Here is the first of a three-part series by Thom Rainer on small groups.
Discipleship is a hot topic within the local church right now. This is a good thing since it’s an essential component of the Great Commission. Making disciples is one of the primary functions of the church as well as one of the most important measurements of church health.
Discipleship manifests itself in the local church most often through small groups. But building effective small groups takes a lot of work, and can be difficult to implement. They often struggle to be successful and transformational because of wrong expectations, beliefs, or myths about how they work best.
Myth 1: Your current small-group configuration is permanent.
Jesus’ small-group configuration was for about three years. Proof texting you might say? I don’t think so. How important was this small group to God’s plan? Our current small groups are direct descendents from that first one. The one method of a group represented by Jesus and the apostles would not be constituted as the killer app. But the group was a critical component. More was coming.
Notice also, much was going on in the discussions. All the discussions of the disciples did not happen while the facilitator (Jesus) was in the room.
The configuration and context changed after the Lord’s ascension. New clusters developed. New people were introduced into the groups. A transformational group is one that adjusts as needed to encourage growth of the group and growth in the members of the group. Just as you rearrange the furniture in the house to accommodate changes in life, a group adjusts to accommodate changes in the community or church.
Myth 2: Small-group meeting locations are limited to church facilities or member homes.
If small groups are transformational, the math is simple: More Groups = More Life Change.
So here are a couple of key questions: What are some other places for small groups? How can you help facilitate them? How can you celebrate them? Small groups can gather at work, school, coffee shops, health clubs, or under a tree somewhere.
A practical question is, Where are small groups already naturally meeting? Service and leadership teams are one example. They gather in or around your church facility to take care of church responsibilities. With unlimited possibilities for the time and place of small-group community, your church can leverage every meeting for life change.
Myth 3: Your facilitator must be a highly trained spiritual superstar.
Having a group of excellent teachers is good. But more than any other trait, small-group facilitators and Sunday School leaders need love for the people if you want to have transformational small groups. They need communication, resources, and encouragement. But they must, above all else, love God and His work in people.
If you place the standard for teaching skills too high, it can be counterproductive to your small-group structure. It can limit how many groups you can multiply. The goal of “excellent teaching” should be replaced with “effective teaching.” Excellent teaching is characterized through teacher led and dominated class experience. Effective teaching is based upon taking class participants from where they are presently to a preferred future.
Setting the standard for teaching skills too high will cause members to choose groups based on the leader. The dark side of recruiting only superstar leaders is reinforcing a celebrity-obsession mentality in the church. Our small communities ought to be consumed with seeing all lives changed, not personal entertainment by an astounding lesson week after week. When people choose attending a particular group solely because of the leader, it builds unhealthy competition between the groups and suppresses the missional impulse for multiplication. After all, who wants to go start over in a new group when Superman Stan is our teacher?
I’m not advocating throwing out all standards for small-group leaders. But I am asking you to think about where to set the bar that communicates the reason for pursuing community in the body of Christ.
Myth 4: Small-group organization must be complex.
Simple is the word of the day. In fact, I have written two books on the subject, Simple Church and Simple Life. If we want more groups and even a transforming movement of small groups throughout our community, then we will make things simple. Many of the reasons for simple have already been given in this current list of myths.
The small-group system must not become so rigid that it is unchangeable. I’ve both served effective churches with small groups and traditional Sunday School as our small-community delivery system. The complexity (which can be avoided) comes when the same leaders, in the same rooms, with mostly the same participants, spend extended time together. The lack of focus on a simple system that is easily reproducible results in a self-centered system that becomes inflexible over time.
Myth 5: Only pastors are qualified to administer pastoral care.
As a church begins to grow, the paid staff is unable to keep pace with pastoral care needs. But people still need to be touched with grace, mercy, and sometimes admonished in their Christian walk. Unfortunately, many churches have adopted a clergification model of ministry. They consider missionaries the supremely spiritual people who go to far-flung places to preach. Pastors and staff are next, and they are paid to do the local ministry. Then there’s the rest of us who “pay, pray, and get out of the way.” The only problem—this is not a biblical system.
Churches practicing transformational community expect that ministry can occur even when a person with “Reverend” before their name is not present. God knew we would all need a form of pastoral care, and so He formed the body of Christ with the necessary gifts and abilities to share His grace from one person to another. No professional degree required. Transformational small groups are alive with ministry to one another.
What are the challenges you face in your small groups? What have you tried that was successful?