Why churches should stop small groups

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.

Stop_SignBut 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!

Yearly cycles

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.]

Term-based cycles

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.

Weekly cycles

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.

Daily cycles

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!

8 thoughts on “Why churches should stop small groups”

  1. Great post, and a great point well made. I think it makes a lot of sense for everyone to have a shared understanding that a group goes for a year, and I think the ‘end’ can be done in a really positive way.
    It can (should?) be really rewarding to look back on the year to see how God has been at work in everyone’s lives, to share a sense of achievement, learning and sharpening from each other.
    It should also mean that everyone sets out together ‘with the end in mind’ as it were, tacitly agreeing that there will be something to reflect on in a year’s time, rather than just having a week-to-week focus.
    I’m not saying groups should be ‘goal-oriented’ — that can go awry, not being wholly open to God’s direction throughout the year — but hopefully it can make us more intentional about what we put into the year. And into each other. πŸ™‚
    Thanks again for this post, Dave.

  2. Hi, Macca,

    I think it depends on both (a) the goals and (b) the shape of the groups.

    (a) From the goals you’ve described, it sounds like you’re thinking most about groups for edification. But if your small groups also have a focus on mission/blessing those who don’t know Jesus, then they may be able to end more organically: that is, as new people come to know Jesus, the group will grow too large, and it can multiply. Meanwhile, if we’re in a group together and I’m trying to get to know your non-Christian friends and you’re trying to get to know my non-Christian friends, it’ll probably be costly to break up the group at on an arbitrary (calendar-based) date.

    (b) On shape, I think groups tend to have an emphasis either on tasks (which might include some relationships) or on relationships (with some common tasks). Most churches I’ve been in have groups focused more on tasks (and I’ve run plenty of these groups): they’re essentially weekly adult tutorials where we do some exegesis, some theology, and maybe some application. We only see one another once a week for a couple of hours. We don’t really drill down into people’s lives. Of course, some friendships may form (because that’s what happens when we have common tasks), but they’re likely to have formed outside the group context β€” they don’t depend on the group in any real sense. And so it’s not that costly to wrap these groups up after a year: the same tasks can be carried out with another group of people.

    But groups can also be more relationship-focused: they can be a community to belong to, not just an event to attend. Yes, once a week we read the Bible and pray together in a formal setting. But the rest of the week, we’re also building friendships; we’re sharing life; we’re speaking the truth to one another in love in the day-to-day; we’re praying in the midst of conversation; we’re on mission together.

    It’s costly to wrap up a group like this after a year. I’m slow to trust and build friendships. (This is true for lots of people, and perhaps more often for men?) Once they’re built, they’re precious. It’s very costly to take away the context in which they were built. Starting over is hard work. And in fact, if I know that a group’s only going to run for nine months, I may not make the effort at all.

    1. Thanks Stuart, I appreciate your comments and find the focus on different types of groups helpful. I agree with you on the benefits of some groups continuing beyond a year and it may be helpful for some to continue for years. My main point wasn’t that groups should be dissolved, dispersed or recreated. But that they will benefit from regular starts and stops that fit with the rhythms of life. All the best, Macca

  3. The idea of rhythm got my attention. Could be a timely book to buy and read, thanks!

    All the same, I’ve been in a prayer group that’s met 5:30-6:30am on a weekday morning continuously for about five years, with a short break over Christmas. It’s morphed membership, location, time, church connections and purpose, but has been sustainable partly because of the “impossible” timeslot. Sometimes small groups rightly are a marathon, not a sprint. A marathon can have its own healthy rhythm.

    In both a weekly congregational and small group meeting, we gather to hear the word, pray, and give thanks and praise to God. But if you take a break from church each school holidays, you’ll get pastoral follow-up.

    Very true that small groups need to be kept fresh. However, in my experience, eagerness for a holiday break is often a symptom of a group with limited in scope and/or depth (or general over-busyness, or several young school-aged children!). This raises questions of purpose, expectations, commitment, and theology of our gatherings, e.g. ‘weekly Bible study’ versus ‘doing life together in the word, prayer and service’.

    1. Hey Mark,

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m pleased this is stirring up some discussion. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach. And it’s great to hear of the commitment and enthusiasm of your group. I think one of the keys is clarity of expectations for all.

      The concept of rhythm has been innovative and refreshing for me to consider. I think we’ve naturally applied some of these principles in our life and ministry. But in other ways we’ve stumbled over our failure to achieve balance. I certainly recommend this book for the ways it freshens our thinking. Miller wrote an earlier book, called Your Life in Rhythm. It seems to be out of print, but I’m waiting on a 2nd hand copy from O/S. Maybe there’ll be further wisdom within.

      Been following the Darwin plans and progress. Very exciting. Love to spend a bit of time with you before you head up, if possible.

      Thanks mate!

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