is best for you? Or, perhaps better put, what models can your church learn the most from?
Here are the questions that you might find helpful in making this important decision:
- What is your ecclesiology or theology of the church? If you think "church" is a Sunday morning service and "small groups" are a recent strategy used to improve assimilation, that will lead you to a different answer than if you think small groups of believers meeting in homes were central to New Testament Christianity in the 1st and 21st centuries. So, what is "church"? What do you really believe?
- What is the purpose of a small group? Is it a once-a-week meeting? Or is it a group of believers who share life together throughout the week?
- What happens when a small group meets? Is it a Sunday School class moved into a home? How does Christ's life and the Holy Spirit's direction intersect with people when they gather in Jesus' name?
- How will your pastor or pastors relate to the small-groups ministry? Are leadership mobilization, training, and relational equipping central to the pastor's calling, or is a pastor more of a chaplain who preaches, marries, and buries?
- What about specialty groups? How do they fit into your outreach strategy and leadership support system?
What am I trying to say? Just like there is no wonder diet plan for your body, there is no quick-fix small group model for your church. You are actually going to have to think and pray through a plethora of issues!
There are a lot of things you can learn from other churches. But long-term success is going to take diligence, humility, and seeking God for your church's unique situation. Learn from others as well as from your own mistakes. If God has put a clear vision for a thriving small-groups ministry in your heart, you can see it come to fruition as you persist and continue to invite his Spirit to enliven your church and penetrate your community through life-giving small groups.
Realize that God wants your church to have a vibrant, growing small-groups system. And his Spirit is available to teach and direct both you and your church.
—Jim Egli; copyright © 2006 by the author and Christianity Today.