"Jesus jumpstarted his ministry by forming a small group. It’s dynamic. It’s worth it. It’s the most fruitful form of discipleship I’ve ever been a part of."
The Joy of Small Groups
Jesus had a small group: Twelve people, loosely connected, called into a life together of faith formation and discipleship. For me, that’s reason for all of us as ministry leaders to go and do likewise. Over the course of a year, I oversee a small group ministry of up to 25 different lay-led groups (usually 10-12 groups per semester). Topics include Bible study, film, hiking, beer, photography, and even a small group for Tweens who read a book and baked cookies for the local food ministry. What ties them all together is that they are offered for about 7-10 weeks and in some way they include our ministry’s four group commitments: to gather, pray, study, and serve. Here’s how to go about it in 6 steps...
1. Read the Manual
I realize I may have lost you at “manual.” I’m not inclined to read a 50-page treatise to common sense with every purchase. Do I really need Fisher Price to tell me not to put the electronic racecar in the dishwasher? However, if you’re interested in launching a small group ministry at your church, then I implore you to take the time to read Activate, An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups by Nelson Searcy and Derrick Thomas. Cover to cover.
It’s worth every page of this book, and it will prevent your ministry from short-circuiting the moment you start it up. While it didn’t offer the theological grounds for my small group ministry, it did offer the blueprints for structuring it. This book will tell you what a small group looks like, how to promote small groups, how to get people to sign up for them, and how to find the right people to lead them.
2. Find Your Why
Why do you want to start a small group ministry? Are you thinking about it because you heard the thriving non-denominational church has small groups and you want to be more like them? For me, I needed a central place for adult faith-formation in my church. I wanted a place for our newcomers to land and connect with others (being a greeter once every eight weeks doesn’t cut it).
3. Let Something Die...
Or at least let something cease to depend on you. You’re already maxed out on time, so if you don’t free some up then this ministry will never get off the ground. For example, when I started in my context I was responsible for leading two weekly Bible studies. I never had time to prepare very well, morale was low, 3-6 people showed up for each, it was holding me back from launching something far more effective, and I didn’t need to be the one doing it.
I informed the groups that I would be happy to lead the studies on occasion, but that unless another leader stepped up we would not be meeting. Both of these studies have since become small groups. One now attracts ten people, the other attracts nearly twenty! How did that happen…?
4. Find your Rhythm
The two studies above got a new lease on life because we stopped offering them once per week all year round. Instead, we focused the gatherings into two semesters. Life is a rhythm of squeeze and release. A period of intensity (the season of Lent? Preparing for an annual meeting?) always is followed by a period of calm (anybody else take a Sunday afternoon nap from time to time?).
If the calm never comes, then we burn out. Design your small group ministry accordingly. Forget the once-a-month model where everyone forgets one another’s names during the 30-day hiatus between gatherings. Opt instead for the semester-based approach to gathering. We offer our groups in fall and spring semesters of 7-10 sessions each.
5. Start Small
The board leader of my church suggested putting out some “trial balloons” (groups) to get things started. It gave me a sense that failure was an option and the flexibility to see how the congregation responded. In the fall of 2013 we offered three small groups (I wasn’t leading any of them) and had about 30 people sign up. Since then we have grown each semester and now regularly offer ten or more groups with 150 or more people signing up and taking seriously their own faith formation.
I suggest you go for it this fall. Launch 2-3 groups, or even one! There are so many more questions to answer, but I encourage you to go for it. I just wrapped up a spring semester small group at my home, going through Richard Rohr’s study, "Alternative Orthodoxy." During a pot-luck meal we reflected on what made the experience worthwhile. Here are a few examples of what could be in store for your small group ministry:
“This was my first small group, and what I loved most was connecting with you all.”
“I’ll never forget session one, and now will think about and appreciate Jesus’ death on the cross in a much deeper way.”
“I’m glad to be reminded that I’m a part of a church that calls me to think and reason and wrestle with my faith.”
“Now there are ten more people at church whose names I actually might remember!”
Bearing Fruit With Small Groups
Jesus jumpstarted his ministry by forming a small group. It’s dynamic. It’s worth it. It’s the most fruitful form of discipleship I’ve ever been a part of. Now it’s time to put down the manual and give it a try.
Thomas Rusert serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He is the founder of the "Free Prayer Ministry." Learn more at www.1freeprayer.org