Mike Cope's blog

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

We all know how important small groups are to churches. The larger you get, the smaller you must get. But here's my question: what should those groups be doing? I love the Larry Crabb vision of groups as a place of intergenerational connecting where we engage each other deeply with gospel values. We learn one another's stories and help each other through prayer, encouragement, mentoring, and guidance. But these groups CAN be so inwardly focused. At the conference I was just at, the senior minister said that he upset many in the church by changing the nature of small groups. Formerly, people drove all over the city to be with people they wanted to be with. Now, instead, they are put in small groups with people they live by. The purpose of these groups is largely evangelistic. You meet with people you live by, and you all invite those who are around you. He said that every Sunday night people all over town see members of his church (10,000 people) walking down the streets to their small groups. Should small groups grow and divide? Should they stay the same over the long haul to encourage intimacy and shared stories? Should they be primarily about evangelism or Bible study or prayer or ministry? I know this doesn't have to be an either/or. But I'd like to hear from others: what's you're experience in small groups? What has been valuable? What suggestions do you have for others?


  • Years ago when we lived in Memphis, we attended the Germantown church and that is how they put you in a group. We liked it alot. It gave us a chance to meet with those we would have never gotten a chance to know.
    Our church family in Portland does it by your ministry intrest. Some focus on bible study, outreach, benevolence, childrens ministry, etc...there are still some that are just close friends, but not many.
    I see the value in both.

    By Blogger Lori Ann, at 2/15/2006 08:56:00 AM  

  • Being in a small church we let people choose. But I have found that most use these small groups to focus on getting those to join them that are less inclined to step foot in a church building. we actually have more people participating in small groups than we have attendance on Sunday nights, which might make the Sunday evening services small groups as well. Relationships are definitely being built there and IMO, I beleive small groups should be more outwardly focused, because the intimacy involved creates a greater oppurtunity to build the necassary relationships with the unchurched.

    By Blogger Matt Warren, at 2/15/2006 09:00:00 AM  

  • I think a lot of it has to do with location. In a place like the DFW metroplex where suburbanization and "white flight" is taking place rather rapidly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to simply meet with those who live in your neighborhood or section of town. A concomitant factor is that those in urban areas are being left behind (literally), which seems to contribute to more homogeneous, self focused small groups.

    I think answering the question of whether small groups should divide depends largely on the purpose of the small groups. Divorce recovery support groups and other support groups are necessarily fairly consistent in membership as a result of the need for trust within the group (yet they are always open to new members).

    I'm somewhat ambivalent about small groups according to locale; personalities tend to gravitate toward others for certain reasons, and I wonder to what extent a group's missional focus would be impacted by a lack of cohesion due to a mishmash of people who live near one another but don't connect interpersonally.

    In a place like Brooklyn or anywhere in NYC, it would be a little easier to use small groups in this way. Part of me thinks that small groups should stay together just long enough to establish intimacy and be shaped by the others. I tend to see small groups and church as an organic body that grows and moves around as we continue to be shaped into the image of Christ. There's certainly a risk in being solely a group that only studies scripture. Without any type of practical aspect it seems like members would go through spiritual atrophy of some sort.

    I think that one of the best tools for small groups is the ability to meet in a public place (NT house churches were like this) where people could join in as they were going about their day (i.e., Starbucks, a pub, etc.). Just a few thoughts. Thanks for this forum, Mike.

    By Blogger Krister, at 2/15/2006 09:08:00 AM  

  • I think I would revise your first sentence to read, "We all know how important small groups are to megachurches." I'm not convinced that jumping on the small-group bandwagon makes sense in small churches.

    Also, maybe this is silly, but if parochial small groups are so great, why not save some money on Sunday morning air conditioning, and dissolve the megachurch altogether? There are lots of problems with having a massive church, and I can't think of anything that a megachurch can do that a bunch of small churches can't do better.

    Agile businesses! Nanotechnology! Peer-to-Peer networks! Small and distributed is the way of the future!


    By Blogger Matthew, at 2/15/2006 09:13:00 AM  

  • Wow! I'm so glad you brought this subject up! In the ten years we have been married, we have moved three times and attended three radically different churches. All three had small groups but none of the small group systems were the same. We have been group leaders, group members and recently group "abstainers". We have had wonderful experiences that have yeilded life long christian friendships that lasted through years and moves, and we have had hurtful experiences that were hard at first to get past.

