At Faithbridge United Methodist Church, we feel that life change is most meaningful when it is experienced in the context of small groups, where the members are committed to one another outside the walls of the church building. This energizing approach to community is the lifeblood of our church. As a growing congregation in the Houston suburbs, we are faced with the challenge of consistently guiding casual church-goers into meaningful and transformative relationships with other believers. As the Small Group Director, I have often looked to my church peers and learned from them in the pursuit of ministry excellence. In that spirit, here are a few hard-won realizations that can propel your church into more confident and dynamic small group community.
1. The importance of growing together in a small group setting must be communicated straight from the pulpit (and this cannot be overstated).
Just one visit to the Faithbridge website, let alone our campus, will confirm the huge value that we place on small groups. Our bulletin draws attention to groups, we pray for a different group each week in service, and they are mentioned in our announcements; but nothing brings the impact like a word from the pastor. People naturally want to join a dynamic leader in his or her area of passion. When our Senior Pastor recently preached on the value of community and directed our congregation to the next launch of small groups, we had almost 700 register, when the number at a typical launch averages about 150. The preaching pastor is an inestimable resource to any small group ministry.
2. Manipulated events where individuals are placed into groups usually result in small groups with short lifespans and weak connective tissue.
Over the last 10 years, we have introduced many well-attended events to funnel people into groups. We gave them cool names, like “GroupLink” and “GroupLaunch.” Admittedly, it feels like a huge win to move hundreds of people into small groups all at once. However, groups that are manufactured are never as strong as groups that grow organically, and the majority of these groups dissolved soon after the initial 8-week study ended. These events cost lots of staffing and resources but yield little headway in making more and stronger disciples.
By contrast, we have found the healthiest and most sustainable way to launch our small groups is to provide a casual, non-intimidating atmosphere where people can get to know others already in groups. At these “Grow Group Meet & Greets,” we play music, offer refreshments, and arrange small groups by day of the week. Prospective group members can make immediate connections and hear someone’s enthusiastic and sincere group testimony one-on-one. Each group is represented by a leader or apprentice, and that representative extends personal invitations for people to visit the next meeting. Focusing more on relationship (and less on production) results in fewer sign-ups at a time, but in much greater overall longevity. With a slow and steady trickle of new members, groups are stronger and healthier, offering an environment conducive to real life transformation. The casual church-goer begins to experience – often for the first time – Christ-centered community, the effects of which are far-reaching and profound.
3. Groups that start focusing on impacting the lives of those outside the church walls experience satisfying relationships and energizing purpose.
This is the driving vision of our small group ministry. Such groups grow spiritually, as members stop regarding “community” as a group of fun friends they get to hand-pick, and begin understanding it more as a group of beggars warming themselves by the same fire – always making room for a new pair of cold hands. They realize their regular gatherings are just a starting point where they meet to encourage each other before being sent out into the world to engage others in Christ’s mission. The members of these groups attest that their sense of community is actually heightened by their shared experiences serving the world around them.
Gary is an example of someone who had been “attending church” for a long time, but had never made a lasting connection. He says, “We’ve been faithful members for years…I thought that was enough… [but] I’ve been in a small group now that has me looking forward to Sunday evenings. The men have common interests so it’s a natural fit…to talk about life AND how God is working in us.” The members of their group regularly engage in various local outreach opportunities, and this is woven into the life of their small group.
These stories of transformation are becoming more frequent in our congregation. Our small groups provide a place where casual attenders are able to begin with an organic connection that sets them up to experience transparent, loving community. They can then start to engage the life of service and love to which Christ calls us. Within several years, Faithbridge’s mission of “making more and stronger disciples who make more and stronger disciples” will continue transforming the cultural Christianity that pervades our city. Learning how to craft and support intentional, vibrant small groups is a critical part of that mission. My hope is that in sharing our experiences, your church might do likewise, and navigate these tricky areas with greater success.
See also ”How to Partner with Low-Income, high risk schools,” by Dan Slagle, who also serves at Faithbridge.