Failure to Launch

Common mistakes that promote lethargy and closure in small-group ministries

Note: This article has been excerpted from The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry, by Randall Neighbour.

Many pastors are perplexed as to why their small groups are not healthy after they launch groups (or additional groups). They also ponder why they must ride their group leaders and members hard to get them to do anything beyond basic attendance.

The root problem is the method used to launch groups. Typically, one of two pathways into small group ministry is taken. Both follow logic that has been employed to launch church programs for decades.

Strategy 1

  1. Research various small group models by reading books, visiting churches, attending mega-church conferences, and interacting with other pastors in one's network or denomination.
  2. Choose a model that has the best chance for survival, or has the most upside potential for growth and assimilation into the current range of programs.
  3. Cast a vision for groups with the elders, deacons, and other church leaders.
  4. Recruit potential leaders from the aforementioned groups.
  5. Train leaders over the summer months with materials recommended by other pastors or found on the internet (usually six or eight cognitive sessions on various aspects of meeting facilitation, listening skills, and so forth).
  6. Plan for a September "roll out" to start groups.
  7. Count the number of people who made it through the training and start the same number of groups in September. (Twelve leaders equals twelve groups.)
  8. Make pulpit announcements and set up an information booth for folks in the church to visit to learn more and find a leader they know and trust.
  9. Supply leaders with curriculum and launch groups.

Strategy 2

  1. Cast a vision for a church-wide campaign with the elders, deacons, and other church leaders.
  2. Buy a 40-day campaign kit and follow the instructions to the best of one's ability.
  3. Advertise the church-wide campaign inside and outside the church building.
  4. Contact members who will most likely agree to host a group.
  5. Brief hosts on qualifications of the role (vacuum carpet and learn how to use one's DVD player).
  6. Form groups on Sunday, Day 1 of the "40 days of ___________" (fill in the blank with one of a dozen campaigns designed by mega churches).
  7. Supply hosts with curriculum if they wish to continue meeting after six weeks.

Much like a bucking bronco, both strategies produce groups that come out of the chute kicking up clouds of dust. The crowd cheers wildly and it's quite a spectacle! However, it's all over quickly. The bull tosses the rider off its back in a matter of seconds. Or, the bull runs out of steam, the rider hops off, and he walks back to the bullpen.

For the church, the groups stagnate or dissolve and the pastor hides in the bullpen.

Program-Oriented Implementation Produced Weak Groups

If you create a small-group implementation strategy the way you've launched other programs, you'll end up with a small-group program. At best, it will be an organization run by volunteers (which was explored in the last chapter as being unproductive).

A healthy small-group ministry is a living organism that expands and multiplies from within. Therefore, a completely different way of thinking about and implementing small groups must be embraced to see vibrant, healthy groups a year or two down the road.

Develop Your Own Model Instead of Copycatting Others

Choosing a small-group model before you have personally experienced success with holistic small groups is similar to buying a suit out of a catalog. It's a safe bet the jacket or trousers (or both) will not fit well, even if you ordered the right size. The suit may look great on the model posing for the photos, but your body type is completely different.

Contrast this with a custom-made suit. Your measurements are taken and fabrics are chosen. Then you visit the tailor again halfway through the process so he or she can ensure the suit is being made to fit you perfectly. Then there's a final fitting. On occasion, more alterations are made for the correct fit. If you gain a few pounds, the tailor lets out the trousers and sews in buttons for suspenders. If you lose a few pounds, the tailor can fix that, too. A custom-made suit can be worn for years with minor modifications because it was designed especially for the person wearing it.

You will always feel a strong pull to adopt another church's model so you don't have to recreate the wheel. However, take into consideration the downsides:

  • You may become so excited about the model that you cast a vision for the model and not the values that drive it. (This is very common; don't dismiss it as something you'd never do.)
  • Forcing your church members and lay leaders to use someone else's model when they needed something completely different is highly counterproductive.

Here's the deal: you and your church are unique. Remain unique! Instead of being a cookie-cutter megachurch wannabe, focus your time and energy to create a small-group oversight system and leader training that is a response to the growth and feedback from your first groups. A successful implementation strategy is as reactive as it is proactive.

—Randall Neighbour, excerpted from The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry (TOUCH, 2009); used with permission.

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