    After we had kids it became harder to fit into a group. If we went to an all young families group, we were overwhelmed with the number of kids and half of us usually ended up trying to watch a dozen kids in a back bedroom or a 100 degree back yard every other week. If we went to a group of multi age families and singles, my husband or I ended up in the back bedroom with our kids every week. It became less frustrating to just stay home.

    Kid issues aside, I have seen how these groups can be great and I have seen how these groups can become almost clique-ish and divisive. I'm not sure there is a small group formula that is right for every church, but I think it is something that should be taken seriously. It seems hard for church leaderships to change small groups systems once they get started. I'm realy interested to hear what others will say about this!

    By Blogger SG, at 2/15/2006 09:14:00 AM  

  • Just a note to think about. I do campus ministry in Arkansas and we have tried to make our small groups more "holistic." They do Bible study every other week, with one off week being for a service project in the community and the other off week being for an "outreach" night to which they can invite their non-Christian friends.

    By Blogger Michael T, at 2/15/2006 09:25:00 AM  

  • Our church leadership was impacted by Randy Frazee's The Connecting Church.

    From Amazon's review: Pastor and consultant Frazee begins with a problem that many church leaders admit only hesitantly: small groups, widely hailed as a means to achieve authentic community, often fail to achieve the hoped-for experience of "life together." This book follows the story of Frazee's congregation, Pantego Bible Church in suburban Dallas/Ft. Worth, in its efforts to "take [the small group movement] to the next level." Frazee's proposal is no quick fix;...by taking a countercultural stand against the individualism and consumerism that Frazee says plague contemporary American life...Frazee makes a strong case that the mobility and privacy of "American Dream" suburbia fosters a spirit of fragmentation and isolation that is unworkable as a basis for authentic community. Frazee recommends "consolidating relationships," ..."a circle of relationships that produces a sense of genuine belonging."

    By Blogger kristi w, at 2/15/2006 09:25:00 AM  

  • How insightful for you to say it doesn't have to be an either/or situation. From my experience and observation, most of the time forced groupings don't work. I also echo what krister said about different groups having different goals and ways that they operate.
    There for sure is not a "one mold fits all" type deal when you talk about small groups. God uses small groups in MANY different ways, doesn't He? I was blessed to be a part of a men's accountability small group for more than 12 years. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.
    Thanks for giving us the forum to discuss this ministry!


    By Blogger David U, at 2/15/2006 09:40:00 AM  

  • This year our life group made a change. It just wasn't working for us. We weren't getting into the Word we weren't doing much of anything except wrangling kids. Though they had their own study in another room - they wouldn't stay there. This year, we split the men and women up - and we alternate every week. One group studies together with no time limits; and the other group has an intentional time with the kids. The kids love it. They are always the center of things every week no matter which group they are with. I think they enjoy the dads better.

    This group of women that I study with; we decided to do the Believing God Bible study by Beth Moore. Since I'd been through it once before, I offered to lead it. Our overworked life group leaders more than happily agreed.

    We are one of two groups - the other one heard about our idea and copied it - in our church who are doing it this way. I don't know about the other group; but for our group it's worked well.

    I have close friends now that I did not have when we started in September. Because of our unique setup - single women or women married to nonbelievers who refuse to come (without children) can find a place with our group and feel like they belong.

    Right now, we have open sign up for life groups in September. You sign up with the group you want to be in. Some specifically say - no kids, or specify ages of adults or kids, and so forth. I wish that they would have groups according to where we live; but we don't. Some groups meet in the same place every time; others rotate on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. This makes it difficult because no one knows where anyone is meeting except group members.

    I think we still face challenges in this area; but the way our group is set up now - I absolutely love it. It has enriched my life both spiritually and with friendships I otherwise would not have. It is an answer to prayer. Everyone in the group including the kids have been blessed. We have a family that our family has specifically worked with for three years - this is the first time that they come consisitently every week.

    By Blogger Melanie Morales, at 2/15/2006 09:45:00 AM  

  • The most important thing with small groups is that everyone -- pastors, small group leaders, and participants -- know why thr groups exist. Nothing more frustrating than pastors thinking the small groups are the key to evangelism, the leaders wanting to study a difficult doctrine, while the participants want to just be great friends.

    In our small group, we meet Sunday after morning worship every other week. We share a meal together, and once a month share the Lord's Supper. We also have a sharing time -- everyone is expected to share a prayer request, or something from the morning service that spoke to them (whether a song, prayer topic, sermon, etc.) We then divide into men and women to pray, and often get more specific about the request. We occasionally schedule service projects and fun nights together (recently had a Super Bowl party).

    I don't know if this is the "best" kind of group, but I like it a lot, and our whole family (including kids) can participate.

