Why Small Groups Are Worth It

Why Small Groups Are Worth It

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I want to be honest here. When I did the research for today’s featured article, “6 Ways to Get More Out of Your Small Group,” I had to glean most of the wisdom from others. That's because I didn’t have a lot of first-hand experience with great small groups.

First of all, confession time: I am not currently in a small group. Yes, it’s true. Having two children under 3 and a husband who is in full-time church ministry (and already doing “church stuff” three evenings a week) are a few of the reasons this hasn’t happened. But another part of it is I simply haven’t made it a priority. (More on this later.)

Second, during my single years I attended and even led my share of small groups. Some were good. Others were OK. And still others were not-so-good. Despite good intentions, for various reasons a lot of these groups just fell flat. I didn’t see the impact in my own life or on the lives of others that I had anticipated.

Through the years, I’ve discovered there are a number of things that can cause small groups not to “work.” A lack of strong leadership is one of them. If you don’t have a passionate, committed leader or leaders, your small group won’t make it.

Identity crisis is another peril. Are we a Bible study? Are we a social outlet? Are we a prayer meeting? Are we a service organization? If your small group isn’t unified in — and clear on — its vision, it won’t make it.

And chemistry, or the lack thereof, is a third small-group killer. If the people in your group don’t get along and truly enjoy being in one another’s lives … you guessed it … it won’t make it.

So far this post is sounding super-depressing, but let me continue. I still want to be in a small group. I even think it’s possible to be in a truly great small group. Why? Because as believers we are called to be in community. And the real stuff — the life-on-life stuff — isn’t going to happen during a couple of hours on Sunday.

We could talk all day about what goes into a perfect small group, but a major ingredient is me. How am I engaging? What is my heart and attitude toward the people in my group? Am I seeking out the opportunities for growth and outreach God has for me within the community of a small group?

I was recently challenged by a conversation I had with a friend. She is seeking community and went on a women’s retreat at the church she’d been attending for several months. After a stirring message, she stood in a corner crying; no one approached her to ask what was wrong or offer to pray for her. As she told me the story, she said, “What’s wrong with us? Something is wrong when we won’t reach out to the girl crying in the corner!”

And that is the point of community: to know the person crying in the corner. To learn her story. To be Jesus’ hands and feet to her. Without community, the church will fail in its calling. Small groups can be an effective way to develop the kind of life-giving relationships believers are meant to have. So, yes, not all small groups are great, but we need to keep trying to make them better. Don't you agree?

As I said earlier, I’ve recently been convicted about my lack of effort when it comes to engaging in community. This fall, I’m committing to being intentional in my efforts to connect with community, including seeking out a small group. I'm not promising it's going to be easy. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's going to be a challenge. But it will be worth it.

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  • --Even if all of Suzanne's ingredients are there (leadership, identity, chemistry), small groups among young adults, especially single young adults, tend not to succeed because they (actually, everyone to some extent) tend to adopt a consumer mentality towards small groups.  I attend a weekly young adult group and will say that despite having good teaching, solid leadership, full church backing, and a non-threatening atmosphere, the turnover rate.is brutal.  I'd say only about one third to one half of the 50 or so people each week are "regulars".  Others attend sporadically, but most just appear for a little while, then leave without a trace.  Unfortunately, from what I hear about other young adult (single) groups, this pattern is not uncommon.  Who is to say what each individual's reason is for leaving.  Some of them may very well be legitimate and beyond their control (e.g. a work schedule change).  But I daresay most of them simply weren't satisfied with whatever they were looking for (style of worship, style of teaching, dating prospects [don't be naive to think that it isn't a factor in most people's minds]).  There's nothing wrong if you give a group an honest try and don't feel like it's the right fit for you.  But if you turn into a nomad going from group to group, it's probably more about you than it is about the groups are you attending.

    There's also the factor of all the number of options competing for a person's time.  Assuming the meetings are during a weeknight, I can think of several things which can pull away a person from committing regularly.  Among them being night classes (for a degree or enrichment), various forms of entertainment (TV, computer games, etc), getting chores done, social engagements with friends, etc.  Related to this what probably contributes to not going is that if people simply view the small group as "Church Service II" people would be less inclined to go.  For many, once a week is enough (Remember the days when people went to Sunday morning service, and Sunday evening service, and Wednesday night prayer meeting?  How many people go to all three now?).  And unless there exists some motivating factor to go to essentially another service such as a specific teacher, person(s) in the group, or group activity, they won't go.

  • --MikeTime---

    50 people isn't a small group -- it's an evening service geared at young adults. That's way too many to build a community, and without that community, there's no way they have any reason to stay. It is church II.

    The kind of small group Boundless is talking about is probably under 20 people, and probably more like 8 to 10 people. Those kind of groups also have about one third who come and go, but the other 5 or 6 people who are regular attenders can build a real community. If they are willing and all the stuff that Suzanne said ... :)

  • --The college/singles small group I go to has probably a dozen people tops--and it's literally 18 year-olds thru 30 year-olds. But what's awesome is the camaraderie I'm seeing between the two age groups--it's like big siblings with younger siblings. And we even talk openly about how we'd all like to get married one day. But without implied pressure on each other.

    I have to say i have been challenged and encouraged by some of the college kids in it, wow. Good example of let no one despise your youth.  But I think what makes the difference between this group and others I've been in is, the focus of the group is a hunger for growing in Christ and being true followers. I saw that on day one when I first visited and that's what drew me back.  It's sadly true that many people, especially in singles groups, come with a consumer attitude and leave a little too quickly if they don't feel like they're getting what they need right away.

    I'll totally admit I struggled a little at first to even try to come because I'd had negative experiences with singles groups and wasn't sure this one would be any better. Thank God it was better. But I had to be willing to stick it out and give it time. And believe me, i am not naturally adept at small talk, I had to keep practicing it.  It takes time to build friendship, which is foundationally what people are looking for most of the time when they come to a small group.  Effort. Initiation. Constant consistent initiation. It doesn't happen overnight, usually. If you come solely as a consumer you'll probably be disappointed very quickly. Sometimes yes, small groups can be very shallow and not really worth it, but at least if you've tried, you've tried.

  • --My husband and I were part of a wonderful small group at our old church for several years, it was geared towards post-college adults and had a variety of singles, dating, married, divorced, pretty much everyone from 22-40 was welcome.    The group faded away unfortunately, and we left the church a few months later (for a variety of reasons).  Our church now is small and they tried small groups last year, but they were pretty much a flop.  They have a mid-week Bible study for the whole church, but it is not on a day that works for us.    But that sort of thing is just not a priority right now,

  • --Have been in the same home-group for 5 years now.  The core group are close. We are friends outside of church, attend each others' family occasions, help when needed and socialise often. That friendship was formed within the group, not because we were friends beforehand.

    I often think of them when I recall the scripture which declares that God places the lonely in families...

    That closeness permits us to include others who are not so committed, or those who have "issues".

  • --In my Small Group experiences, there's always been some of the "clique mentality".

    Everyone wants to join the small group with the super-cool/charismatic leader.  No one wants to join the other one and they're slightly resentful if they're told there's no room in their first choice.

    Regarding chemistry:  I was in a small group with two people who never quite fit in, but we couldn't kick them out or turn them away because that's not what Christian community is about.  So the group dragged on for a couple of years, with awkward studies and conversations.  We went because we felt we had to, not because it was a good group.  (And yet I feel guilty even typing this, because shouldn't we have loved everyone equally instead of rolling our eyes when one of those people took over the study yet again and it became their personal venting session?)

    I think a charismatic and strong leader would have circumvented a lot of those problems but those are in short supply.

  • --Something that I've found tends to strengthen a small group is when there is a "rule" that "what happens or is said in small group STAYS in small group."  I'm much more likely to open up and share personal things with the ladies in my group because I know that they have all agreed to keep whatever I say to themselves.  Yeah, I know there's the risk that someone will break the rule, but so far that hasn't been a problem.  They share personal things as well, so we all have a stake in it!  We pray for each other, rejoice with each other, cry with each other, and do our best to welcome new people.  (Obviously, when there is a new person in the group, we aren't quite as open as when it's just the "usual" folks.)  I know that I, for one, am looking forward to our meeting this week so that I can share some hopeful and happy news, and ask them to pray that God will guide me in the coming weeks as I make some decisions that have the potential to change my life.    

  • --Joanna,

    In response, I understand now.  I guess my "small group" example wasn't nearly small enough.

    I still believe though many young adults are not a part of a small group for the same reasons though.

  • --After reading these replies, I would strongly encourage people to transition their small groups toward house churches.  This will prevent the consumer mentality from affecting everyone in the group.  Small groups need to jettison themselves from the umbrella of a larger church body in order for people to feel like this is an informal gathering of Christians who really want (and are able) to minister to each other.  This will not be run by the "small group leader," nor will it be guided by material from the umbrella church.  There may be an elder who fathers or shepherds the group, but every person will be ministering to each other.  To me, this is the only answer to the "small group issue."

