Running on Empty

Running on Empty

What to do when your group has hit a plateau

Note: This article is excerpted from the training resource Overcoming Growth Plateaus.

Back in the 70's Jackson Browne recorded a song entitled "Running on Empty." One of the lines from the song was, "I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just running on empty." You may feel that way sometimes about your small group. You may have also heard or uttered the following statements about group life: "I feel stuck." "We are not moving forward, but at least we are not going backward." "Our group meets every week and we usually have a great time together, but we're not growing."

If you look up the word plateau on, the primary definition is "a land area having a relatively level surface considerably raised above adjoining land on at least one side, and often cut by deep canyons." It also means "to reach a state or level of little or no growth or decline, especially to stop increasing or progressing; remain at a stable level of achievement; to level off."

Unfortunately, this happens many times in small-group ministry. And there are many reasons why individual groups level off and plateau. Here are a few of them (addressed in the order of their difficulty to overcome):

  • The leader plateaus (he or she is not growing spiritually)
  • The group plateaus (the group does not have a vision or plan for reaching new people)
  • The church plateaus (the church is not reaching any new people and groups level off)

When a Leader Plateaus

Overcoming the plateau of personal growth is simple. (It may not feel simple to implement, but it is not that hard to understand.) If you are not growing spiritually, go back to some solid spiritual growth habits that have worked for you in the past and repeat them. It reminds me of the passage in Revelation 2:4: "I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first."

In my life there are times when I get so busy studying or preparing to teach a lesson that I neglect the simple discipline of reading God's Word. That's why for the last few years I have made a commitment to read through the entire Bible each year. The plan that I use is called the "One Year Bible," and it is available online. I find that when I am reading God's Word, I am much more aware of God's voice. In John 10:28 Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me." Did you know that if you read through the Bible in a year, you read about 22 chapters a week? Taking in 22 chapters a week of the "living and powerful" Word of God will change you from the inside out. Your mind will be renewed (Romans 12:2) and your spirit will be refreshed (Galatians 5:22).

When a Group Plateaus

The next challenge is that the group plateaus. You as the leader are still committed to practicing healthy spiritual disciplines and you feel confident in saying, "Follow me, as I follow Christ"—but for some reason the group has leveled off. This one is a little more difficult to address because you are not dealing with one individual.

To get a group of people to row at the same time and in the same direction requires a certain amount of leadership skills. Those leadership skills include having a vision of where to go, being able to communicate clearly the reasons why we need to go, communicating how we are going to get there, motivating the group to sacrifice for the cause of Christ, and also being able to motivate and train new leaders for new groups.

Groups plateau when the vision for the group plateaus. If your vision is just to have a friendly group for fellowship—also called "us four and no more"—then naturally you are going to have trouble motivating your group members to move onward and upward for the Kingdom. But if you are praying for laborers to work in the harvest fields and you see (have a vision) that the fields are "white and ready to harvested," then you will be able to motivate others to join in that mission. We are not put on this earth to maintain the status quo; we are put on this earth to advance the cause of Christ and bring glory to God.

So, what is your vision for your group? Is it to reach new people in your community? Is it to develop new leaders to labor in the harvest? Is it to reproduce new groups and to increase your capacity to disciple an ever-increasing number of believers? If your to those questions is no, you need a fresh vision for the harvest fields (John 4:35). The world is growing at an exponential rate and only exponential strategies will keep up.

When a Ministry Plateaus

The next plateau is considerably more difficult to address because it does not deal with an individual. It does not even deal with a group. It deals with the entire church. To overcome the challenge of a church that has plateaued, you will need considerable skills and patience. The average church member or even group leader cannot address these issues, but you can be aware that sometimes the problems in group life and growth are not problems with the leader or even with the group. They are systemic problems that require systemic solutions.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in a church that has plateaued is the challenge of evangelism. The church is not reaching out with the gospel and new people are not being won to Christ. The baptism pools are not being stirred. The church that is not evangelizing is not growing. As a result, groups are often nothing more than holding cells for veteran believers. Talk about feeling "stuck."

But take courage: groups that are reaching out to their neighbors and serving their community can actually be an integral part of the overall evangelistic efforts of the church. The evangelistic philosophy of the group ministry should be similar to this: "We are in the community to win the community." Small groups can be team up in prayer for their friends and neighbors. Groups can be out in the community serving the people in need. They can be the hands and feet of Christ.

And small groups can do all of this even when they are part of an overall church that is stagnant. In fact, small groups that adopt this kind of attitude can often spark a renewal in those stagnant churches.

To accomplish this, however, you will need a fresh vision and a fresh commitment to obey the Great Commission. The Great Commission has one command, three participles, and one promise. The command is "to make disciples."

The participles are modal, meaning that they describe how we are to carry out the command. The first participle is "in your going." This suggests that to make disciples we must be going. I personally believe that you cannot be a disciple of Jesus without being committed to the mission of Christ. Groups that are on mission help to fully develop disciples. The second participle is that we should be "baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Let's intentionally help Christ followers to follow the Lord's example. The third participle from Jesus is that we would be "teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded." Groups are a great place to not only hear about Jesus, but also to obey the teachings of Jesus.

The last part of the Great Commission is a promise from Jesus himself. If we make disciples, he has promised to be "with us." That is a promise of his presence and power. When disciples are being developed, Jesus is present—and groups don't experience an extended plateau. You will certainly not be "Running on Empty." Instead, you and your group will be powerfully advancing the cause and kingdom of Christ.

—Rod Dempsey is Department Chair of Discipleship Ministries at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and the Discipleship Pastor for Thomas Road Baptist Church. Copyright 2011 by the author and Christianity Today International.

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