Last month we had Wil Perkins come and present his church growth diagnostic assessment. Not long after, I sent each of you my response to his assessment. It was really more of an action plan for where I felt like we needed to act. Some of those action plans were minor and I’ll move forward on, or will partner with the appropriate Deacon. Others will require the five of us working together.
Like you, there were a few things that Wil presented that I could take or leave, a few things I disagreed with and a few that I thought were spot on. I’m writing to make a case for one that I thought was spot on. In fact, I thought it was so spot on that I think we need to move forward with it immediately—that is small groups. I completely understand that this is probably a foreign idea for each of you. (I have never been a part of a church that had this ministry either). And I understand and appreciate that “splitting up” the church might go against everything that you see as Biblical unity. This being said, I hope you understand just how strongly I believe that this is the best thing for the church. I have spent countless hours studying this idea; both from the stand point of reading well in excess of fifty books on the subject, talking with many church leaders who have implemented this ministry, as well as studying the Scriptures to see if there is a Spirit-led justification for this ministry. If you’ll keep an open mind and give me a few minutes, I will try to explain what I have discovered and why I believe in it so much.
As best I can tell, small groups have their American roots in the 1700s with John Wesley when he began bible school to help combat the poor educational standards and rampant illiteracy. Those were “small groups” that eventually evolved from secular curriculum into what we experience today. They have been dominant or widespread in our evangelical culture since the early 1980s. Small groups are not a new idea or a fad (it was how the first century church was structured). I do not believe it is something that will eventually “go out of style”. I think it is substantially deeper than a program or gimmick to help the church grow. (If I thought it were just that I would not bother taking the risk of upsetting you or “rocking the boat” on this).
Here’s an example of something you can probably relate to. Back in the 1970s and 80s bus ministries were extremely popular. It was a trend that worked for a while and then more or less phased itself out. Now, I do know of a few churches that are currently using a bus ministry. But, for the most part, this was a ministry fad that has seen its best days. Small groups are not like this. Because small groups are a fundamentally biblical idea (instead of just a trend), they have lasted the test of time and continue to be the common denominator of every single church that is growing today. I’ll say that again, I have not found a growing church that did not have small groups—and I have looked extensively (across the country and the world).
Before we go any further, let me say that small groups are not a cure all or guarantee for numerical church growth. There are no magic pills. That is not possible. Paul may have described it best in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.” Jesus also made it very clear that our job is to work, but God is the one who controls the harvest (Matthew 9:37-38). For every church that is growing, there are probably ten that aren’t. So why have small groups if there is no guarantee that they will work? Because they are biblical and they give the church a great opportunity for growth—beginning with the spiritual growth of each member that participates.
Before we get into the specific reasons for small groups (that I have discovered through my study) let’s remember that this is about the Kingdom and the specific work of the church here in Quincy. That’s why we’re here; serving in the roles we’re in. We’re called to work for God’s glory and grow His Kingdom here in Quincy. This is not about our preferences. As leaders in God’s church we simply don’t have the luxury of our own preferences. We are called to submit to God’s will and place His people above ourselves. We have to rise above what we prefer or what makes us comfortable and do what is best for those we serve and for the health and growth of the Kingdom.
This having been said, we have been on our current road (current structure) for more than sixty years. We are not growing numerically, and just as importantly, too many of our members are not having their lives transformed, being discipled, maturing spiritually or using their gifts to serve one another. They are simply coming each Sunday and sitting through worship without engaging in other peoples’ lives—much less allowing God to engage them. As the leaders, we can’t afford to take a laize fair attitude toward this and just blame them for not being strong enough (since there are others that are able to engage).
Instead of trying to find ways to do our current structure more effectively, we need to come to the realization that we need to change what we are doing (our structure). This requires us to demonstrate the faith to seek out a vision from God that will truly transform, impact and grow His Church. He has left each of us as stewards of His Kingdom, with each our own gifts creating our specific roles and responsibilities. The question for us is this: what will we return back to Him when our time is up? Will we give back a church that looks generally the same as when we took on our leadership role? Or will we, through visionary faith, give back a church to Him that is open to His voice, responsive to His call, able to change and adapt when needed and is creating opportunities for people to engage and grow through Him?
