Churches have long touted small groups, and for good reason: according to research by LifeWay, people who are actively involved in small groups read the Bible more, pray more, give more, and serve more than people who aren't.
Whether they're called life groups, neighborhood groups, or community groups, the messaging has remained the same: join a small group to belong, be cared for, and grow in your faith. The goal is often simply to get people together, trusting that the belonging and growth will happen naturally. The main measure of success then, has been calculating the percentage of weekend attenders who attend a small group.
In recent years, however, small-group pastors and directors have started to wonder what small groups are actually accomplishing. Even if you have 100 percent of your congregants in small groups, are they experiencing belonging and life change? In a nutshell, are they being discipled?
Unfortunately, many pastors' experiences don't line up with the research. One pastor shared with me that a woman who had been attending small groups for 10 years revealed she had never understood the Easter story. Another man, after attending groups for years, still didn't feel he knew how to pray, and he certainly didn’t feel comfortable praying aloud.
In response to stories like these, many small-group ministries have shifted, adopting a renewed focus on discipleship. This has created several trends.
Trend 1: New Measurements
Small-group pastors have tried to find ways to measure more than attendance. Will Johnston, Director of Build Community at Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, California, suggests measuring how well groups are accomplishing your vision. For example, if your vision is for group members to take the next step for spiritual growth, you might routinely ask leaders the next step each group member is working on. If you have missional groups, ask leaders how their group is serving, whom they've added to their group, and what missional challenges they've faced. These kinds of questions get at the purpose of your groups, and, with answers measured over time, provide real insight into how small-group members are growing.
Trend 2: New Group Models
In an effort to disciple more effectively, churches have created several new group models that move away from the classic prayer-care-share model:
Many leaders believe that in order to get everyone in our congregations to participate in small groups, we need to make the structure simpler.
- Discovery Group Format is a great example of this trend. It provides a four-step method for any study: (1) opening or icebreaker questions, (2) accountability questions, (3) Bible discovery questions, and (4) outreach questions. "Through this simple method, the lost are being won, disciples are being mobilized, and churches are multiplying," explains Jim Egli, Leadership Pastor at the Vineyard Church in Urbana, Illinois.
- IF: Table. Another simple structure working well is IF:Table, part of the women's movement known as IF. IF:Table encourages women to gather once a month with six people to discuss four simple questions about the intersection of faith and life. The questions change each month and vary widely in topic, including joy, prayer, mentoring, and busyness. "We try to keep questions very simple so that anyone can relate," explains Jennie Allen, founder of IF. The questions encourage group members to share their stories, and this creates a level of vulnerability and community that doesn't often happen in small groups. With personal stories, everyone feels invited to join the conversation—even if they've never been part of a group before.