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6 Ways to Stifle Your Small Group

Small groups can be an incredible blessing, but they are not fail-proof. At times, churches “sell” small group involvement as the secret sauce to a thriving spiritual life; overflowing with friendships and community that fills hearts and saves marriages!

Don’t get me wrong. I love small groups. For six years I had the privilege of overseeing the small group ministry in our church and some of the most incredible testimonies came from small group participants. They are an excellent vehicle for discipleship.

Still, even when the bible is present and optimism is high, there are several ways to do the right thing the wrong way. Small groups are no exception.

Here are six ways you (or someone in your group) could be stifling the abundant potential waiting to be unlocked through your small group:

1. Say, “Here is what this passage means to me, what does it mean to you?”
This language stifles because it bypasses the very foundation of healthy small groups. Namely, the faithful interpretation of the bible based on the biblical author’s intent and the context a given passage is set in. Far too often, small group leaders share what a passage means “to them,” then they ask what it means, “to you.” After the circle of participants has fired off with their best take, one might think they were aiming at a moving target.

The truth is, those who do this are likely getting application and interpretation confused. The solution? First ask, “What does this passage mean. To the original audience. In proper context. Period.” Then ask, “How can I apply this to my life as someone living in the 21st century.” Over time, you’ll find personal opinions being outshone by God’s will through His word.

2. Let the single-issue-crusaders and dominant speakers run wild
Single-issue-crusaders are the people who always seem to veer the conversation into the same “pet topic” that they are passionate about. I’ve seen crusaders drive well-meaning small group attendees right out of a group and into a different church because they went unchecked; ruining deep discussions by constantly bringing up politics, personal drama, or spewing unvetted opinions about the same issue over and over. These passionate individuals have value, but they rarely achieve their full potential if allowed to go unchecked.

Dominant speakers can be a leader’s greatest asset. They talk when few are willing, their example encourages others to be open and honest, and they usually offer helpful wisdom. However, when they speak too much, it can stifle the entire group. It may be one of the hardest conversations you have in small group life, but single-issue-crusaders and dominant speakers need loving correction for the health of the whole.

3. Don’t show them how you came to understand a biblical truth
If you want to stifle a small group, keep all your bible study wisdom, interpretation tools, and trusted processes to yourself. That way, your group will depend on you like needy children and develop an attachment to you; requiring that you always be their feeder and leader. This will make you feel very important; fueling your ego as the “anointed source” of wisdom and leadership for the group.

What’s more? It will be a mask for your insecurity, inability to raise up others, and ultimately lead to your demise as a leader. Quite possibly, it could prove you were never a real leader in the first place.

Nobody benefits from this!

Set your group on fire by showing them how you’ve grown, how you’ve studied, and how you’ve learned to apply God’s word and live it out. Ask them questions. Lead them to helpful resources, buy them books, and send them articles. Help them cross reference, root out theological themes in a text, identify key phrases and terms, and apply it all to their own life. They aren’t “yours.” They are God’s. Steward them well and emulate Paul’s instructions to Timothy when he commanded, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

4. Undermine church leadership by teaching contradictory doctrinal views
Small groups can be sweet, but can quickly turn sour when leaders begin using their influence like Absalom did (2 Samuel 13-19). David’s son became infamous for his scandalous attempt to undermine his father’s throne. Under the deceitful veneer of being a good listener and a leader the people could trust, Absalom paid the ultimate price for his sinful pride.

The moral of this story is not that you will be slain if you undermine your church leaders (that’s a ridiculous scare-tactic some false teachers use!).

However, the lessons in the story about unity and integrity can still apply to us today.

As a leader who has been allowed to steward people, be loyal to qualified leaders and be sensitive to how God views discord (Proverbs 6:16:19). Small group leaders should be unified in doctrine and unified in practice with their church leaders; holding to the statement of faith that their church abides by. If you feel tempted to contradict, or you suddenly disagree with the church’s doctrinal convictions, don’t divide or sow discord amongst your small group. Leave humbly. Your reputation will follow you to the next church.

5. Be closed-minded and abrasive towards adding new people to the group
Closing groups or limiting their capacity is advisable in certain scenarios. Homes and locations are not limitless when it comes to space, and everyone can agree that consistency and trust can occur more rapidly if a small group is not a revolving door of flaky participants; jolting the groups dynamic with each sporadic entrance (or exit).

However, the “frozen chosen” mentality is deadly for group health, and more importantly, church health. This mentality sees new people as a threat, and expanding the reach of the group is seen as detrimental to comfort and familiarity. For groups like this, the idea that a new person or couple would disrupt the tight-knit group dynamic takes precedence over the command we have to make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

You don’t have to invite the entire neighborhood or make it hard to find seating in your home, but every believer should ask, “How can we give others the kind of community we’re experiencing?”

6. Resist the idea of “commissioning” potential leaders to start new groups
This final item on the list closely parallels #5 but focuses on stifling leadership development. Similar to being unwilling to invest in new people, a leader who refuses to release mature people will stifle group health and missional effectiveness. Some argue that small groups should endlessly divide and conquer; splitting in half at every turn and adding new people into those split groups. Others suggests different methods and argue that dividing groups is nonsensical. Whatever you choose as a method, the mindset must be the same. Commissioning new leaders to “strike out” and start new groups is a healthy way to duplicate and be faithful to the Great Commission.

