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: