Hear me on this one. I believe that home groups, growth groups, prayer and Bible groups, gospel groups, connect groups, cell groups, small groups – or whatever else we may call them – are a vital part of church life. They enable people to develop relationships with others in ways that are otherwise difficult in a larger church. They provide an excellent opportunity to read, learn, discuss and apply the Bible in fellowship with others. They enable personal prayers to be shared with one another. People can be encouraged, supported, and cared for, without always relying on the professional pastor to do all the work.
But we need to stop them! Some groups just seem to go on and on, without clear expectations or direction. Some groups become so cliquey that nobody can ever break into them. Others get so toxic with gossip, divisions, or grumbling, that they need to be shut down for the sake of everyone involved, and often the church as a whole. Some groups develop there own agenda which clearly competes with that of the church as a whole. Sometimes groups are simply unhealthy and need to be stopped.
However, it’s not the euthanasia of groups that I’m primarily concerned with here, but the need to build helpful rhythms into our groups. I want to apply some of the insights from Bruce Miller’s helpful book, Your Church in Rhythm and Larry Osborne’s book on small groups, Sticky Church. We need to communicate about when and how our small groups will begin and end. We should also consider the value of various starts and finishes within the life span of the groups. Let’s consider Miller’s chronos cycles and examine the benefits to be gained by pacing our groups wisely and oscillating them between intensity and renewal. Let’s work out when and how to stop them!
Starting and stopping our groups each year, helps people to pace themselves. It allows time to build relationships and it also offers an opt-out when the relationships aren’t really working, or we simply want to get to know others. Life changes each year. We move, we get new jobs, our kids get older, we enter into new relationships. These changes often mean people should move to a different group.
Consider carefully when groups begin. Our church often waited until March, when uni students got back into town, but this frustrated others who were looking for a group in January or when school started. It might be wise to advertise a number starting times. But equally, set a stop time, so that the group can finish on a strong note, people can be thanked and farewelled, celebrations can be shared. It’s not good when groups simply taper out and dissolve. This can be a recipe for hurt and disappointments. We need to stop our small groups well!
[This is not to say that we should dissolve our groups every year. Some groups will continue for years and continue to be healthy. But giving people some time out at the close of the year can be very healthy. Taking a break from the small group can function like an annual sabbath to enable everyone to have a rest – pastors, leaders, participants and their families. Sometimes, short term summer holiday groups can fill the gap for those who need a group during this period.]
There is much to be gained by arranging our groups according to seasons, and often the most obvious is school terms. While not everyone’s life is shaped by terms, it does have the benefit of pacing the life of the group. We can oscillate between 9-10 weeks on and 2-3 weeks off. It gives the leaders and the group a break. People get time off for other things and don’t resent their group for always demanding their time.
It can also be helpful to match these groups with program of the church. If the teaching is term-based this allows integration across the church. A short teaching series is offered in the school holidays and the groups get some time off. Osborne also suggests that breaking between terms gives the groups an opportunity to take stock, reevaluate how the group is going, and sometimes to help people transition into another group if things aren’t working out. Stopping our groups in the holidays can also give space for doing other things with the group, perhaps a social outing, a special dinner, or a weekend away. If we want people to stay excited about the groups, I think there is great value in stopping our groups at the end of each term.
If our groups go for 9 or 10 weeks followed by a break, then we should plan how to use these weeks. Are we following the sermon series? Will the group need some variety over this time? Perhaps, a 4-1-4 plan to do studies, with a night of prayer in the centre, or a dinner together, or combine with another group in the church for a night. The church might encourage groups to do something different in one of the terms, perhaps encouraging the groups to do a training course, or to choose their own studies. If so, then we need to communicate well ahead and prepare people for the changes.
Sometimes the group will face a particular crisis and we need to break with the timetable or plan. Maybe a member is in hospital and the group will choose to stop a week so everyone gets a chance to visit. It could be a big issue that is facing the group that needs addressing, so we might stop the program and give this issue the attention it needs.
It’s also worth considering the basic shape of each group meeting. How much time is given to catching up with each other, sharing needs or joys, learning and discussing God’s word, praying for one another and other things? Does the group share food together – a meal or simply refreshments? Is the group excited about how it uses it’s time?
People are creatures of habit and they build their expectations on their experiences. If a group always starts late and finishes after the agreed time, people will start coming late and often still get irritated when the group goes overtime. If we stick to the group’s agreed timetable, this will build confidence in the group and create a less stressful environment. If you need to, then agree together on extending the time we meet, otherwise we should stop our groups on time!
I hope these reflections help increase the joy and decrease the stress in our small groups!