By Allen White
If the plan works right, group members form close-knit bonds. They become a true band of brothers. It’s a cord that’s not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The group has become exactly what everyone wanted. People you can count on. People who know you and you know them. A safe place to deal with the struggles and mess of life. But, sometimes groups become too tight.
Groups over time develop a history. There are stories of victory and defeat. Inside jokes abound. Group is like family. This is all great until someone tries to join the family.
Adding new members to your existing group is often more like getting new in-laws rather than having a new baby. No one resents a new baby, except for the next youngest sibling. But, in-laws are another story. Who is this person? How will they fit in? But, the new in-law is asking questions too.
“Will this group accept me?” “What are they joking about?”
It takes hard work to welcome a new group member into the family (read more here).
I’ve seen great groups become very close-knit over time. They’ve developed a tight bond. But, when prospective members visit the group, they don’t come back. Soon they discover their group is a revolving door. Visitor after visitor comes and goes. It might be time for your group members to move out.
It’s Time for the Kids to Move Out.
No one would ask their infant to move out of the house. They’re so little and vulnerable. You need to nurture and protect them. There may be a case, however, for asking a two-year-old or a teenager to move on. But, parenting responsibility and child neglect laws dictate otherwise. But, there comes a time when your children should move on.
When children become adults, they should be encouraged to fulfill their God-given purpose in life. That purpose is not living in your basement until they’re 35. (Yes, go tell him right now). Group life bears a resemblance.
New and growing believers need some care and guidance. As they learn and grow, they also need additional responsibility over time. They don’t need a co-dependent leader who wants to do everything for them, who never thinks they’re ready to move on, and who needs to be needed. After a season of no more than two years, group members should be encouraged to lead on their own. Leaders often find a million reasons why this shouldn’t happen.
“Who’s that living in your basement, leader?”
Jesus gathered His disciples with the invitation to “Follow me.” After a short season of training, Jesus sent them out to experience ministry for themselves. He gathered them back together and debriefed their experience. Eventually, Jesus died on the cross and ascended into Heaven, leaving His disciples fully in charge of the church on earth.
While group leaders won’t necessarily follow the path to capital punishment, Jesus provided an effective model for developing leaders. The Son of God, who knew everything about His disciples, chose to empower and release them for ministry. The pinnacle of this empowerment was Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. While He promises to be with us always (Matthew 28:20), the disciples reached a place where they needed to serve on their own. Your group members will get there too.
Jesus knew Peter was impulsive. He knew Thomas needed More Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Jesus knew the tension between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector. Libertarians and Liberals don’t mix well. Jesus knew Judas Iscariot wouldn’t make it. He knew the good, bad and ugly of His small group members, yet He chose to empower them to serve.
If your group has been together for 18-24 months, someone is ready to step out and start a new group. If your group is younger than 18 months, it’s time to pass around the group responsibilities and see who rises to the top. Don’t get stuck with old group members living in your basement.
By Allen White
Most people already have most of the relationships they need. They are as closely connected with the people they need in their lives. When they are challenged to join a small group, they might not sense the need, because there isn’t a need.
An examination of Joseph Myers’ book, The Search to Belong, reveals four spheres of human relationships: public, social, personal and intimate. His perception is that an invitation or urging to join small groups causes people to jump from pubic relationships, meaning people who attend the same church and might or might not know each other, to intimate relationships in a small group, where they would share the most personal details of their lives.
I’m not sure that most groups are formed by transitioning public relationships into intimate relationships. I am certain that such a premise for forming groups is either bound to fail or quite short-lived.
First of all, there is no guarantee that folks in small groups will form intimate relationships or should. When I think of intimate relationships, I think of a very select group of people: my wife, my parents, my children and my closest friends. The last thing I want in my small group is a relationship with another man that is akin to the intimacy I have with my wife! I’m not a macho man, but all guys must draw the line somewhere.
Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point says that there are only 10-12 people whose deaths would dramatically affect our lives. While we certainly would sense grief at the loss of anyone we knew, not everyone’s death has the same impact on our lives. Most healthy, functioning folks already have these relationships. Since the limit for most of us is 10-12 and the size of a small group is usually 10-12, the likelihood of complete or partial strangers being graduated to my inner circle is quite slim.
Perhaps, the best we can do with small groups, according to Blair Carlstrom in the article, “Small Groups May be Overrated” (Church Executive, February 2005), is create an environment where close relationships could happen. “At our church, we don’t even use intimacy to imply “cozy” because we don’t want anyone confused about what we want to accomplish. In fact, we tell people not to expect it in a small group. If we can help set a realistic expectation, then they may have a good experience in a group.” According to Carlstrom, pastors should not raise the expectation that any group of members can go from strangers to close friends in no time at all. Perhaps, the disclaimer should read, “Results are not typical. Some group members may luck out and develop close friendships over time with much perseverance, but many will experience side effects such as feeling awkward, uncomfortable or lonely in the crowd, similar to side effects found with sugar pill. Group members should expect much uneasiness regarding their group accompanied by the desire to play hooky on a regular basis.”
Without the equivalent of e-harmony, the dating service, for member placement into groups, meeting day, location and possibly one item of affinity does not guarantee the formation of biblical community and for good reason. Since most people already have those 10-12 spots filled, and since the randomization of group placement does little to guarantee the cultivation of such relationships, perhaps pastors are aiming at the wrong thing in forming small groups. The better fit is to offer an environment for developing personal relationships with the rare possibility of a few becoming intimate relationships over time.
