Note: This article has been excerpted from Staying Connected to Your Church.
"I feel connected to my small group but not to the church."
"I've been leading a group for years and we are doing fine. We don't need to be involved with the church."
"The only friends I have at church are in my small group."
Many of us have heard or experienced similar feelings. Such perceptions arise in churches (especially larger churches) when people feel a sense of belonging with their group but not with their church. A small group can sometimes function as an isolated island among the numerous ministries of the church. After all, the primary activities of a group (e.g., Bible study, discussion, prayer, support, fellowship, discipleship, accountability) usually happen outside the church building and away from the attention of church leaders. This makes it easy for both small-group leaders and small-group members to feel disconnected from the vision, mission, and life of the church.
Part of the Whole
Small groups, however, are not meant to be a substitute for the larger church; rather, they are a vital part of the greater whole. Groups are spiritually healthier and group members are more likely to grow and serve when they are fully integrated into the local body of Christ. Engaging in the life of the church beyond the group fosters a greater sense of unity within the church, higher spiritual accountability, broader access to resources, wider impact in outreach, and more support for group members.
So how can a small group become woven into the fabric of your church's body life? Here are some simple ways to integrate groups more fully into your church.
1. Use sermon-based curriculum.
Small-group curriculum based upon the sermon teaching series has become a popular option for many churches. Depending on the resources available, this can be as simple as writing a few questions related to the weekly sermon for groups to discuss or as comprehensive as a full DVD curriculum distributed in advance of the sermon series. Regardless of format, the process of sharing, discussing, and applying Sunday's message together is a powerful method of aligning minds and hearts with the vision and focus of the church. It provides common language, shared experience, and a greater continuity between what is happening on Sunday mornings and in the group time, thereby fostering a closer sense of connection with the church.
In addition, using sermon discussion curriculum also helps new people gel more quickly either into a new group or an existing group. The weekend service is the one common experience that any group of strangers from a church will share and is a good foundation to build upon. Unlike other curriculum that may require extensive reading and other "homework," the sermon-based curriculum gives everyone, regardless of their level of spiritual maturity, a chance to participate and contribute. So it is an easy way to build relationships within the group as well as build continuity with the larger church.
2. Serve together within and beyond the church walls.
As group leaders know, serving projects often knit members together through the bond of shared goals and experiences. When people work with one another and see each other in a different context than the living room, their relationships are strengthened. You can tap into this dynamic when you choose to serve together as a small group.
Brainstorm ways your group can serve and, at the same time, connect with others in various ministries (e.g., preparing communion, ushering, greeting, prepping crafts for Sunday school, prayer ministry, stuffing bulletins, maintaining facilities, directing parking, helping families in need, or staffing the donut table). Perhaps several members in the group could teach a Sunday school class, lead a youth group, volunteer with the children's choir, or work in the nursery together for a semester.
Most churches have outreach projects that serve an under-resourced population in the local community or through mission trips. Find out what projects appeal to your group and join others in the church to serve together. For example, if your church has a meal program for the homeless, sign up together to prepare or serve meals on a regular basis. Perhaps your group would like to partner with others who visit local nursing homes, build wheelchair ramps for the disabled, or tutor underprivileged children. Choose to be part of church-wide serving opportunities, whether it is a one-time event or an ongoing program.
The specific task your group performs will not matter as much as the fact that you are serving alongside others in the church. This engages the group in the life of the church and facilitates interactions with others in the body, even in simple ways. When we give our time, talents, and treasures toward something, our hearts naturally attach to it as well. Any service we do together strengthens not only the relationship within the group but forms broader connections within the church.
3. Intentionally attend events together.
Throughout the year, there are different church or community events that might interest your group. Instead of having members sign up independently when they feel like going to a function, organize the group to attend together. For example, if you lead a married couples group, take advantage of a marriage class, date night, or a couples' retreat. Or the men can go to the men's breakfast or men's retreat while the women participate in a women's event. Find out what activity the church is promoting and support it by attending together. This not only benefits the group, but also builds relationships with other members within the church.
4. Initiate gatherings beyond your group.
It's easy to become accustomed to doing activities with just your group. Instead, widen the circle of fellowship and invite different segments of the church to join you for a special gathering. You could invite a speaker on a topic of shared interest, have a joint potluck with other small groups in the church, host a game night for people of all ages, play softball, go bowling, host a babysitting night so parents can go on a date, or organize a simple meal for the youth or the elderly in your congregation. Brainstorm ways your group can connect with various clusters of people within the church through shared interests, fun activities, or acts of service. This goes a long way toward investing in relationships outside the group and helps members feel more connected to the life of the church.
5. Pray for your church.
Make it a priority to pray for your church, including the staff, elders, Sunday school teachers, musicians, youth workers, specific ministries, and mission trips. Ask ministry leaders how you can pray for them or use the church's weekly prayer lists or bulletin. Build a spiritual investment in your church by taking time regularly within your meetings to pray for God to work in and through your church. Often when we pray for others, God knits our hearts more closely with theirs, and we find ourselves caring more deeply about them.
6. Utilize social media.
If your church or small-group ministry has a Facebook page, a ministry blog, or an online discussion board, encourage your group to join and participate. It is an easy way to be engaged and updated on the general happenings within the church. You can catch news from various ministries, hear how God is answering prayers, share stories, and become aware of needs in the body. It forms another nexus of relational connection within the church.
7. Embrace your role as a leader in the church and invest in the small-group ministry.
As a small-group leader, you are part of the leadership at your church. When you shift from seeing yourself as a member of the congregation who leads a group to someone who is an influencer in the church, you will be more vested in what is happening throughout the church.
Your group is significantly impacted by how you relate to the larger church. If you feel disconnected or disenfranchised from the church, it's likely that your members will feel detached as well. However, if you embrace your role as an integral part of the small-group ministry team and serve as an advocate for the value of biblical community, you can become an instrument for connection and integration. For example, you can volunteer at ministry fairs, new member classes, or small-group connection events and speak on the value of small groups. You can also share stories with your church leadership about how God is working in your group and let the church use it to promote small groups.
There are many ways for groups to connect with others and invest in the larger church community. Discuss these options with your group and take a step toward being an integrated part of your local church.
—Carolyn Taketa is Small Groups Director at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California. Copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.
- Which of these seven tips is your group already engaged in? What results have you seen from being involved in this way?
- Which of these would you like to implement into your group life? How can you go about this?
- Which of these do you think your small-group members would struggle with most? Why?