    In our little church of 130, about 80 percent attend a small group. We consider it a requirement for membership, as it encourages the concept of having an Acts 2:42 church.

    By Blogger Brian, at 2/15/2006 10:01:00 AM  

  • Whichever way you do it has both negatives and positives.

    If you let them choose, the likelyhood is that a couple of the groups will do really well (great leader, popular people, etc.) and will be really big (maybe too big) while others suffer and are really small or people do not consistently attend. The positives are that they are more likely to go regularly to a group they choose.

    If you assign people to groups by location, you will meet new people and no single group will be too big. You will also be able to invite friends and neighbors. Negatives would be you could end up with people who are not very good at discussion. You might get a group of baby Christians who need less deep of discussion.

    I am in a group that is about 3 blocks away. We love the people. We've met new people. We go every week. It's a bigger group, but the house is bigger. We are lucky that any group would be good here...we just happen to like the one closest to us.

    By Blogger Big Mike Lewis, at 2/15/2006 10:25:00 AM  

  • I would disagree with Michael who said that small groups are important to large churches. They can be very important to smaller churches as well. I am now the minister at a small church where there are no small groups. But, before I moved here last summer I was at a church in the Metroplex that is around 120 that did small groups and they were very important to that church. And we were able to select which group to go to. I wish that we had had a more defined purpose, but those groups were great. Our group consisted of several other couples who we shared many things with. We were all the same ages and many of us had similar professions. Those people are my best friends. And they were the hardest thing about leaving.

    The great thing about small groups is that they can take on so many different forms and become so many different things. What worked at this church might not work at another church. But, we have to make sure that we are not closed. While our group was extremely tight we always welcomed outsiders.

    Groups are amazing if done well. And they can work in many different church settings.

    By Blogger Kent, at 2/15/2006 10:30:00 AM  

  • If you are launching a new church plant or something like that, make it evangelistic and missional.

    Established churches will need to meet their members where they are at (likely inward focussed) and move slowly into something missional.

    The reason people want inward focussed group because they need a context for Christian friendships. Small groups, in a sense, is an artificial and contrived form of community. It is replace of the friendships we do not normally have. Many people fear growing and multiplying groups because they will lose the one and only context where they have deep friends.

    Our lives are so cluttered with work and family functioning and media that we don't have time for friendships. So we get this little sliver of time each week in small group that if anything threatens it it threatens our only real sense of community.


    If we lived lives not so lonely and isolated and absorbed, then we might not try to bleed small groups of its gold to soothe our loneliness.

    Crap, this is getting depressing. I jst think that there are many, many barriers that get in the way of mission. Small groups should be missional.

    By Blogger Fajita, at 2/15/2006 11:05:00 AM  

  • Small groups are what they are--an effort to bring intentionality to what doesn't often happen in groups of more than 40 people.

    Almost everyone has both a horror story about their small group experience as well as a rewarding small group experience. This is because small groups are messy--just like life.

    Small groups aren't the end-all, be-all of church life. Neither are they for large churches only. God simply did not make us to live life alone, and groups of all sizes help meet needs that God has created us to have.

    As a small groups minister I have only one question for the senior and preaching minister at Highland: Mike, are you in a small group at Highland? What is your community life at Highland?

    By Blogger Trey, at 2/15/2006 11:09:00 AM  

  • The group that I lead at Vaughn Park this year is strictly a service group. We are very loose (there are only a few of us) with our schedule. We have some Katrina evacuees in the area and we're trying to start helping them out, we just sometimes take to the street to find needs and meet them and some days we just help the kids make cards for the Church's shut-ins. It's sort of an experiment and we're not as organized as we will be in a couple of more months but some huge opportunities are opening up. I'm excited at what God has in store for us.

    By Blogger Ed Harrell, at 2/15/2006 11:10:00 AM  

  • My experience with small groups (5-15) has been that regarding the type and purpose of the group "it all depends on the situation."

    Someone needs to constantly "prime the pump," which means consistent leadership training which is inspirational.

    Cell groups have worked internationally, but seem to have trouble really taking off in the USA. Any group that does not fulfill its mission by default becomes a fellowship group -- which is better than nothing.

    Intergenerational groups is tough to pull of in most churches, because most people want to be with people close to their age and interests. Children also plays a big part in groups.

    The "homogeneous unit principle" applies more to small groups than churches. The larger the group: the more heterogeneous, the smaller the group: the more homogeneous.

    Midsize groups (15-100) may be the ideal for intergenerational groups.