Making a change like this is not easy. But Shepherding and Leading people is not easy. It requires certain traits and gifts that so few people have—specifically compassion, a burden for people, a vision of where to lead them and the faith to lead them through the unknown terrain to get them there. I am challenging you to look past the comfort and safety of being a “caretaker” Elder; anyone can do that. Anyone can just keep doing the same thing, without regard for whether it’s working or not. Before you know it, your time as an Elder will have come and gone. What are you going to leave the next generation? Will you leave a healthier church for your children, grandchildren and the generations that follow?
The first step in making this happen is to develop and nurture a culture of small groups. This needs to happen; and quite honestly, it needs to happen now. God has been at work this past year with the way He has been arranging things. One of the things we have been looking at on Sunday morning is the idea of seeking out where God is at work and getting on board with where He is (i.e. what He is already blessing). All of the signs are there, a small group ministry is where God is leading us and where He is working; I am confident of this.
Before we continue I want to introduce you to a couple of paradigms that are essential to understanding the ten reasons that I am going to share. The first has to do with Group Dynamics; and the second involved generational peculiarities. Pardon me if you are already familiar with these; but it’s just too important (vital even) to gloss over it, and we must be sure that we’re all on the same page with these. First, with group dynamics, this is not an especially religious phenomenon. Group dynamics extend beyond churches and into school classrooms, board room meetings and even Target Stores—where there is the store-wide group (large group), the department groups (medium group) and the senior management team (small group) ;-). This being said, we are going to explore these three types of groups from the standpoint of the Church; and as we do that I am going to use a family as an illustration to explain things.
First, the large group is going to be any group numbering more than 50-60 participants and is comprised of tertiary relationships. This, of course, is going to happen most frequently in the Sunday morning worship time. The primary purpose for this group is to worship God together as a large family. There is very little, if any, “personal” sharing (this is not counting the few minutes that every once in a while I will call us to greet one another). In many ways you can think of this as a Shriver or Willimann or Boren or Warren family reunion. Some of you come from large extended families; and when you get everyone together, it creates quite the crowd. That’s certainly the case for the Wachter side of my family (my mother’s side). We have a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins. Whenever we’re all able to get together, there are more than fifty of us and it’s an absolute blast. We get to catch up on what’s been going on in our lives, reminisce about fond memories and departed loved ones, share a great meal together and even create a few new memories (especially when the drunk uncle decides to show out ;-). It’s a great time, a time that none of us would ever trade. But there are limits to what we do together. We don’t bring skeletons out of the closet. We don’t usually talk about how our disappointed we are that our 17 year-old daughter got pregnant or that we are trying our best to wait on the kids to graduate to get a divorce. Those are realities in our lives that we just don’t discuss in this group. We usually try our best to keep the negative at home and allow this to be a time of celebration and joy. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s healthy. I wouldn’t expect my second cousin that I really don’t know that well to share those things with me. If she did, that would be fine and I would do everything I could to minister to her. But she has people in her life that are much closer to her than I am, and quite frankly, love her more intimately than I do.
This is very much what our Sunday morning worship is like. One of the misunderstandings of, or problems with, large groups in church is that we have an unrealistic expectation that everyone should be close to everyone and be able to minister to everyone. That is an expectation that can’t be met and sets people up for disappointment and disillusionment with church. The purpose of the large group on Sunday mornings is to worship, encourage one another through our worship (and by being with one another) and be edified by the Word of God being presented.
There is not a numerical cap to the large group, which is one reason that we don’t have to be particularly close, or even know the people we are worshiping with in order to have a powerful, uplifting and Spirit-led time of worship and encouragement. Research has shown that it’s not possible for a person to process (and remember) more than 200 people at one time. Just think about the worship experiences you have had at places like the “Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop”. That is a terrific and inspiring time of worship, and you probably only know a handful of people in the audience with you.
All this also helps to explain one other phenomenon that all churches struggle with—no one ever comes forward for the invitation. In my two years here I can recall only one person coming forward to request prayers (much less confess sin—which is a biblical mandate from Jas 5:16); and she did not reveal anything personal, only that she was struggling with some things and wanted the church to pray for her. There have been Sundays that I preached my tail off and really had a strong, inspiring message, and still no one came forward when I knew there were people that needed to do some straightening out with God. The reason isn’t a lack of desire or spirituality on their part, it’s because we are in a large group where that type of personal and intimate sharing just does not take place. We don’t share personal stuff at the Wachter family reunion and we don’t share it at the Christ family reunion either. That’s not bad. It’s healthy. I hope that helps explain the large group.
