Friday, September 08, 2006

FAQ: We want to start small groups in our church. How do we begin?

If you want to start small groups in your church, here are some tips. Some are more philosophical. Some are more practical. In no particular order:

Philosophy Questions:
  • Ask yourself why you are starting small groups. If you are doing it just because you think it's the thing to do, then don't do it. You will just be creating a headache for yourself and everyone else in your congregation. Granted, I believe whole-heartedly that small groups are the way to go. But this is a question you need to tackle with your family, your staff, and your key leadership. How do small groups fit into the larger vision of the church?
  • If you are the senior pastor, determine what your level of involvement will be in small groups. Do you want to lead it yourself? Or do you want to delegate it? This will help in establishing the right model for your church. Will you and your family be involved in an official small group yourself? Or will you view your staff or other close relationships as your small group? Again, this will help you create your model.
  • Look at community and discipleship Biblically. Develop a theology of community, discipleship, and small groups.
  • Read as much as you can and pray as much as you can. About a year ago, I threw our entire small group ministry up in the air with a question mark behind it. I then began to read everything I could about how discipleship had been done throughout church history and across denominational lines. I've got some book lists here.
Model and Structure Questions:
  • What is the primary purpose that small groups will serve? Is it primarily for community and fellowship? Primarily for spiritual growth, information, and discipleship? Or some combination of those two. Walking the Small Group Tightrope by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson can be helpful in assessing those tensions.
  • Learn as much as you can about the major "models" of small groups-- Willow Creek, "cell group" model, meta model, free market model, principle of 12 model, etc. Look at their advantages and disadvantages through the lens of what you want to accomplish through your groups (some are more geared towards fellowship while others are more geared towards serious growth)
  • After learning about the models, throw them out the window and create your own model that is specifically and uniquely crafted for your community and church. I think this is one of the most important steps. Many churches have failed with groups because they have tried to force a ministry model into their church that was not created with their specific community in mind.
Leadership Questions:
  • Appoint a "point leader" and empower them to run the ministry, cast vision, train leaders, etc.
  • Establish a base of leadership that will allow the ministry to grow naturally
Roll-out/Implementation Questions
Knowing how to implement the new small group thing may be the most difficult part of starting a new small group ministry. Here are some very practical tips:
  • Get the top influencers in the church on board with the vision as soon as possible. Top influencers do not mean staff, necessarily. In most cases, they are not staff. Think about the people who have the most influence-- the relational kind of influence that really matters.
  • Utilize every communication channel possible to talk about the importance of community and discipleship- sermon series, video testimonies, bulletins, church newsletters, blogs, podcasts. Be creative in demonstrating the importance of group life.
  • Identify the places within the church life where community and discipleship are already happening. Validate those and find some way to incorporate them or recreate them within the context of your new small group model.
  • Invest a lot of money and a lot of creative energy into the rollout. The level of "snazziness" of your small group "marketing" materials will communicate a lot about the level of importance the staff places on small groups. If you list your group on an excel spreadsheet on a piece of white paper, you are communicating great information, but not importance. We publish a magazine each semester. And yeah, we dump a TON of money into it.
  • Train your leaders. Do something to help them get started. Explain to them why you are doing groups, how it fits into the larger picture of the church, how to lead themselves well, how to practically lead a group meeting. Clearly define expectations and goals. Your training will evolve over time, but make sure you do something in the very beginning. It's best to create your own materials, but use Willow Creek materials if you don't have time to develop your own.
I could write a whole book about this. Actually, lots of people have written books about it and I should probably shut up now and let you read them.

If you've ever helped launch a new small group ministry, please share your own personal observations using the comment thread.


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