This article is excerpted from our resource Create a Compelling Vision.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine told me excitedly about his trip to Real Life Christian Church in Idaho. He'd read a book about how Jim Putman conducts his small-group ministry, and had signed up for a week-long program at the church to find out more. He was enthralled and full of ideas on how to change his church with small groups into a thriving, disciple-making church of small groups. I poured cold water on his passion as I openly questioned why he would torture himself in such a way.
To be clear, I love Putman's book, his passion, and his church. But my friend's church was very different, and it had a different leader with a different set of skills. As the adult education pastor of a large church, my friend had little power to implement Putman's vision. He could certainly craft a handful of disciple-making groups that reflected Putman's ideas, but he wouldn't be able to do so churchwide.
Several years prior, I witnessed (and challenged) another friend who had fallen in love with Randy Frazee's fascinating neighborhood model of group life. However, his church wasn't set up to implement a neighborhood approach, and it wasn't long before my friend had to find a new church to serve.
These situations also remind me of a married woman I counseled some years ago. The strong, silent man she fell in love with was having a hard time communicating his emotions. She wanted to know how to help him become a better communicator. I gave her some advice but ultimately warned her she wasn't going to make progress changing her husband's personality. She'd better learn to love the man she married as he was and figure out how to navigate his personality if she wanted a long, happy marriage.
Learn to Be Realistic
Here's the deal: Unless you're the senior pastor, you may have influence, but you'll have little power to completely alter the DNA of your church ministry. For 15 years I served as a small-group and education pastor in two very large churches. I watched group trends come and go and I watched idealistic small-group pastor friends ebb and flow with frustration.
If you're implementing a small-group ministry, you'd better have a clear grasp on the overall philosophy of ministry of your church. The group ministry in most churches is a subset of the overall church culture. If your church is an outreach-oriented church your groups will be very outwardly focused. If your church is highly relational, the groups will take a social tone. Neither of these are necessarily bad things, but you'll need to understand them so you can work within your church's culture. For instance, if your church loves fellowship, a Putman-style disciple-making group structure probably won't work well.
Most pastors are idealists. We enter ministry knowing that without God's blessing we are fighting a lost cause. We dream of thriving, passionate Christians who will sacrifice anything for the Jesus they love. But that idealism is sometimes misdirected. Like Don Quixote, there are occasions when we fight the wrong battle. We don't just fight for the gospel—there are times we fight for a philosophy of ministry or a way of doing group life. In those cases we can attack our own church leadership if they don't share our vision.
Determine Your Church's Context
In order to grow a healthy ministry (and keep your job), I recommend you think like a missionary by examining your context and implementing appropriate steps. Get a feel for the context of your church to understand what small-group structures might work. Consider these questions when examining your context:
- What is the ministry heritage of my church? Historically, how have people gotten involved and grown spiritually in your church (by classes, groups, seminars, sermons)?
- What does my senior pastor like? If he or she has a passion, you're wise to tap into that. You'll get more sermon mentions, support, and budget considerations if the senior pastor is on board from the start.
- What does my senior pastor dislike? Most senior pastors I know have an opinion on what helps (and what doesn't help) a person grow spiritually. If you are advocating a system he or she doesn't support, you're heading for deep frustration.
- What does your church need? Do people need deeper relationship? More Bible knowledge? Better connection with God? Even more, what do the people in your church feel they need? If you try to scratch an itch no one knows they have, you won't get very far.
Choose an Appropriate Model
Once you've examined your context, implement an appropriate group vision and model for your church. My first church was a church of small groups. If you've read Simple Church by Rainer and Geiger you know the type of church I started in. My second church was a mammoth church with small groups. It was basically the exact opposite of Simple Church. And I loved both churches and had fun (and frustration) in both churches. These small-group models worked because they matched the context of their respective churches. Get started by implementing these steps:
Familiarize yourself with the principles behind small groups. Books like Small Groups on Purpose by Steve Gladden and my book Simple Small Groups discuss groups from a principle level. You can apply these principles regardless of your small-group model.
Research and understand different small-group models. Many types of groups can work regardless of your specific model or context. Support and recovery groups (even if you only have one), Bible study groups, Fellowship Groups, newcomer groups, short-term groups, special-focus groups, and Alpha evangelism groups all can work in any model. Each of these bypasses the need for whole-church involvement. Use the Small Group Models resource on SmallGroups.com for a great intro into several types.
Consider churchwide strategies. If you and your senior leadership feel your context lends itself to whole-church model, explore different models. Systems that require vision casting from the platform, focus from leadership, and budgetary resources won't work unless it's driven by senior leadership.
Choose a vision and model that fit your context. You might be in love with Ralph Neighbor's cell group system, but if you're in a Bible Study Fellowship type of church you'd better adjust your expectations to fit your church.
Communicate with your senior leadership. Confirm that your vision for group life is congruent with your senior pastor's vision and the vision of the church as a whole. If it's not, you have three choices: alter yours, convince the leadership yours is the best, or look for another job. Any other option will result in the third choice.
Disciple your leaders. Whatever vision you decide on, focus 75 percent of your efforts on developing and discipling your leaders. Take a cue from all the great parachurch organizations: They change the world one leader at a time. So work with your core group of leaders and help them implement the vision.
Small-group models and trends will come and go, and it can be informative to read up on the newest ideas. Whatever you do, keep your church's context in mind, and choose and implement a vision that works in your context. When you do that, you'll be happier and you'll see growth in your ministry.
—Bill Search is author of Simple Small Groups and the Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills Christian church in El Dorado Hills, California; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.
- How well do you understand your church's context and culture? What can you do to understand it further?
- How well do you understand your senior pastor's vision for the church and for the small-group ministry?
- Which small-group models and types of small groups especially appeal to you? Why?