One of the beautiful things about small groups is that they're highly customizable—at least that's the beauty for the group leaders. Tracking multiple types of small groups, on the other hand, can be a headache for the small-group pastor or director.
That's why it makes more sense to many pastors to use one model across the entire small-group ministry. It's efficient and easy to keep track of. Pastors are busy people who need all of the efficiency they can get.
In a perfectly efficient world, pastors could use one system to connect, train, and organize the entire congregation into groups. Unfortunately, there are no systems like this. On top of that, it's not what's best for the people who will be involved in group life. When there's only one type of group model, people are forced to respond with "yes" or "no"—take it or leave it. And the fact is that many will say "no" because that model doesn't fit their needs.
Now, don't get me wrong, I like systems and control (especially the second one). A single group model is easier for me to manage, lead, and develop. There's only one thing wrong with this picture: there's just too much "me."
We live in a world of infinite choices. Someone can walk into Starbucks and order one of 87,000 drink combinations—and that's just coffee. People can flip through hundreds of cable channels to find exactly what they want to watch, or surf the billions of sites on the Internet for hours to learn more about a specific hobby or trend. In the church, however, pastors believe everyone should fit into one neat system for discipleship. Then they wonder why only 30 percent (or fewer) of their church members are interested in small groups. One size simply does not fit all. People need a variety of ways to connect and grow.
Tending a Garden of Groups
In my early years of group ministry, I tried to identify the perfect strategy for small groups. I read some great books and attended seminars and conferences. Then God gave me a new picture of groups: an image of plants in a nursery with the small-group pastor as the gardener. All of the groups need water, sunlight, and nutrients. But they don't all need the same amounts, and they certainly don't grow at the same rates.
This image caused me to realize that some groups serve best by offering intensive Bible study, and others serve best by centering on support for a particular issue, or even on a common hobby. Some groups thrive when they meet to discuss the weekend's message. Others thrive when they can choose a study to meet a felt need. Diversity and variety work well with groups.
All of this begs the question: What is a small group? If we encourage our groups to (1) connect with and care for each other, (2) apply God's Word, and (3) serve others, groups can take on an infinite number of formats. This can happen in a women's weekday Bible study, an evening couples' group, a motorcycle group, and even a Sunday school class. On the other hand, if our definition dictates that a small group meets weekly in a home to discuss the weekend sermon, there's only one way to participate in group life. Some will take it. Others will leave it.
When the church I served in California managed to connect 125 percent of the average adult attendance into groups, we were using five different group models simultaneously. Some have asked me if that created confusion. The truth is each small group was only following one model—the leaders weren't confused. The only potential confusion was mine.
How to Incorporate Several Models
When considering using several models simultaneously, here are a few things to think about:
1. What groups do you already have?
When I arrived at my new assignment in South Carolina, I discovered women's Bible studies, men's accountability groups, parenting groups, couples' groups, singles' groups. off-campus groups, on-campus groups, free market groups, host home groups, and adult Sunday school classes. After assessing the groups to see if they met the above criteria—connection and care, Bible application, and serving others—I blessed them and left them alone.
This is where small-group pastors and directors often make a mistake. The temptation is to consolidate a hodgepodge of groups into one system or to align them with a single method. A lot of effort goes into breaking what doesn't need fixing. To force existing groups to accept a new model in a common system doesn't make sense.
2. Where do you want your next wave of groups to go?
While you shouldn't coerce your existing groups to head in a new direction, you can direct new groups into a new initiative. Your initiative might be introducing service into group life or focusing on accountability in groups.
At the church I served at in South Carolina, our initiative was a practical one: only start new groups off campus because we were running out of space. When we trained our new leaders, we stated up front that groups would meet in homes or in a public place like Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. There simply weren't any rooms available on campus for new groups.
With this new initiative, there are two important things to note. First of all, no group currently meeting on campus was asked to move off campus. I didn't want to break what was working. And second, over the course of four years, we started four groups on campus who had no other place to meet, including a group for single moms where the church provided the childcare. These were exceptions. We let them be exceptions. And that's okay.
3. Who do you need to connect?
If the church is in a place where 70 percent or more need to be connected into groups, then a church-wide campaign can be an effective way to recruit a large number of leaders and connect members into groups. People offer to open up their homes and either invite friends to join them or welcome people assigned from the church. A video-based curriculum helps the host facilitate the discussion and takes away the fear factor of leadership.
If the church is already mostly connected into some sort of groups, then a church-wide campaign could provide great synergies among your existing groups. More than likely, though, it won't produce an overabundance of new groups. There's a reason why the last 30 percent or so haven't joined the type of groups you've offered: they don't like them. They might prefer getting together with a couple of friends at a coffee shop. They might have odd work schedules. Or they might be looking for a type of support or study that you're currently not offering. Church-wide campaigns won't help connect these people into groups. You'll have to figure out what they're looking for first.
4. How is God inspiring people to meet?
If you remove the limits from group formation, potential leaders will become very creative. In our church in California, a leader started a group on a commuter train. Every Tuesday morning, the group gathered in a section of the train on their way to work. A group of engineers in downtown Tampa couldn't make it home to the suburbs in time to have a group, so they met during lunch at their workplace. A group of law enforcement officers formed a first responders' small group because they could speak each others' language and weren't asked to fix other group members' speeding tickets anymore. A group of guys met weekly for Bible study and several times a month to make barbecue. They're called the "Holy Smokers."
If you offer an invitation for people to innovate, they'll present new and creative ideas for group life. If you keep them firmly within the boundaries of one group system, they'll take it or leave it. Sure you might have some odd ball ideas, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. And they might just meet the needs of some of the people still unconnected at your church.
5. How do you train and coach groups formed from multiple models?
When it comes down to it, all groups are expected to meet the same goals: provide connection and care, Bible study, and service. It's just how they go about it that will vary from group model to group model. You don't need separate systems to manage different groups. You will, however, need to coach these different leaders in unique ways as they face conflict and challenges. On the other hand, all leaders need training in many of the same topics. It's possible to bring group leaders together around common topics for training, yet coach them individually within their specialty.
In the last church I served in, I led a monthly meeting of volunteer leaders who oversaw our entire small-group ministry. Each person at the table was responsible for a different type of group: men, women, couples, singles, parents, and neighborhood. Each of them coached the leaders specific to the type of groups they oversaw. That way one person was overseeing all similar groups in the ministry, and when these six leaders came together, we had an accurate picture of what was happening across our entire small-group ministry.
There is beauty in the potential for diversity in group life, and that diversity doesn't need to cause a headache. As your small-group ministry grows, you'll have to rethink your leadership structure, but don't allow that work to hold you back from creating the kinds of groups your people need. As you diversify your groups and allow several models to exist, you'll have greater opportunities for connecting the unconnected in your church and for seeing amazing spiritual growth.
—Allen White is a pastor, teacher, writer, and speaker; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.