Discipleship is best done in the context of community. That is the mantra that we live by at our church. At my church, that mantra is played out in our small group, or as we call them, community group ministry. We believe that the best way to be known in a large church is to be a part of a small group of people who know you on a personal level and have the opportunity and permission to speak into your life. It is the linchpin of our discipleship model here at The Crossing.
Small groups are not a new concept and ours is not the only model out there. But we do believe that our method and process is proving very effective for us. We began making a shift in our approach about 3 years ago and we’ve seen slow, steady growth in our numbers as well as the number of “God-stories” that we’re hearing. We still have a long way to go but we believe that we’re heading in the right direction, and since I was asked to write this article to talk specifically about how we do small groups, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
A Strategic Plan for Maximizing Your Small Group Ministry
We set up our model around one major concept: the idea of connection. We want our people to form at least one close, personal connection within the context of their group. That may seem like an obvious goal, but follow me here. We’re not concerned with everyone in the group becoming besties or becoming super close. Our concern is that each person finds one person with whom they connect. It’s great if your entire group all like to hold hands and sing kumbayah every time you get together, but the goal is to form at least one. One relationship, one connection will keep a person coming back. One connection can provide the support that a person needs to help them grow in their faith. It’s really easy to melt into the background in a large group (even in a group of 10-15), but having that one connection means that there is one person who will notice when things aren’t going well in your life or when God has done something amazing! We want our people to be known by one so that they can better know The One!
So what does that look like at The Crossing Church? How do we facilitate the “one connection?” How do we “put feet” to this whole connection thing? I’m glad you asked, that is after all, what this article is supposed to be about! So get a cup of coffee and settle in, here comes the nuts and bolts!
The Nuts and Bolts of an Effective Small Group Ministry
We began by resizing our groups. When we began our transition 3 years ago we had groups ranging in size from 8 to well over 20! While 8 people in a small group is fine, having 20 is way too many! We found that in groups of more than 12-14 it becomes easy for people to fade into the background and hide within the numbers. We made the decision to limit our group attendance to around 13 to prevent this from happening.
Notice that I said we limit our attendance to around 13 not our group rosters. We have a fairly accurate system for tracking our individual group attendance (more on that later) and I use it as a guide for the total size of each group. For example, if I see that a group has a roster of 16 but is averaging a weekly attendance of 8 I know that I have room to add a few more people without throwing things out of balance.
We’ve found that the real sweet spot for group participation at about 10-12. That range seems to provide plenty of voices for the conversation while also drawing out those that would otherwise choose to refrain from joining the conversation. And it’s really difficult to form a connection if you don’t engage in the conversation!
After we settled the group size issue we moved on to the structure of our group meetings. We wanted to make sure that we provided our group leaders with a step by step guide to conducting a group meeting. So we sat down and decided what we wanted our groups to look like. Here’s what came out of those conversations.
Welcome and Greeting Time (10-15 mins) – We told our group leaders to treat this as the beginning of their group meeting. So if they normally start the group meeting at 7pm there will be only handshakes and hugs until 7:15. Most groups struggle with starting on time for a number of reasons and this allows everyone to get there and get settled before the group moves on to the next section of their meeting.
Study Time (30-40 mins) – This is where you get into the Word! We gear all of our study material toward one main goal…application. Application, application, application! We want our people to be able to walk out the door and use what they talked about in group immediately. Our group study materials are centered on application. We’re less concerned with filling our people’s heads with a bunch of facts and knowledge about God and more concerned with helping them commit to responding to God. I’m not saying that we’re not interested in biblical knowledge! You can’t know God without knowing His Word. But our community groups are not geared toward increasing just our knowledge of God. We have an entirely separate educational model for doing just that! Our studies are discussion driven and designed to elicit conversation from our members. The leaders are not teachers. They are there to guide the discussion and keep everyone on topic, not teach a lecture. After the study time is over we move to the next (and my favorite) part of our group meeting.
Mutual Ministry Time (30-40 mins) – Mutual ministry time is the portion of our group meetings where we share with one another, pray for one another, and help hold one another accountable in our walks with Christ. This is the time when we take the study material we were just talking about and find specific ways to apply it to our lives.
Here’s how we do it. When the study/discussion portion of the group meeting is over we split the group up with men and women with women. We do this because we believe that men will share things in a group of men that they won’t share in a mixed group with women and vice-versa. We have found this to be highly effective at encouraging every group member to get involved. Now let’s talk about that dreaded word I mentioned earlier,
Now let’s talk about that dreaded word I mentioned earlier: accountability. This is often the hardest, most difficult part of a group meeting to get done effectively. We stress the study material in our mutual ministry time above everything else. We coach our leaders to use application to open the door to accountability. For example, if we were doing is a study on the Word of God one of the accountability questions asked might be, “How can you integrate God’s word to your life this week more effectively?” That’s a question that requires an answer regardless of where you are in your walk with God.
That question would be posed to each person in the room and each answer would be written down as a prayer request for the group members to pray over that week. At the group’s next meeting, the leader takes a few minutes at the beginning and follows up with each prayer request to see how everyone is doing with regards to their responses and voila! There’s your accountibility! We’ve found that as the group meetings go on throughout the year that group members begin to share more and more of themselves, eventually branching out from study specific needs to other needs in their lives! And that’s when groups really get moving!
Now I should note that you have to cultivate this environment. I ask my leaders to trust me and commit to the mutual ministry time and to lean into the process. It takes a little time to get your group to connect but we have found it to be highly effective and highly rewarding! And that leads us to the final portion of our group meeting.
Interaction Time (20-30mins) – This time is exactly what it sounds like. We come back together as a group and spend some time just hanging out with one another. This time is specified just like the other because we feel it, too, is integral to the connection process. Interaction time is the perfect time to engage with the other group members. It provides time for conversations to take plaice that might otherwise happen if we simply meet for study and prayer and then left as soon as the meeting was over. I encourage my group leaders to spend this time looking for those connections we talked about earlier. I ask them to look for people they see connecting and to encourage those connections every time they get the chance. At the end of this interaction time the group leader announces that community groups are officially over and everyone is free to leave. We tell the leaders to make sure that they make it clear that group is over and, while people are free to stay and hang out they are also free to leave if they would like.
I encourage my group leaders to spend this time looking for those connections we talked about earlier. I ask them to look for people they see connecting and to encourage those connections every time they get the chance. At the end of this interaction time, the group leader announces that community groups are officially over and everyone is free to leave. We tell the leaders to make sure that they make it clear that group is over and, while people are free to stay and hang out, they are also free to leave if they would like.
We have had good success with the group model that you just read, and while it is not perfect, we believe that it is right for our current community of faith. Small group ministry has become one of the most important methods of personal discipleship in the Church today. And while there are many models out there to choose from, one thing is constant throughout them all. They all aim to provide personal, intimate spiritual interaction between it’s members and they ALL require work and commitment in order to make them effective.
I hope you’ve found something in this article that you can take and implement in your own ministry.
THE GROWING CHURCH SERIES
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Jay Phillips is the worship and community groups pastor at The Crossing, a fast-growing church on the east side of Cincinnati.