  • --BSterling,

    I'm interested in the concept of small group as house church. If you care to elaborate, I'd like to know more. Have you experienced this type of small group versus the more standard kind? If so, how were they different? Why do you think it should be independent of the umbrella church--and why have an umbrella church at all if this is the case? I'm intrigued.

  • -- Re: BSterling

    How exactly will changing a small group to a house church change the consumer mentality? That same mentality exists among people looking for a church. Starting a new church simply because your small doesn't seem to be working isn't really the best reason. If anything, it might be the wrong reason, and could actually perpetuate the problem of consumerism.

  • -- There are number of problems with house churches (and I was part of one for a few years) once it becomes "large" and infeasible to remain in a single house is transitioning to multiple houses,.  First, you need to have other strong leaders to organize and manage the new house church which may not always exist.  Another problem is that since most of the people in the group have already bonded together, you will be asking people to essentially give up that intimacy they've developed which many are reluctant to do.  Related to that is the size of your new house church.  If the new church is too small, it'll be harder for it thrive, and if the original church gains more members (or vice versa where the new church becomes too large), you run into the same problem of size that you had earlier.

    In summary, the main drawbacks with house churches is you assume much more risk. In a traditional church, if the population grows you can build a bigger building, have more services, etc.  If you lose any of your staff (including head pastor) you are more likely to find a replacement and faster.  And with more numbers, you can commit to a lot more  specialized ministries such as womens/mens, young adult, missions, etc.

    Not saying that house churches are not a viable alternative.  But rather I don't think traditional churches are inferior or the concept be abandoned.

  • --Great points Suzanne :) I have so far run 3 small groups in the last 1 and half year and all this points where relevant. I have seen tremendous growth in the small group, we even went from being a all girls group to a co-ed group. We have all grown through this process and most have become more connected to the church and keen to serve because of small groups. We leave in a city where ppl come from all around the world, to study, live or migrate and so there is a lot of YA who are alone and so far small groups have been like family, who pray for you, keep you accountable and love you, most importantly walk life with you. I have seen people become more others centered as opposed to self centered. As YA its a great thing to see, we also do other activities together, for all of us its been a great place to learn and become more Christ-centered.

  • --elena,

    I have been part of a house church for the past two years.  Small groups differ from house churches mainly in that small groups are focused on "applying" what goes on in the umbrella church (discussing what the pastor said, reviewing church material, etc), while house churches are focused on the house church itself.  This makes for a very different and freer kind of meeting, where one does not worry about fulfilling certain requirements for the umbrella church.

    A consumer mentality in the church comes from a hierarchical structure in which an elite group of people are the "leaders" and everyone else follows them, especially if the "leaders" are charismatic or have strong personalities.  House churches are not hierarchical.  Elders support and oversee the church, but they do not "lead" it in the traditional sense.  Each member ministers with their individual strengths and the teaching takes place in dynamic settings over meals, not in lectures to a large group of people.

    This helps people mature in order to oversee new house churches that will happen as the church grows.  There doesn't have to be heartbreak and church splits involved in multiplication.  House churches are aimed at being a family.  Just like a family or marriage should discuss major decisions as an entity, so should house churches.  It is usually ALWAYS difficult to leave a church to start a new one, whether the original church was large or small.  That's how you know things are working well -- you should miss people!  That's why house churches should meet together as larger groups on a frequent basis -- once a month or so.  We should want to see those we love.

  • --Re: Bsterling

    You make a lot of generalizations and assumptions about churches (both house and traditional) that have no backing. Most of what you described occurs in both types of churches. For example:

    “Small groups differ from house churches mainly in that small groups are focused on "applying" what goes on in the umbrella church (discussing what the pastor said, reviewing church material, etc), while house churches are focused on the house church itself.”

    This makes no sense. What do you mean by a house church “focusing” on itself? Isn’t that what a small group would be doing by reinforcing what a pastor taught?  And doesn’t a small house church also focus on applying what the church teaches?

    “A consumer mentality in the church comes from a hierarchical structure in which an elite group of people are the "leaders" and everyone else follows them, especially if the "leaders" are charismatic or have strong personalities.”

    Again, how is this true? How are you making a connection between consumerism and hierarchy? I don’t see it at all. Provide 5 house churches, and you’ll most likely see the same consumeristic mindset you see with traditional churches. Consumerism is not due to the type of church.

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