    By Blogger David Michael, at 2/15/2006 11:14:00 AM  

  • In our small congregation, we are moving away from small groups as "something we do" (program) and are seeing these groups as part of "who we are" (identity).

    And we want our groups to be relational and missional. Simply loving God, loving neighbor, and loving each other are the group "expectations." How that fleshes out in practices will look different from group to group within our congregation.

    By Blogger Paul, at 2/15/2006 11:45:00 AM  

  • I really liked Paul's comment immediately before mine.

    I have been a part of megachurches for much of the last half of my life, so I am grateful for how the Lord used that structure and time to form me spiritually.

    I'm not sure, however, if "mega-churchdom" (as it often is manifested today) was Christ's ideal plan for his church.

    But we have many megachurches, God loves and uses them, and they probably aren't going anywhere for a while, so let's work with what we have. If I were a "small groups minister" in a megachurch, my priority would be in forming regional communities in which small group members, "each part," can do its work (Eph. 4). This is Paul's (and Christ's vision) for the church, and though many times each part cannot do its work in large megachurch meetings, it becomes easier in the "micro" forms of church, the small groups.

    I think small group life ought to mimick the Acts 2 description of the "fellowship of the believers" when it becomes impossible and impractical for the large church to "live life out" on a daily basis with one another. Speaking of "one another," small groups ought to practice them -- the "one anothers," that is. I think Farmers Branch Church in the MetroPlex has morphed its small group ministry into more of a cell church model, a church of small groups (as opposed to just a church that has small groups). It's similar to what Paul said before me regarding "program" vs. "identity."

    In our changing culture, small groups in megachurches are probably the entry point for many pre-Christians, not the Sunday service. (this might reveal some things about the traditional importance we have placed on "the once-a-week assembly")

    By Blogger Steve Jr., at 2/15/2006 12:02:00 PM  

  • I think the comments noted here kind of underscore my belief that small groups are often a mystery on so many levels. I can relate to almost every comment here, particularly those with children issues. After being in around 10 or so groups in 15 years I can emphatically state I have no idea what a small group should be about.

    By Blogger KentF, at 2/15/2006 12:31:00 PM  

  • All the questions surrounding small groups wear me out.... First, what do you even call it? Small group? Life team? Care group? Bible study group? THEN... to eat or not to eat? kids or no kids? what to do with the kids? every week or every other? study the Bible? study a book? pray together or in gender groups? friends or strangers? self chosen or church chosen? peer groups or intergenerational? common interests or proximity? WHEW!!!

    I've been in a variety of many of the above mentioned combinations which all had advantages and disadvantages.

    The only thing I do know is that right now my kids look forward to small group night and are very disappointed when it's an "off" night.

    I'm going to keep checking these comments for the answers to all the questions I mentioned above! :)

    By Blogger Amy Boone, at 2/15/2006 12:51:00 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Mark, at 2/15/2006 01:19:00 PM  

  • The very phrase "small groups" unearths our perceptions on what we expect from these groups. We expect them to be a smaller version of the "real group" that meets on Sunday AM. However, Jesus seems to say that even just the gathering of 2 or 3 is enough in his eyes. That is where deep intimacy is made. That is where worship happens and lives are transformed. It's been amazing to read through God's Word to see what he has to say a group of 2 or 3 are able to do/be for each other, and even more amazing to participate in such a fellowship.

    Maybe we should stop calling them "small groups" and call our Sunday AM worship gatherings the "Way too Big Group".

    By Blogger Mark, at 2/15/2006 01:23:00 PM  

  • I am reading with interest the small groups discussion. As a small group director in a congregation of a thousand, I have also processed much of this. I will offer a few thoughts.

    So much in terms of how groups operate in a church have to do with the church culture, which is different in every church. That has to be considered. Part of that has to do with past challenges or problems that a church has faced in small groups ministry.

    Then there are challenges we all face. Research says that groups naturally close within 6 to 9 months; people don't mean to be unfriendly, but they have worked out their relationships...they have what we want them to have: community! Continual efforts to re-shuffle groups, and continually putting new people into existing groups, does violence to the very sense of community you are trying to create. Sure, groups can become cliquish, but let's not assume that.

    In this country, Sunday worship is still the primary way that people seek spirituality. Small groups are not yet that effective in outreach...but that does not mean they can't be missional. Still, I believe that spiritual formation is the primary reason for small group ministry. We design huge ministries, such as visitation, that can never be as effective as small groups...people will visit those whom they know...it will be natural for them to visit those in their small group.

    How to handle the children is one of the biggest challenges that churches face and they must address it effectively for small groups to prosper.

