Dan was very frustrated with his men’s group. He had an accountability group that met every Tuesday night around the conference table in the church library. Attendance was sketchy. He started with about a dozen guys. That number quickly dropped to a handful and then just a couple of guys. After Promise Keepers, or some other large men’s event, his group would grow, only to diminish once again.After months of this yo-yo style attendance, Dan told the group, “We’re not meeting at the church any more. But, if you’d like to come out to my house and pitch horseshoes on Tuesday night, you’re more than welcome.” Suddenly, his group reappeared and had more spiritual conversations around horseshoes than they ever did around the conference table in the church library.
What made the difference for this group is key to attracting many people to small groups in the first place. While there are many methods of starting groups, if you are only using one strategy, you are probably missing at least 30 percent of your people. Form the group around something other than a Bible study (but include a Bible study). Most believers, even those who have been in the church for their entire lives, are insecure about their understanding of the Bible and are reluctant to open up and share their thoughts. This is not necessarily due to a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of confidence. In my two decades of ministry, I still find it challenging to put aside centuries of thought regarding the superiority of the clergy in their understanding of Scripture and thus, by default, the inferiority of the “laity” to grasp God’s Truth. You would think that the Reformation had resolved this. Unintentionally, the paid preachers have committed intimidation by exposition. Our thorough exegesis, while necessary, deludes us into thinking that the Bible is more of a scholarly text than a love letter from our Heavenly Father. Most members cannot parse Greek verbs, but they can reflect on true love in a meaningful relationship with God. No pastor ever meant to seperate themselves from their flock. But in diligently and faithfully laboring to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV), we inadvertently produced another division: paid scholars and lay recipients. How do you bridge that gap? Put something in their hands. One of the favorite things that I do with my sons is taking a trip to Costco, sometimes just to look. It is a great place. I can educate them in the ways of a man with a special focus on electronics and power tools, and the store provides “snacks” for free. However, I always encounter a problem. It is hard to wheel the cart down the aisle without little hands grabbing for whatever they can along the way. Then, one day during our trip to Costco, we bumped into some friends. While I reported a good day, I expressed frustration about all of the grabbing from the aisles. The man said to me, “Well, the thing I’ve learned about boys is that if you don’t put something in their hands, they will put something in their hands.” From that day forward, my sons have always entered a store with a toy or something in their hands. When you think of men in small groups, men are really just grown-up boys. While women are obviously more relational and open up very easily, this principle applies to them as well. If your members lack confidence in discussing the Bible, then form the group around something else. Let’s be honest, many men come to church out of obligation. They probably will not volunteer to join a Bible study, but they would join a group to ride motorcycles or cook barbecue or work on cars. As they build relationships in the group, they will feel more comfortable sharing their lives and their thoughts. Do not leave out the Bible study. By changing the focus of the group to a hobby or another interest, the intimidation of joining a group disappears. The leader should still be charged with leading spiritual conversations, but in a more casual way. It makes spiritual conversations a more normal part of life. They are hanging around a bunch of guys, doing what they love to do, and talking about spiritual things. We still need to ask ourselves, “Why is this group part of our ministry and not part of the YMCA?” The key is the intentionality of spiritual conversations. This is built into the DNA of the group. We have a group of men who meet together to barbecue called the Holy Smokers. They teach men to barbecue, which is as significant as Clemson football here in South Carolina, and they meet together to study God’s Word. Men come to Christ by following that sweet smell of barbecue, but if they lose their redemptive edge, then they have become merely a catering service. Create groups that are easier to join. Think about the sociological implications here. A hobby, talent, or career is more personal affinity than just age, gender, or neighborhood. What we do, and especially our likes and dislikes, identify part of who we are and what our hearts are drawn toward. It becomes an easier invitation to group life. If we ask, “Would you like to join my Bible study?” The answer most likely is “Well, I’ll pray about it…” (Christianese for “No.”) If we invite someone to come hang out with some guys and work on hot rods or play video games or a round of golf, then we are getting somewhere. At Brookwood Church, where I serve, you will find a group of men called the Holy Smokers who barbecue together. On Tuesday night, you will meet a group of women at the local Starbucks who take over a meeting room and knit. There is a group called Fishers of Women, who go fishing. Our hope and prayer is that this list will continue to expand and grow. We will take whomever we can get, however we can get them! Advertise your groups in unconventional ways. Give demonstrations. Teach seminars. Offer free services to the community. Take on a cause. Develop an online presence. There is a free online site called Meetup.com specifically designed to promote hobby and affinity groups within any region of the U.S., or the world for that matter. According to the site, the following observations have been made in national publications (Read these comments in the context of our hearts toward biblical community.): “A convenient, non-threatening way to connect to other people who share similar interests and live nearby” (Time Magazine). “…helps groups of strangers organize monthly powwows at local watering holes” (Newsweek). “…it’s important to stay true to your passions or interests, whatever they may be… An opportunity to reconnect with yourself and others in a stress-free environment. It’s as simple as that” (Toronto Sun). Is this not exactly what we are aiming for? Imagine having groups that are convenient and non-threatening. This has got community written all over it. The way it works is simple. The leader creates a group, which has both an online presence and social networking. Then they have a live, in-person meeting. People get to know each other before the face-to-face meeting so the fear factor is reduced. Then, people meet together so the “fake factor” of online social networking disappears. If you pursue this route that is both popular and free (why wouldn’t you?), be clear about your purpose: A group of bowlers who have fun and talk about spiritual things, or a group of cyclists connected with Brookwood Church. Bait and switch would not go over well. Upon closer examination of the Meetup.com site, the pagans have no problem labeling their groups as such. Christians need not be intimidated. Interest the Disinterested. One of the biggest excuses to not join a group is “I don’t have enough time.” Yet, people manage to make time to do what they enjoy. Why not create small groups built around something that people enjoy? They will make time for it! This strategy will not be for everybody in your church. Some groups are already there, digging into God’s Word and applying it to their lives. Some groups are already great at caring for each other and encouraging their members. The 30 percent or so that have not joined groups have not done so because they are bad people or uninterested in spiritual growth. They are just not interested in the groups that you offer. Let’s face it: one size does not fit all.” Why not toss out this idea to a few, run a pilot, and see what happens? What have you got to gain?