By Allen White
Theories and strategies abound regarding the primary purpose of small groups. There are so many great reasons to promote groups. Small groups solve the assimilation problem in a church. They increase connection and spiritual growth. People in small groups tend to serve more than people who are not in groups. And, people in groups also tend to give more than people who are not in small groups. (Based on research by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups and Robert Wuthnow in Sharing the Journey). But, none of these is the primary purpose of small groups.
The primary purpose of small groups is leadership development.
Small groups rise and fall on leadership development. Now, this isn’t just recruiting leaders for a six week churchwide campaign. That’s a start. Developing leaders requires training, coaching, and processing experiences. I would even go so far as to say leadership development is the end result of effective discipleship.
Meet Doug. When I first met Doug, he didn’t consider himself to be a leader at all. In fact, Doug had always thought he was dumb. You see he had never finished high school. Doug was now retired in his sixties and had spent his carrier driving and operating a construction crane. He drove this huge crane all over the San Francisco Bay Area, which to be honest, it’s difficult enough to commute there with a car sometimes — let alone a huge crane!
Doug and his wife, Kay, started a group during one of our churchwide campaigns. They were great. Very hospitable. They were naturals.
As our small group ministry grew, I developed a leadership team to help me oversee and coach our small group leaders. Around this time Doug was heavily involved in a multilevel marketing company. I noticed how well he managed relationships. He worked with so many people, yet kept in constant contact and kept both his down line motivated and his customers rolling in. I saw Doug had what it takes to coach others and serve on my small group team. I just asked him to keep his product out of the coaching. He agreed.
After working with Doug for a few years, first as a small group leader, then as a coach on our small group leadership team, it came time for me to leave the church I had served for 15 years. Doug left me with these words, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew I was.” That’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever been given.
I don’t remember who was in Doug’s group or the leaders he coached. I don’t recall all of the great things that happened in these groups, but I do remember the great thing that happened in Doug. He went from a guy who thought he was dumb to a leader who multiplied his life in the lives of hundreds of other people.
If as a small group pastor or director, you focus on connecting a bunch of potential members into groups, you’ll end up with a huge stack of sign up cards and an ineffective system to manage them. Read about my hatred for sign up cards here. If your senior pastor gives airtime to small groups in the weekend service, recruit leaders. Don’t waste that precious commodity inviting prospective members to join groups. If the new leader has the stuff, they can gather a group.
You can spend all of your time creating curriculum. Curriculum is not a bad thing. But, then your groups turn into life on curriculum instead of life on life.
But, make an investment in your leaders, and you have something that will build your small groups life nothing else. As Simon Sinek says, “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.” If you find people with a heart for others and the relational warmth to gather a group or reach out to group leaders, then you can equip them with everything they need to do it. Find the right people and make the investment.