    Finally, the issue of being a church WITH or OF small groups is a really big thing. In most churches, the large number of competing programs and ministries make it impossible to involve more than around 40% of membership in small groups. This goes to mission and vision: leadership must decide what it values and tailor programming in that direction.

    Sorry...too long!

    Glenn Drysdale

    By Blogger Glenn Drysdale, at 2/15/2006 01:55:00 PM  

  • Ahh, the age-old "what to do with the kids" question...

    If children are integrated as fully participating members of the community of faith, the question might need to be, "what do we do with the adults?" In my experience, giving children the freedom to participate fully in small group/house church life is key to their spiritual formation. Sometimes I think we communicate to children that they have nothing to say until they are baptized and only little to say until they turn 18 (when is the magic age when we are spiritually transformed?).

    I've been a part of house church meetings where 5-year-olds led singing, and even added brief exhortations between his "Wee Sing" tracks. This was powerful, transformative stuff!

    Obviously, kids are kids. Sometimes we need to let them go in the back room and watch Veggie Tales. But many times, everyone is blessed immeasurably by the intergenerational edification that occurs when the young are with the old, and "every part does its work" -- even kids.

    By Blogger Steve Jr., at 2/15/2006 02:04:00 PM  

  • Glenn wrote:
    In this country, Sunday worship is still the primary way that people seek spirituality.

    I think Christian researcher George Barna would take issue with this statement, based on his most recent findings.

    What's more, we're in a heap of trouble if our Sunday worship is our primary outreach. It shouldn't be. We shouldn't be "doing church" for them. Our lives in the world are our primary outreach, not our church services.

    We must also resist the temptation to make small groups our primary outreach. "If I just invite Suzy to my small group, maybe she'll become a Christian," some might say. How about getting to know Suzy on her turf, making no secret of your faith, but taking an active role in Suzy's spiritual formation yourself? Then, Suzy might be asking questions like, "Are there more of you Christians around here?" OK, now it might be alright to bring her to the small group.

    Of course, assuming our small groups are worshipping, this model calls into question the necessity of a large, once-a-week gathering. If much of our spiritual formation (of people involved in small groups) is happening in smaller settings or settings away from the local church (as Barna and others suggest), where does that leave us in terms of our big building projects and budgets to make our Sunday worship time appealing and flashy?

    (sorry, not meaning to hijack Mike's blog here...just asking some questions...)

    By Blogger Steve Jr., at 2/15/2006 02:17:00 PM  

  • Our church (about 600) has a small population of people who participate in small groups (about 120). The most active of these groups have been together two or more years and they do not encourage visitors. To me that is cliquish. There is a service on Sunday night at 5 that 50 to 70 atttend. I don't know where the other 300 to 400 are on Sunday night, but if they have young children they are probably at home as neither the service at 5 or the small groups are very kid friendly. I feel like we are loosing this age group during Sunday morning class also as their class is the smallest even though their age group is a majority in our church. Any other churches seeing this?

    By Blogger I want 2b anon, at 2/15/2006 02:18:00 PM  

  • Small groups: maybe less navel gazing and more serving the least of these.

    By Blogger Agent B, at 2/15/2006 02:48:00 PM  

  • How often can I reach over to the person before worship and say, "My marriage is falling apart." I think for me, my small group has taken on His skin and has held me up. Once we really start communing it seems that everyone has something to share. That is true fellowship. There have been holy moments in our group this year. I have not been with them for a few weeks and I can't wait to get back together. It just makes me think of the times when the Apostles would sit under the olive trees with Jesus and just figure out how to make it.

    By Blogger Beverly, at 2/15/2006 02:58:00 PM  

  • There have been many many great comments and much wisdom in this discussion. Thanks to everyone for such insight.

    I was part of planning small groups at a prior church and our goal was evangelism. It didn't work from an evanglism perspective at all, but actually helped the church tremendously. The groups met many needs that no one even knew existed before the groups started. Literally some families in crisis that may well have fallen apart without what the groups did to hold them up. Needs that simply don't come up during an hour or two Sunday morning or Wednesday night started being met.

    So it failed in the original goal, but was greatly used by God in a different way than we expected. This was an established church that added small groups as a thing they do.

    I'm now part of a church plant team that is currently a house church and will soon be a network of house churches. We will then start having corporate gatherings on Sundays of these house churches. We will most likely call our small groups house churches even when we have the routine big meetings on Sunday. We don't want people falling into the trap of thinking "we are now a church" because there is a "main event" on Sunday AM. We are a church even now.

