I’ve come to recognise a disappointing fact about myself – well, another one anyway! Having been an advocate of small groups in churches for many years, I’ve only ever opened a couple of books on the topic. Contrast this with the dozens of books I’ve read on theology, leadership, preaching, evangelism, apologetics, and you could reasonably challenge my commitment to small groups. Am I really engaged with something that I don’t invest time into understanding and improving? I suspect that I’m not alone among pastors. Many of us have given only minimal thought to the purpose, function, expectations, priorities, and practicalities of small groups in our churches. For me, this is beginning to change and I’m seeking to share some resources and insights with others.
Creating Community: 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Culture by Andy Stanley and Bill Willits is a book born out of experience. North Point Community Church, where the authors serve, is a church with a small group ministry at it’s centre. There are literally thousands of participants in these groups, each with leaders that are trained, equipped and supported. Without agreeing with every emphasis in this book, I found that it raised numerous questions for me to answer and introduced me to many important issues I’d never considered. Most of my reading and thinking on small groups to date has focused upon leading Bible studies. The emphasis of this material is on relationships and creating community and it provides a helpful complement to the Bible input.
Creating communities is well written and easy to read. The chapters are clear and succinct. One distinctive of this book, not as relevant for an Aussie reader, is that small groups are advocated over the Adult Sunday School on site programs so prevalent in the US. There is a cost effectiveness and relational benefit to the in homes, off site approach of small groups. However, the benefits of building relationships and doing life together in small groups is the primary driver for small groups, as churches grow beyond their capacity for everyone to know each other. I’ve read this book twice now and I covered the 180 pages in a couple of hours on the second run through. I won’t summarise the book, but rather highlight some helpful points.
Leaders of groups are expected to meet five reasonable criteria.
- They have to be connected. Every leader needs to be a Christian, formally connected to the church, and committed to partnering with the church in leading others in their relationship with Jesus.
- The need to have godly character, to be known for their faith and integrity of life.
- They must embrace the groups culture in the church. In particular, this means they support the small group strategy and values. They will build up other leaders and seek to see groups multiplied in the church.
- They should have good chemistry with staff and other leaders – team players who willingly serve others.
- They need to have a suitable level of competence for their responsibilities.
The first of these criteria is established through formal church membership or partnership. The latter are determined through an application and interview process. Training is also offered and required.
North Point has developed six essentials that are critical to leading well. Each area must be fully embraced by the leaders and these essentials form the priority for leadership training and development.
- Think Life-Change
Small groups are to be an environment where God is active in the lives of the members. People are encouraged to grow in their walk with God and to encourage one another also.
- Cultivate Relationships
Leaders are called to build a sense of community in their groups. Relationships are like bank accounts – they don’t just happen, you need to make deposits!
- Promote Participation
Shared participation creates broader ownership of the group. People are encouraged to use their gifts, take initiative, and build one another in love. The leader is not simply a teacher, but a facilitator who helps people to learn and discuss the Scriptures together.
- Replace Yourself
Leaders are encouraged to apprentice others in their group for future leadership. This needs to be intentional. This is important for multiplying the numbers of groups over time.
- Provide Care
Larger churches rely on small groups to be primary contexts of personal care. This requires that leaders are equipped to deal with issues as they arise, and also that the church is able to provide additional care resources.
- Multiply Influence
The groups have a life cycle. At North Point this is 18-24 months. After this time, the groups disband and apprenticed leaders get to lead new groups. This means that they hope to double the number of groups with each change. This is a tough thing for many groups, so the expectation is built in from the start.
This book identifies five factors that contribute to a successful small groups ministry.
- Keep your strategy simple. They don’t try to do everything, but rather to do a few things well. They make it very easy for people to get into groups.
- Groups need to be visible. The more visible they are the more people get the message they’re important. This happens through preaching, promotion, clear paths to get into groups, and more.
- Groups need to be valued. They celebrate their groups. It’s part of the DNA of the church. It’s the destination where they want everyone to end up. The only numbers they’re interested in at North Point are how many are in groups.
- People invest in what they value. Groups need to be resourced. They’ve invested in personnel to direct, assimilate people into groups, and develop leaders. They put money into training. And they offer reimbursements to every couple who incurs childcare expenses by attending a group! This is a big budget item.
- Small groups must be modelled. If leaders aren’t passionate about groups then they can’t expect others in the church to be. The best case scenario is where the senior pastor and all other leaders are regularly involved in a small group.
This is a stimulating book. I’ve jotted down many notes to follow up on. Here’s a few:
Every new group with new leaders is offered a start up curriculum to help them get started.
New leaders receive intensive coaching support over the first few weeks.
Once a term run some kind of ‘group-link’ program to make it easy for people to find their way into a group.
Have some kind of ‘try before you buy’ offer. Allow people to step out of a group without shame if it’s just not working for them.
Review how visible our groups are and how easy it is to get into one.
Among the helps in this book there are also disappointments. There is virtually no discussion about the role the Bible and prayer plays in the groups. They speak of the Bible, prayer, and sharing together in groups, but I’d have liked to see more how this should work in this book. If life-change is the goal – and it should be – then we need to model how the Bible and prayer are integral to personal and group life. Nor was there any mention about how leaders are trained in these areas, though I suspect they are.
Creating Communities also included a critique of volunteer coaches supporting other leaders. They had found the expectations on coaches were too high. They changed their model from coaches supporting 5 leaders to employing a small groups director who supports 60 leaders. Another big budget item, as they have thousands of people in small groups! This jarred with me, as our church is poised to support and equip leaders through a network of volunteer coaches and mentors. We’ll take the warning not to overburden people and pray that our system will work! If it doesn’t then we’ll change it!
I recommend this book to pastors and small group directors. If your small group ministry is in need of an overhaul or a rethink, then you should find this book helpful and stimulating.