The other issue with Joe Myers’ premise is the starting point: public relationships. The commonality of sitting in the same worship space on a regular basis is an insufficient affinity, and perhaps not even that. People in churches seated in rows facing the same direction have about as much ability to deepen relationships as movie goers in a darkened theater. The format is not conducive to developing closer relationships, even if we do turn and shake hands for 2-3 minutes. The odds of signing up for a group that might produce lasting relationships seems a bit preposterous. This process of random selection causes few strong groups to evolve and leaves many artifacts along the way.
Yet, some small groups do succeed and thrive over the long term. Are these miraculous occurrences? Or, are these groups created with members who socially travel a shorter distance from departure to destination?
The simplest means of forming new groups that might last really doesn’t involve pastors much at all. In addition to 10-12 intimate relationships, most people have about 40 personal relationships. A recent study by MSN Messenger in the United Kingdom found that the average Brit had 396 relationships during his or her lifetime, yet only had 33 relationships at any one time. My suspicion is that Americans might have a few more. While the 10-12 intimate relationships would be included, the balance would be made up with other friends, neighbors, co-workers, and extended family that we know, but not as well as our intimate circle. We keep close tabs on their lives. We might not know their heart of hearts, but we’ve spent time together and know quite a bit. And, we like them or else they wouldn’t be among our personal relationships.
If small groups are not created to form intimate relationships, but to maximize personal relationships, then the simplest way of forming lasting groups would be to create groups from the 40 or so personal relationships we already have. The group is already there. All that a pastor needs to do is recommend a Bible study, draw a circle around them and call them a group! We’ve formed nearly 100 groups this way in our church over the last 12 months. What we’ve discovered is that groups of friends far outlast groups of strangers. One person takes the initiative to select 10 people or so of their 40 personal relationships and spend time together studying God’s Word with an easy to use DVD-based small group curriculum. This strategy provides both the biblical content and the close relationships to help a group start well and thrive.
The potential of creating groups from within someone’s current personal relationships is much greater than turning public or social relationships into personal relationships. If the average person is capable of maintaining only 33-40 or so personal relationships at any one time, then to ask someone to accept folks from their public or social relationships into the realm of personal relationships means that we are asking them to essentially replace 10 or so personal relationships with relative strangers from their public or social relationships. The person, first of all, might be very unwilling to give up any of their current personal relationships and thus, never truly bond with the small group. Secondly, we are asking the person to risk 10 relationships they can count on with basically the luck of the draw. Who in their right mind would give up their good friends for the sake of another church activity?
But, there are exceptions. A person who has recently started attending the church by moving from another church, from another city or from the kingdom of darkness, probably does not have any personal relationships with people in their new church home. There are other points of transition that influence people’s relationships: job changes, moves across town, divorce, life stages, etc. How do they take the step from public relationships at the church to personal relationships?
The easy answer would be to turn their current personal relationships into former friends and adopt new friends from their new church home. But, that’s not so easy.
My point is simply this: most people have at least eight people in their lives that they could do a small group with. They don’t need to be assigned to a group of strangers and expect instant relationships. They don’t need to give up existing relationships to establish new ones. Every believer is called to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). As pastors equip their people to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), let’s not make this more complicated than it has to be. Discipleship is not something that we do to other people. Discipleship is what we do with other believers. The people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, interacting with the Word of God brings about positive results.
In forming small groups, what are you really asking your people to do?
By Allen White
David had Jonathan. Moses had Aaron. Peter and Paul had Mary. John, Paul and George had Ringo (well, until Yoko Ono broke them up.) Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Who is your partner in ministry? Last week, we talked about the importance of a co-leader. But, how do you find one? Here are some qualities to look for:
1. Are they breathing? A dead man will do no good.
2. Is this person a growing believer? It doesn’t really matter how long a person has been a Christian. The question is “are they growing?” Some people have repeated the same two years of their Christian experience ten times, so they’ve been a Christian for 20 years. But, are they growing? Are they actively seeking God? Do they pray and see their prayers answered? Are they allowing God to work in their lives to forsake sin and to see God’s Kingdom grow?
3. Is this person interested in the group? In selecting a co-leader, consider the folks who care the most about your group. Who is there more often than not? Who lets you know when they have to miss? These are good indicators of how important the group is to the person.
4. Who creates warmth? Are people drawn toward the person, or does he repel others? Now, that doesn’t mean that this has to be the biggest hugger in your group. That person could just be needy. You want the person who is open and accepting of others.
5. Who has shown some skills? As your group has passed around the leadership for the discussion, who has shown potential by leading the discussion well? Were they sensitive to what was going on with the group members? Did the discussion get beyond the surface of the questions? While these skills can be taught, if a person shows a natural knack for leading, you might have a winner.
6. Who gives you the most trouble? Often the opinionated and the instigators in the group have leadership gifts. While your first inclination would be to run them off, the better thing would be to redirect them. To engage their leadership ability in a positive way will help the person and help the group.
These are just a few things to look for. In my time with Brett Eastman out at Saddleback Church and Lifetogether.com, I learned that rather than popping the question right away, it’s better to give a potential co-leader different responsibilities and see how they perform. Brett called this “Crawl, Walk, Run.” If they aren’t ready to lead a whole study, could they lead a section of the study? If they’re not ready to lead a section, have them lead the opening question.
Take your time in choosing a co-leader. Don’t just stop with question number one. Take your time, but don’t take forever. Your co-leader will be an awesome ally in your group ministry.