    Also, I think Steven mentioned kids. We greatly involve our kids in our house church and its been an amazing blessing to allow their participation though readings and other things. Something we didn't expect.

    By Blogger Kevin Robinson, at 2/15/2006 03:25:00 PM  

  • Wow, what a great conversation! I am consistently amazed at the insightfuless of this community's responses to issues like this.

    I would go further than to say that it is not an either/or. I think it HAS to ultimately be a both/and.

    I'm convinced that most of the effective work that is done in the Kingdom is done in small platoons. The smaller they are, the less planning, talk, budgeting, meetings, committees, etc. has to happen, which means the more real ministry is happening. Effective small groups will ultimately find a way to do that - if not in an organized way, at least in the way they actually function as individuals and families in the real world.

    Support from community refuels for service. Service inspires community to more service. The relationship is symbiotic.

    To put it another way, formation (through community) and mission (also through community) have to ultimately work hand in hand.

    Of course, the intimacy necessary to get on the same page and start functioning this way is a real problem. It takes years to develop, and in a highly migratory society, you often don't have years. You have months, at best. THAT, to me, is the real problem.

    Part of the solution, of course, is that communities don't have to form in physical places. They can form in user forums and on blogs. But ultimately, still, I think you need long-term face to face relationships as well.

    By Blogger Matt, at 2/15/2006 03:40:00 PM  

  • A follow up...Barna, along with many others, are predicting what the future looks like. However, we are far from a post-modern culture, currently. Cell-based churches may be the wave of the future, or Internet-based churches. But for now, that is not the case. My point is that small groups have not been shown to be very effective as a primary outreach approach in this country. The "empty Chair" has the tendency to turn a small group into an Amway meeting (sorry, you Amwayers out there). The results just aren't there. Yet small groups CAN still be missional.

    By Blogger Glenn Drysdale, at 2/15/2006 04:00:00 PM  

  • We are leaders of our small group.
    One thing we discovered, the group takes its own form once the members begin to open up and be real, transparent and share.
    We have divorced single women, blended families, and regular couples married a long time.

    It works for us.

    By Blogger Hoots Musings, at 2/15/2006 04:12:00 PM  

  • I hav to say the problem with vhurvhes today is a cultural disease I like to call Christanese. We create our own cultures that mimic, reflect, imitate, and just plain steal (see your churches last few youth t-shirt "logos")from the world around us. We like to think that by residing in an simulated real world, without the actual sinful parts that we are "in it and not of it". this simply reults in drawing in to ourselves. We associate within our comfort zone, we don't learn how to get along with people who are different from us. Communion seems to be the only thing we share in agreement between the whole church. How are we supposed to dine with the tax collectors and prostitutes, when we can't figure out how to associate with the Jonses?

    By Blogger petestacoshack, at 2/15/2006 06:40:00 PM  

  • ...However, we are far from a post-modern culture, currently. Cell-based churches may be the wave of the future, or Internet-based churches. But for now, that is not the case....My point is that small groups have not been shown to be very effective as a primary outreach approach in this country.

    Glenn, I have to respectfully disagree with you. If you are talking about small groups within established traditional churches, then you are probably right -- it hasn't "caught on." But as far as small groups and networks of small groups who consider themselves to be bodies of believers, this is no fad. It's here, and it's spreading. Faster than we can count. It's not about post-modernity, either -- I think it's about people who are fed up with the institution and a pre-Christian community that finds less and less relevancy in the local church.

    No, "micro-churches" have not made a huge splash or produced best-selling books or evangelism series, but that was never the point. The micro-church movement evolves under the radar, outside of the limelight, on the margins. (where the church is supposed to be, IMHO) The point has never been big numbers, but deep discipleship and spirituality. In this way, it has been effective.

    But, if you want numbers, let's talk about 1,000 house churches planted in two years in Dallas, Houston, and Austin by one network? Let's discuss the house church network that has multiplied into nearly 500 churches all over southern California and onto every continent? Look at the millions (and that number is increasing daily, even hoursly) of American Christians finding their deepest spiritual transformation outside the local church, in reproduceable communities?

    You are right when you say that the small group movement in traditional churches has not necessarily proven to be an effective outreach method. But as the priesthood of God is released into the world in small, missional communities to work alongside the Lord in His mission, the fire is spreading faster than we can measure it.

    I pose this question: Can we really say that our traditional forms of ecclesiology are working? Are they bringing growth? All the research says that the local church has been on a steady decline in the last 30 or so years, with the most drastic decline occuring since 2000 (see Barna on this one). The flickers of growth often turn out to be due to transfer from smaller churches to megachurches, but overall, the Christian faith in N. America goes in the hole 6 million people every year, factoring in those leaving and death/birth.

