Many, if not most, churches have at least attempted small group ministries at one time or another, some finding them to be the catalyst for church growth, relational connections, and effective discipleship. Of course, others have struggled and some even failed in the effort, leaving numerous questions in the wake of their efforts.
As a pastor, I learned that effective small groups often have more to do with the pre-planning than with the implementation. Simply put, if I knew the questions to answer before we started, I probably could have avoided or more effectively addressed the issues that arose, and for many, brought a premature end.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll tackle those questions. I call them my 10 Questions for Small Group Planning. Here we go…
1. Why are we doing small groups?
This question asks, “What is the primary purpose among the purposes for our small group ministries? Now there are a lot of possible purposes for small groups, but we must be honest about what we are really trying to accomplish. You see, our real purpose will be the way we end up evaluate our groups, so making that purpose clear and obvious is essential.
Do I want small groups to connect people to the church? In larger settings, pastors can begin to question just how connected people really are. Are they building relationships? Is their loyalty or sense of ownership in the church growing? If we are going to have extended opportunity to minister to people, at some point we need them to think of our church as their church too. So connection can be a viable purpose for small groups.
In our church, I counted 63 newly-married couples who didn’t know anyone except me. I stood before them each week and shook their hand on the front sidewalk. I knew they were going to need more connection that that and I dreamed they might find it in other couples their age, with whom they could grow into the years ahead. So we started a “Honeymooners” small group that my wife and I initially led. Response was great (More than 20 couples to start), and after a year, couples within the group took over leadership. Today, that group is one of the strongest in the church and what I hoped would happen for them has happened.
Discipleship is another goal. Maybe I want small groups because I want to be sure people are growing and I know that the intimacy of the small group can help facilitate that in amazing ways. That’s another great reason for small groups.
Which is the best reason? Likely the one that fits your situation best. Is the primary goal discipleship or fellowship? Now a small group can make great strides in both areas, but you need to know which is primary. Some pastors have started groups for connection only to be frustrated that discipleship goals weren’t being met. Of course, discipleship groups that don’t gel into deep relationships can be disappointing too. If you know which is your primary goal, you’ll be able to more effectively evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.
In my experience, groups that achieve connection and deepening discipleship should be celebrated as the anomaly they are. But you must either aim at one or the other and hope the lesser priority ends up being achieved too.
Of course, the primary purpose affects a lot of other decisions too. If the groups are more content focused, a semester approach is probably best and groups can meet more often (even weekly), but if relationships are the principle goal, you may meet less often but probably don’t want to stop meeting or break up the groups to start another round.
A Sunday school class is typically a content group that wants to stay together. So they meet each week and keep meeting with no end in sight. That can work because Sunday mornings are a time people have set aside for church, but many churches are finding it difficult to achieve the same faithful participation when they offer Sunday school-type groups at other times.
Fellowship groups meet less often (maybe monthly) but they take fewer breaks. In fact most meet every month throughout the year, even though there may always be a member or two missing. Content might bring these groups together—for example, we may start a group to discuss parenting teenagers. But if the goal is to build a support network for these parents, we may meet monthly and focus on connecting with each other and praying together rather than letting any content material drive the group.
Purpose is the first critical question for your small group planning. Before we get ready for question two, we should point out that every group doesn’t have to have the same purpose. You will have some groups where connection is most critical and others where discipleship encounter is dominant. You don’t have to design all your groups to have the same primary purpose, but you do need to know what that purpose is for each group you seek to establish, maintain, and evaluate.