How small groups create vitality
A study of 33,228 United Methodist churches discovered that the number of small groups a church offers has a direct influence on that church’s vitality.
According to the Call to Action report, in churches of different sizes, geographies, cultural groups and theological expressions, highly vital churches had more than five small groups, while only one-third of churches with low vitality had more than five small groups.
The study also noted that the person who has the primary responsibility for leading these groups did not have a direct impact on the church’s vitality.
The reasons behind these findings can be debated, but one truth seems clear:
Vital congregations grow from vital faith and small group settings are often an incubator for the creation & maturing of vital faith.
Within the Baltimore-Washington Conference, United Methodists are encouraged to grow the number of small groups they offer, focusing on the potential for faithful and meaningful relationships between one another and with God.
Small groups are …
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating, or even defining, small groups. Their flexibility is part of what makes them such an effective tool for spiritual growth.
While small groups can be unlimited in size and scope, they do tend to share some common characteristics. Most effective groups have a biblical foundation, seek to hold members accountable, are convenient, economical and provide a safe environment for the exploration of ideas and spiritual practices.
Effective groups also need to make sure that all of the participants understand the purpose of the group, provide opportunities for everyone to be engaged, connect individuals with opportunities for spiritual formation and connect with the larger church.
When they’re working well small groups are not an end in themselves, but a tool to enable members to align beliefs with behaviors, strengthen their relationships with God and their neighbors, live their faith in the world, share their faith and become the body of Christ.
Relationship is key
Matching the makeup of small groups with the needs of the people in a church is essential. One size never fits all.
However, research has shown that the best number of participants in a small group is between five to seven members. When the number exceeds nine, people tend to drop out.
Many small groups find their best meetings are between one-and-half and two hours long.
The groups function best when all the participants understand the purpose of the group, feel like they can be fully engaged, sense that they are growing spiritually and are connecting with the larger mission of the church.
The best small groups recognize that faith is often about relationships.
Christian education groups tend to fill people with information about God. Small groups allow people to experience God for themselves.
According to research done at Willow Creek Church near Chicago, there are several types and flavors of small groups – most tend to revolve around four components:
Love, Learn, Decide and Do. One element can dominate, but most small groups will have all four components in one way or another.
Community and support groups tend to focus on love. The emphasis is on doing in missional groups; learning is the primary emphasis of Bible study groups and church administrative groups revolve around deciding.
Within the Baltimore-Washington Conference, small groups take on the traits of the holistic inwardly and outwardly focused Discipleship Adventure. While one element, again, can be dominant, a faithful and successful group also integrates elements of worship and prayer, connecting and nurturing, developing and learning, mission and service and faith-sharing.
Churchwide studies, like the Immersion Series produced by the conference, are another form of small groups. They create a common conversation among the congregation. Because of the large amount of planning, time and resources involved, most churches prefer to do only one churchwide study a year.
Things to cover in small groups
The list of things a small group can explore are endless. They include:
Bible studies, an exploration of social issues or items in the news, faith themes, shared interests or hobbies, popular books, new skills or abilities, parenting or relationships, service plans and projects, the things we love, the things we want to change, history, justice, compassion, community, discovering joy.
Cokesbury also offers a number of planned and packaged small group studies.
The important thing is to find a theme that draws a handful of people together and begin to explore the topic and build relationships with one another and God.
Traits of effective small group leaders:
Good small group leaders don’t need to be content experts. The best are godly facilitators.
- They tend to be FAT: faithful, available and teachable.
- They are learners and possess a sense of curiosity.
- They can create spiritual safe environments, foster engagement and manage relationships.
- They recognize the importance of starting and ending on time.
- They’re willing to take the time and are committed to leading the group.
Don’t wait for the perfect people to show up to facilitate a small group. Small groups are the perfect venue for on-the-job training.
Once you get started
- Keep in mind that transformation, not information, should be the goal of the group.
- Consider rotating leadership to avoid burnout.Attend worship together.
- Grow through conflict.
- Mobilize from sitting to serving; serve together at least once a quarter.
- Share family histories.
- Tell God stories.
- Follow each other on social media.
- Challenge one another.
- Express gratitude.
- Keep it interesting.
In the Methodist DNA
Small group meetings were an integral part of early Methodism when, in between visits from the circuit riding pastors, laity would meet to explore their faith and grow in discipleship.
People met in groups, or bands, of 15 people. When there were more than 15, a new group was formed.
Over time, a series of questions evolved that assisted people to be held accountable. The primary question was:
“How is it with your soul?”
Other questions included:
- Have you peace with God?
- Have you the witness of God’s spirit with your spirit that you are a child of God?
- Is the love of God shed in your heart?
- Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?
More recently, Wesleyan covenant discipleship groups have formed that build on the foundations of these early class meetings. They also focus on accountability and covenants that help people grow in acts of acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion.
Other resources available
To help churches today further this vital faith practice, the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s Discipleship Academy recently offered a series of training opportunities for small group leaders. In addition, the Immersion Series has created an online resource package for church leaders interested in learning more about small groups.
Tips before beginning:
- Always start with prayer. While this may sound simplistic, prayer changes things. It will have an impact on the nature of your planning and the small group it produces.
- Begin simply. Be able to write the goal of the group on a napkin. Save that napkin and check back in from time to time.
- Don’t be afraid to be bold and take a few risks. Caution rarely inspires people.
- Choose the best time to start. Traditionally, many small groups have the highest rates of participation when they start in the fall, or shortly after Easter and Christmas.
- A personal invitation to participate is the most effective way of getting larger numbers of people to join a small group.
- Try to anticipate barriers to participation and remove them. Consider offering child care.