    I love all the wineskins, but can anyone really tell me that the old wineskin is bringing effective growth anymore?

    By Blogger Steve Jr., at 2/15/2006 08:30:00 PM  

  • To Matthew (way up at the top): I can think of a lot of things big churches can do much better than small churches. My church family (roughly 2000 members) has recently adopted about 25 Russian families who just moved to the area, and has provided a number of resource-intensive services to them, from a constant stream of English teachers to a huge development day that brought in resource people related to a number of community services, plus a massive free garage sale with free delivery. This activity alone took a presence of about 150 volunteers at once.

    Nevertheless, that is not what this post is about. Small groups represent the organic life of church. Small groups have power because this is where people are forming their bonds and finding their comfort, whether the church is 100 or 5,000. As a small groups ministry coordinator, I'm hesitant about programatizing them more than they already are by assigning group memberships. This is artificial. They weren't assigned their church, why assign them their "church within church"? Within an organic model, some groups will strive, some will die. Some groups die becuase the group dynamic never became natural. By trying to build them artificially, we only only run a greater risk of creating unnatural groups that may look good on paper but do not carry a sustaining dynamic.

    Are we trying to build community based on location or relationships?

    By Blogger Cary, at 2/15/2006 09:56:00 PM  

  • Wow. Amazing insights about the challenges and blessings about small groups. I think many are like SG: they are committed to the idea of small groups, but the actual practice has been challenging.

    Melanie -- wonderful idea. What a blessing to those children.

    Michael T -- I love that idea. Could help groups from becoming so self-focused. And what a great chance to include children in those service projects.

    Kristi -- Yes, I love Randy's book. In fact, that's when I first gave serious thought to geographical groupings.

    By Blogger Mike, at 2/16/2006 06:18:00 AM  

  • Yes, Steve, it will be interesting to see, as this movement continues to grow and is studied, who is being reached. Are they the formerly churched who are leaving the institutional churches? Likely that is one (though only one) major component.

    Meanwhile, the megachurches continue to thrive...as do their small group ministries...yet it is no secret that traditional forms are not working for emerging generations especially.

    One more idea...Americans, according to some research, still want much of what the big church brings, especially children's and family programming. Those in less traditional church forms tend to gravitate back to those forms after they have children. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

    By Blogger Glenn Drysdale, at 2/16/2006 10:10:00 AM  

  • I go back to Chapter 11 of Eldredge's "Waking the Dead," titled, "Fellowships of the Heart," and I start pining for whatever *that* is. Whatever else I may participate in of the institutional sort, what I really find value in is a community of shared life, not merely occasionally-intersecting-lives. We're trying to build one without availing ourselves of the organizational bureaucracy of our rather large, program-intensive church. It's slow going, but it's bearing fruit.


    By Blogger qb, at 2/16/2006 10:26:00 AM  

  • There has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not the small group model should be preferred. It is not hard to understand both the cheers and hisses on this issue. Some have been a part of groups that have welcomed and encouraged, others have been a part of less than inspiring assemblies.

    I understand this argument, however, I do not believe that our thoughts should be concentrated upon giving thumbs up or down. I believe that greater emphasis should be placed upon the growth and development that takes place within these groups.

    I believe that we must deeply involve ourselves in analyzing the frequent theological conclusions that can stem from the small group. I acknowledge that not everyone will have the for mentioned experience–but stay with me.

    Many small groups consist of sitting in some cushioned non-linear arrangement, going around the room and posing a question after reading from the text. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO YOU?

    To me, it means...
    Well, to me it means that...
    I kinda think it might mean this...
    I have to wonder if what Paul is really saying is that...

    Now don't get me wrong. Coming together with an attitude that seeks truth is vital to the discovery process. And yet this is part of the problem. We must guard ourselves against CONSENSUS THEOLOGY. Far too often, our small groups miss the point of the text; we eisegete, or make personal conclusions about the text that are not hermeneutically sound. Again, don't get me wrong... I believe that listening to others and considering their practical applications is good–and yes, maybe sometimes we will be taught a thing or two ourselves. But, we must guard against unbiblical conclusions that can be drawn from over-personalized understandings of the text within the small group.

    As Robert Wuthnow concludes, "Small groups encourage many members to regard biblical wisdom as truth only if it somehow helps them to get along better in their daily lives. Groups generate a do-it-yourself religion, a God who makes life easier, a programmed form of spirituality that robs the sacred of its awe-inspiring mystery and depth.... In simplest terms, the sacred comes to be associated with small insights that seem intuitively correct in the small group rather than wisdom accrued over the centuries."