Next is the medium sized group which is comprised of secondary relationships. These groups are primarily going to be our bible classes. In terms of numbers, the starting point with the medium group, or where the large group ends, is a little gray. It is somewhere around the fifty person mark. These middle-sized groups are usually (depending on the group leader) successful at creating a non-threatening environment where people can share on a surface level. People can get to know everyone in the group by name, talk about things like the weather, their hobbies and maybe even their families (on a surface level). It’s an opportunity to experience social fellowship, acceptance and sense of belonging. And in the context of our bible classes, it gives people the opportunity to ask questions and share thoughts and opinions about the text or topic being discussed (the large group doesn’t provide this type of opportunity).
When it comes to conversations about people, we are generally comfortable with talking about anyone . . . except ourselves. Just think about our Wednesday evening bible study time. Or for you guys who are in my current Sunday morning class. At times we have dealt with some challenging and potentially personal topics and issues. Just think about how many people actually share anything substantive where they made themselves vulnerable; and that’s the key: transparency and vulnerability. This list is not long. In fact, in terms of truly making themselves vulnerable (on Sunday morning), I can only think of Carolyn and myself that have shared in that way. Again, this is not wrong. It is healthy.
If the large group is like the huge family reunion, then the medium sized group is like the family that gets together at Thanksgiving. Your wife, kids and grandkids are all there. For me, it would include my family (Molly and the kids), my parents and my little sister and her husband. And you might even have some brothers and sisters or nephews/nieces or cousins over. There is a cap to this group. That cap is often created by the physical circumstances of the meeting place. For example, our classrooms are only so big. It doesn’t take long before they get full. Similarly, our living rooms and dining rooms are only so big—they fill up quickly. For our purposes, a medium sized group is generally going to have between 15-50 people. Going beyond either of these numbers begins to change the group dynamics very quickly. For example, if we go over fifty then people become less inclined to share personal information or speak up at all. When we get to 15 or under then people become much more comfortable and more likely to open up and share personal information, including personal fears, struggles and worries.
This brings us to small sized groups. These groups are primary groups; and number between 5-15 people. Those numbers are slightly flexible, but not by much. Like we mentioned with the medium sized groups, if we get too much beyond the fifteen people then the groups starts to lose some of its intimacy and personal feel. It is in primary or small groups that intimate sharing takes place. Back to the family illustration, this would be your immediate family with your wife and children. When your immediate family sits down (or sat down) together for supper at the family table there is very little that is off limits in terms of conversation. If we are functioning as healthy family units then the kids will feel open to share what happened at school that day and how it made them feel (good or bad). Similarly, Dad will feel comfortable griping to Mom about the person at work that is being difficult. These are representative examples of what small groups are like—people in them share life together. This is different in content from your Thanksgiving meal family; and definitely different from your Family Reunion group.
In the church setting the small group goes beyond surface interaction and social fellowship to a spiritual fellowship. In small groups people can begin to fulfill biblical mandates such as “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). The small group is the context where those things are lived out. A reality that most people recognize from personal experience is that people must have permission to interact on this level. For the most part, this will not happen unless there is the appropriate structure and permission given by the group to facilitate this kind of close family-style relationship building.
By way of a quick review, there are large groups (50+ people), middle sized groups (16-50 people) and small groups (5-15 people). You can probably tell right away that our structure is built to accommodate the large and middle sized groups; but that we have a void when it comes to small group structure. This is not to say that we don’t have small groups within our church, we have several. But our structure does not support them. That means that only the highly spiritually mature Christians are going to be part of a small group, because they are the only ones who are mature enough to realize they need the benefits that community offers and then go and seek out those relationships. For example, on an informal level, many of our ladies have a small group that meets (or did meet) every few weeks at Yvonne Cressy’s home for supper and fellowship. That is a small group ministry and those ladies that participate will tell you that they absolutely love that time together. It is a source of great fellowship and encouragement.