Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
Do you have more groups today than you did a year ago? Let’s ask an even scarier question: at this point do you know what groups you have? Since either many churches have not regathered for worship services or a significant number of folks haven’t returned, I’m hearing a lot of pastors who don’t really know who’s still in their churches and who has left. Some have lost contact with their group leaders. Where did they go? It’s a strange year.
You might be tempted to hit pause for this next ministry season. While you hope that 2021 will be better, for some it’s starting to look like a continuation of 2020. You might be waiting for all of this to blow over so you can start fresh next year. But, here’s the bad news – this doesn’t seem to be blowing over any time soon. This is a great time to reevaluate your approach to groups for 2021. Since nothing that’s worked in the past is guaranteed to work in the future, let’s get back to the basics of what you’re doing.
What is the definition of a group in your church?
What is the purpose of groups in your church?
Do you and your senior pastor agree on the purpose of groups in your church?
How quickly do you want to grow groups in your church?
What obstacles are you facing in growing your groups?
What are your people willing to do?
How can your groups help your members and your community through this confusing time?
How are groups actually more important than worship services right now?
This year has produced a significant curve ball. Churches had to scramble to put worship services online. Now that some are regathering for in-person services, not everyone is regathering. The challenge today is hybrid services, hybrid ministries, and hybrid groups. Everything is in-person and online, or it’s in-person and waiting for things to get back to normal.
While no one can accurately predict the future, I’ve had the opportunity to work with 64 churches in 2020. I’ve followed them in their journey to move services and groups online, bring back in-person services and groups, and for some to go back online again already. A few churches have never regathered for in-person services. (A few others never closed. Shhh.) The problem with being a church consultant in 2020 is that all of one’s experience prior to March 15, 2020 essentially became irrelevant. But, the great thing about being a church consultant in 2020 is tracking with churches of different sizes and denominations across North America and working out how to launch groups in 2020. In one of those churches, their groups have grown by 211% this year.
This is not a time for you to step back and take a break from groups. This is the time for you to step up and lean into groups like never before.
Here’s what I know – you are working much too hard for the results you are getting. Knowing what most small group pastors and directors have invested, you should have far more groups and leaders by now. Let’s put our heads together and strategize for the opportunity that 2021 presents.
What are you learning about small groups in 2020? Let me know in the comments.