    Saying all of this, I want to make it clear that I do support small groups. I think they are good, and a place where we can grow and learn together. I also think that we ought to redefine what a "small group" is, and can be. For example, encourage congregants to meet together for lunch, for a basketball game, or even for a movie. We ought to practice incorporating prayer and fellowship in the name of Christ in all that we do.

    And concerning the actual small group–the one "endorsed" by the church? We must guard our groups from the formation of consensus theology. We ought not see the small group as an easy way to incorporate fellowship. We need to be devoted to watching the small group achieve success. I believe this begins by deeply training small group leaders. The church ought to provide ample resources, answers to tough questions, and even some common practical applications. I would suggest that churches doing small groups ought to invest time in training leaders. There is a simple principle that the one teaching ought to know more than those being taught. Far too often the small group leader expects to rely on others just as much as they are relying on their own studies–this should not be! Our leaders need to be leaders, and the small group is no exception.

    There are many churches that are doing small groups well, and they are practicing these ideas. I have heard of one church that holds quarterly training sessions for small group leaders. Or, bring in a lecturer to address small group leaders. Sure, some of the deep theological questions might not always surface within the group, but why not take the opportunity to better equip our church leaders?

    Small groups can be a place where tremendous growth can be fostered. But remember, that growth requires more than a group of people with their favorite sheers in hand.

    By Blogger J.R.W., at 2/16/2006 03:13:00 PM  

  • Glenn,
    Good questions all. I am enjoying our dialogue...I think it's helpful.

    As you can probably tell, I tend to be a pretty big critic of the institutional church (though I still have strong ties there). I tend to think that our buildings, budgets, programs, creeds, hierarchies, structures, and what-have-you have become idols for many American Christians, blinding them from the truth of the spiritual war around them and taking them out of the fight completely. I think this thought has some backing as well in the fact that a sickeningly large percentage (half or more?) of Christians in the United States do not lead their lives with their faith as the major element in decisions, goals, dreams, priorities, etc. Barna has a sleugh of research to support all this on his Web site.

    I have to think that the church's emphasis on church as an "event" has contributed to the compartimentalization of many Americans' faith. "Church is somewhere I go," people say. I know, I know -- lots of leaders in institutional churches throw around sayings like, "We don't go to church; we are the church," but the forms of most churches are not consistent with this saying. We still expect people to "come to us" (attractional) for church instead of allowing Christ's church to seep into every crevice and dark place in our society (missional). Somehow, our form has to follow our function, and occasionally, churches need a form change to really transform their function (or identity). It's not all about form, but it certainly is a big factor. That's why I like it simple.

    As for people eventually moving back into traditional churches for the programs... Nearly every person I know who has tasted or been immersed in the "living out of life" with a small, closely knit community of believers is in it for the long-haul. They won't go back to the institution, because they know that their inclination is to be a spectator and a consumer, and the institution tends to feed these leanings. Also, the intergenerational formation that occurs between children and adults in, say, house churches leaves programmatic, age-segmented Bible classes in megachurches in the dust. My guess is that most people will ditch the thought of taking their seven-year-old back to the "big church" for regular Sunday school after he or she leads a convicting communion thought in one of their meetings. I've seen this happen in a house church of which I was a part, and I can't imagine this taking place in "big church." In my experience, the kids are taken care of in the micro-churches, and every "house church kid" I've met (which is only a few, admittedly) is on fire and has already planted one or two more house churches themselves.

    One more thing about programs for kids, families, youth -- what are the success rates for these programs in the traditional churches? Are large percentages of children staying in the church when they become teenagers? Are lots of teenagers remaining faithful to the Lord into their college years?

    An overview of four generations show the "Bridgers," those born between 1977-1994, make up the numerically largest group of unchurched individuals -- with only 4 percent claiming a relationship with Christ.

    How are the programs for young people faring in the institutional church?

    By Blogger Steve Jr., at 2/16/2006 09:18:00 PM  

  • Preference:

    Small groups by location. It creates a community within an already preset community.

    In reality, each small group that meets needs a leader who is trained, not only for church small groups, but has training in group therapy, treatment groups and task groups. This would be helpful when situations arise and help them lead their groups and guide them objectively.

    We shouldn't waste our precious time to just sit around and talk. We need to seek God, look in His word, listen to Him together and thank Him together.

    By Blogger Drew Battistelli, at 2/16/2006 11:01:00 PM  

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