In Matthew 28 Jesus commanded us to “make disciples in all the nations.” How do we do that in the modern-day church? That is a question that I have wrestled with for many years. Coming out of Campus Crusade for Christ or CRU I saw discipleship in action on the college campus. It was very effective using the multiplying ministry principal where I worked with 6 guys over the school year and each of them had their own groups and so on. Over the next 5 years, we saw over 500 students discipled with many of them going on to full-time ministry. The question the Church battles with is how do you do this in the Church?
For transformation to occur in an individual they first must belong, then comes belief and finally behavior. That belonging can comes in the context of a small group. It is also Jesus’ model of impacting the world through the discipling of 12 men.
Typical Small Group and The Problem
Most churches try to follow Jesus’ model of small groups. Typically it is a couple who host the group in their home with about 10-15 people. This model works well in college discipleship groups and specialty groups but for the church environment it is only somewhat effective and it can hinder the integration of new people into the life of the church. Some of the issues that churches see are leader burn out, closed groups or “clicks”, and the inability to multiply groups.
Another issue with this model is how impacts the church as a whole. I was involved with a large church where there were large crowds every week with many new people. The small groups were the typical groups as described above. One of the complaints that people had is that it was hard to get connected into the life of the church. Many of the small groups were closed and there were not enough leaders to start new groups. New people were unable to get integrated into the life of the church.
I want to illustrate the actual dynamic that prevents people from integrating into the church. On a typical Sunday morning, a new person might start talking to the person that they just sat next to or come up to a group and want to enter into the conversation with someone they just met. It creates an awkward situation for the church member because they are in a closed small group and they can’t invite the new person into their group of friends. They are feeling awkward so they have a short conversation and find an excuse not to engage that person further. If the new person experiences this 3-4 times they walk away thinking that the church is not very friendly.
Solving The Problem
In that large church with the integration problem, the main pastor had worked in a seminary in the area of church growth. He looked at the problem and made some major changes to the small group structure. To say the least, the changes were not received well by many of the small group leaders and the sparks flew! Change is hard.
A working Solution
To solve the integration problem the pastor set some new rules for the small groups and if they did not want to follow them they would not be considered official groups. The rules were as follows.
- Each group had to have a leader and at least 6 core members or/leaders
- The Lead couple could not host the group
- There were no closed groups
Practically how they worked is the leader couple would focus on the 6 core members and core members would focus on the rest of the group. One of the goals of the leaders was to develop the talents of the core members by assigning them different responsibilities in the group. Different people would teach, facilitate, lead worship, and organize different activities of the group. This process would develop new leaders that could lead new groups in the future. One of the biggest benefits was the decrease in leader burn out and the group could easily facilitate a lot more people.
Along with the small group change the pastor wanted to change the culture of the church. He did this by flowing down through all the ministries and small groups a mindset that their job was to be a welcoming people and if they see a new person get them plugged into a small group. This changed the whole dynamic of the church which is known as a warm friendly place 20 years later.
The Ideal Small Group
The example that I just shared is a practical small group structure that works. 20 years ago my wife Cathy and I just returned to the Church that we had been going to after a church planting experience and we were praying for a small group to go to. During that prayer time, I saw a picture of a map with the city name Brea. That next Sunday at church I ran into an old friend from college and they invited us to a new experimental small group they were starting in Brea so we decided to attend.
There was a gentleman who was getting his Ph.D. in small group dynamics and this group was the working out of his Ph.D. on the ideal small group. The goal of this group was to disciple people and develop leaders so that the group would multiply. There were the lead couple and 6 other combinations of couples and singles for a total of 12 people. Each couple had a smaller group within the larger group and the goal of each couple was to develop another 2 leaders in each of the smaller groups.
The basic format of the group was:
- Ice breaker
- Worship with some time for the Lord to speak
- Ministry time where we broke up into our smaller groups led by the 6 couples.
- Then Fellowship
After a year each of the leader couples challenged 12 new leaders from the smaller groups to run the group for several months. Then the next year one of the leader couples stayed with the group and the other initial leaders went out and started other groups. It was by far one of the most successful groups that I have seen. I introduced the model to a friend who wanted to plant a church and he successfully used it to grow his church.
Some research that I have read since I wrote this article shows that the Millennial generation and generation Z are not inclined to commit to long term groups but they will sign up for short term commitments. To help the church meet the needs of these groups several churches that I know have implemented 12-week groups that can be of any interest. This makes the hurdle much lower for people to be integrated into the life of the church. These groups include the ones that we have discussed but can be almost anything. Some of the groups that I have seen are of special interest like knitting, biking, photography, small business, entrepreneur, and Bible and Brew.
Then there are some more common groups that deal with things like new believers class, 12 step groups, support groups, and other training type groups. Again you also have the traditional groups that we have already discussed which are generally longer-term relational and discipleship type groups. One practical advantage of this model is that it is a good opportunity to develop new leaders without long-term commitment. It is easier to sign up to lead a group for 12 weeks knowing that if the new leader does not like leading a group it is only a small commitment. Another advantage is that it is an easy offramp for leaders that are starting to feel burnt out or have other commitments come up that need a break. Our church implemented this model and it has worked well so far and the only stipulation that they have is that there need to be at least 2 leaders in the group.
Any church can use this model to successfully integrate new members into the life of the church, develop new leaders, and effectively disciple the people in their walks with the Lord.
By Paul Frala