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Why I’m a fan of small groups … now

By Tim Spivey

The truth is I used to not like small groups very much. As a pastor, I realized I should – because everyone told me I should. I just didn’t. I like people. I like Bible study. I like discussing spiritual things. But, there was something about that stew that tasted funny to me. Whenever I tasted the individual ingredients, I liked them. Whenever they were put together, it was … ehh.

Over time, I’ve become a raving fanatic for small groups, which we call Growth Groups at New Vintage Church. If you are a pastor or Christian who feels like, “I’m just not a small groups person,” here are four things that change my opinion over time. Notice I said, over time. It’s hard to change one’s opinion on this instantly. The only way I know to do so is to be part of a good one.

Here are some things I had to work through, and how I got past them:

One more thing to do?

Many churches have small groups as an addition to everything else going on in the church, or they pride themselves on being a “church of small groups.” Advertising for groups alone, in addition to everything else going on in the church, wore me out. In some cases, it felt like they were a net loss to the church in terms of energy and time – and it showed in 35 percent to 50 percent involvement. They were poorly attended and inconsistent. On the flip side, if a church “is a church of small groups,” it will often have problems casting larger vision and getting the church to row together on things.

I finally got to experience something in between – small groups as a foundational piece of a lean ministry system. They are emphasized as a core part of who we are, but they are part of who we are. Once Growth Groups found its true place, it was easy for me to see its value to the church as a whole. It’s the primary relational fabric of our entire church. It’s how we do pastoral care, it helps close the back door of the church, and it’s flat-out fun. I tell our church I never want to be a church where everyone knows everyone. That means we have no new people showing up and are small enough to know everyone. I want us to be a place where everyone is known by someone. Growth groups are a big part of addressing the problem of loneliness. They also provide accountability and a sense of belonging without falling into the potluck mythology of knowing everyone.

If your church is going to do small groups, make your Bible classes about Bible study – or call them small groups that meet on Sunday morning – and have them function that way. Or, don’t do Bible classes, and find innovative ways to beef up study in other ways.

Bad chemistry?

I had been in groups where the chemistry just didn’t exist, even after giving it time to work. It wasn’t until I read Larry Osborne’s fantastic book, “Sticky Church,” that I realized we could systemically make it OK to provide on-ramps and off-ramps for people if they wanted to try a different group. If we don’t do that, we give people two options: (1) be miserable in your group, or (2) drop out. Neither of those is good. We meet for 10 weeks at a time with a few weeks break in between sessions, and a longer stretch in the summer. It’s one of the smartest things we’ve done. Thanks, Larry!

Too mushy?

Some people suffer from mushiphobia – the fear of mushiness. The awkward moment when someone raises their hand during a discussion of servanthood and begins crying about their recent breakup, etc. Don’t get me wrong – these are poignant, real moments. However, they also deserve better attention than they are likely to get in a forum in which it’s just dumped out there, off-track, and ill-timed. Some small groups were more like support groups, and that’s fine for those who need support. However, there’s a reason support groups are usually composed of people who feel they need support – and not all streams of society. Forcing people to sit through another’s support group session week after week (and that’s what I’m talking about – not an exceptional moment when something bubbles over), isn’t fair to those attending. Keep it on focus during your time together, and let the leader or others and the group shepherd one on one.

What’s the point?

It seemed there was an aimlessness to our groups. I didn’t want to take charge, because if I start directing, people will often yield to what I say. So, when I’m in a group, I try to join it as another church member who is on the quiet side. I don’t want people to think I’m not engaged, but I speak when it seems appropriate. In addition, we moved to sermon-based small groups. It helps the sermon live longer, and the discussions are better because most everyone heard the sermon – so they show up prepared by default. It also takes away the, “What should we study next quarter,” question. Lastly, it keeps the church on the same page. Everyone is hearing the same stuff. We aren’t really high-control about it, but we urge each group to go sermon based. Each church bulletin has space for sermon notes and a discussion guide for Growth Groups in the coming week. This also equips nearly anyone to lead a group. I could go on, but there are several reasons I love the sermon-based small group model.

In the end, I’ve come to believe that when groups are a core part of church life, have an aim, and the chemistry is good – they are truly transformational. Every Christian really should be a part of one. The reason I gave some of the negatives of my journey above is to give a glimpse into the minds of others who aren’t a part – or who are and are miserable. Small groups can be a treasure. Or, they can be another half-attended ministry of the church. At their best, it’s where Christians do life together in a transformational way.

If you’re going to do them, let them be a treasure. Make room for them, give them a clear aim, develop the system, and protect the habitat from the “support group” mentality, and they will change your church for the better. In my next post, I’ll add some more reasons why Growth Groups matter so much and how to implement them effectively.

Dr. Tim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book “Jesus, the Powerful Servant.”

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