Small groups don’t exist to merely give people a safe space, baked goods, and bible study. They exist to duplicate! If stewarded effectively, small groups should be reproducing mature, stable, honest, authentic, passionate, servant-leading disciples who in turn begin to lead others where they have been led.

When centered on faithfulness, unity, and the word of God, small groups can be a thriving vehicle for making disciples and deploying a new generation of leaders for the glory of God.

How to Make a Growing Church Feel Small

A growing church can be a blessing and a burden. By “growing” (in this article) I mean, numerically. Every pastor wants to see numerical growth in their church because it means people are coming into contact with the gospel. That’s the power source for conversion (Romans 1:16). Conversely, no pastor with convictions about being a biblical shepherd wants to see the church grow so large it cannot be served faithfully. People should know and be known by their leaders. No matter how “big” things get, pastors and leaders must remain proactive in finding strategies to oversee the spiritual health of the flock in personal ways. That’s not to say every person attending a growing church will want to be known–some will undoubtedly try to blend in and scurry out the door afterwards–but pastors do well to teach people that soul-care matters. Caring for souls is difficult–even impossible–if herds of people are shuttled in and out of a building without intentional connection points.

Even for churches that may not be experiencing rapid growth, caring for a flock can be difficult when that flock is living life at a rapid pace. Here in Orange County, our church has been steadily growing between 30-50 members per year over the past 4 years. That’s not record-breaking growth, but it’s not underwhelming either. Still, the most difficult pace to keep up with is the pace of life that people live at. Families have sports tournaments, people have corporate jobs that demand travel and long hours, and “spare time” goes to recreation and self-care. Add in the fact that we run at two services on Sunday and it’s safe to say there are members who, for some time, hadn’t even met each other. In other contexts, the details may change, but the church’s challenge remains the same. It can be a daunting task to “slow things down.”

About 18-months ago our team strategized several ways to keep our growing church feeling small. The collective vision was pretty grass roots: No more herding people in and out of multiple services like cattle every Sunday! Assimilation and relational equity was the name of the game. People needed to know people. Shepherding souls and bringing people together, the ultimate focus.

I’m certain we’ve failed at times. There’s bound to be a miss here or there. But overall we’ve seen tremendous fruit and received feedback that tells us we’re achieving our goal. With some quantified success in the rearview, and plenty of time to learn new lessons, I thought it’d be a helpful to blog about some things that have worked.

Here are just 6 ways we made a growing church feel small:

  1. We host open-invite lunches with leaders

Called, “Lunch with Leaders,” we invite every newcomer and long-timer to join us for lunch after 2ndservice on select Sundays. Pastors, elders, deacons, interns, and lay leaders attend with their families and the bonding with church members and visitors is something straight out of the New Testament.  The timing of these matters. They take place nearly every 6 weeks; strategically placed at intervals between our small group sign ups and membership breakfasts.

  1. Our pastors attend membership classes (now called “breakfasts”)

I know many pastors who take pride in delegation. I know I do. But is there a time and a place where delegation isn’t all that wise? As a rule of thumb, the pastor who leads our membership classes may vary, but all of our pastors attend the classes and get to know people. More than that, we started calling them breakfasts and sharing a meal together to start. Meeting people and getting to know their stories fosters meaningful membership no matter how large a church gets. A pastor-friend with a demanding schedule once told me, “I’ll be away some Sundays throughout the year, will miss a staff meeting or three, But I don’t miss membership classes unless it’s a 911.”

  1. Our pastors write hand-written notes

Talk about a lost art, the hand-written note is something we were taught early on by an older, wiser pastor. Our office prints customized stationary, and each pastor has access to a never-ending stack of cards and envelopes. Stamps are currency, and besides his Bible, stationary can be a pastor’s dearest friend.

  1. We make a big deal about small groups

In September, January, and April, we host “Sign Up Sundays” for two consecutive weeks. This is where all of our small group leaders host tables spread out across the church campus. They decorate to reflect demographic and personality and welcome every newcomer to the church a place to grow in the word with others. Rosters normally overload by the second week and we train more leaders for the next round of sign ups. Leaders with no more room in their groups become our top recruiters; helping others find groups with open space. 97% of our members are in small groups. New leaders are being developed throughout the year. It makes a big difference in keeping a growing church feeling small.

  1. Our pastors and elders are accessible

This one should be common but there are many churches where pastors jet to the “green room” after services and are nowhere to be found during the week. Some church growth experts insist this is healthy for preserving the senior pastor’s star power. At our church, we’re taking our chances on a more traditional (even biblical?) approach. We’ve made a commitment to be accessible. Our teaching pastor likes to tell people, “There’s no magic behind the curtain.” We are shepherds. If people want to get to a pastor, they always can. If they don’t get to a pastor, it’s because they chose not to.

  1. We try to keep things simple

Too many churches feel like a night at the Cheesecake Factory. There are 8 pages of menu options, cold marble tables, too much noise, and nobody knows your name. Sometimes, less is more. Most times where churches do too much, pastors who should be shepherding souls end up becoming nothing more than glorified event planners. God has called the church to the ministry of the word and soul care. If a church spends too much energy trying to be everything to everyone, this will lead to a loss of vision, a loss of stamina, and a decrease in effectiveness. Why is that counter-active to keeping a growing church feeling small? Because eventually, that church will become little more than a shallow social club.

This list can grow or adjust over time, or maybe you have strategies that work better in your own context. At any rate, every pastor must agree that a growing church should be intentional about caring for the people who call it “home.”