Small Group Continuum

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How do we take a construct that was designed to be growth oriented, and make it a platform for developing spiritual depth? I have read articles recently from Mark Howell and Neil Cole who take vastly different positions on Small Groups – or do they.

Howell – is a long time church consultant, and currently the small group pastor at Parkview Christian Church in the Chicago area, is all about using small groups to extend the reach of the church into the community. For him, small groups are a tool for outreach – as he is convinced that your friends and neighbors are much more likely to step into your family room, than they are into a church auditorium.

Cole – a church consultant and author – is convinced that small groups are not a vehicle for encouraging spiritual growth. His article Can Groups Be Missional & Make Disciples? is all about how disicpleship is a one-on-one exercise. In his mind, small groups are getting in the way of genuine discipleship.

I think that they are both partly right – and here is why.

I have been at churches that have small groups according to this plan. Because the groups are outreach oriented, and their primary purpose is scale or growth – they have a very light flavor. The leaders are not necessarily well equipped for discipleship, because that is not the mission of the group. The mission of the group is first and formost to create small communities that can extend the reach of the church so that someone coming into a church of 5000 members doesn’t “bounce off” the surface. They are easy to start, easy to run, and easy to be in – they are hard to leave. The members of your group become close friends and part of your support system. The fact of the matter is they work very well in this regard.

I also recognize that there is a limit to the discipleship that can happen in these groups. There is usually some element of the Pooled Biblical Ignorance. It is much harder to scale the development of leaders who are capable and qualified to lead a discipleship process. The cirriculum for small groups cannot easily be both about connection and outreach and about discipleship at the same time. Furthermore, the pace at which groups must form requires leaders who are more host and less equipped to be disciplers.

Moreover, churches with this growth vector tend towards a more executive style of leadership. This style has some impact on the shepherding model of the church. Shepherding and accountability are what allows leadership to develop disciplers. That is, we need to identify individuals that have spiritual gifts, and encourage them to use and develop those gifts while learning to be accountable.

My own experience is that discipleship can be done in a small group setting. Shortly after I came to faith in Christ, I participated in a Navigators 2:7 discipleship group that had a profound affect on my faith and spiritual growth and formation. But it was not designed to be fluffy, and the committment bar was high – the program was 2 years long. The cirriculum was designed for discipleship, and the bible teaching and memorization was somewhat intense. The group size tended to be smaller 4-8, and the leader was required to have been through the program and be certified before he/she could lead others through the material. These things combined mean that it does not scale the way a large growing church needs.

Because of this experience, I am convinced that small groups can be used for spiritual formation, but it is really the committment and the cirriculum
that make a difference. Cole points to size as a factor in this and beyond a certain size I would agree (although not with his assertion that discipleship is ever only a one on one proposition).

So lets talk about committment required for a small group based discipleship program: the NAV 2:7 program that I was part of took 2 years of weekly meetings. There were 6 distinct modules, and the group continued to meet through the summer. It was not light and fluffy from a committment perspective – for either the leader or the others. I heard from my leader at the time, that 1 out of every 5 who start do not finish, My wife’s group transitioned leaders in the middle which was challenging. My group lost two of the initial participants. 2 years of weekly meetings is a long, long time. There was homework that was expected to be done between meetings. Scripture memorization and workbook assignments. The weight of this is like about 8 hours of college credit, spread over 2 years. An hour per week in class, and 2 hours outside of class. It is a serious committment. At the end, you have to recite all of the memorized verses from memory in one sitting. This takes a certain committment. It takes a strong desire to follow Christ.

Let’s talk about the cirriculum – the NAV 2:7 program provided 4 core goals.

  • Understanding of the core doctrine of the faith from a biblical basis.
  • Ability to share my faith with others using biblical illustrations.
  • Ability to study the bible independently and understand the truth contained therein.
  • Prepare to use gifts and talents given by God in His service.

To this was added accountability (we were accountable to the group and the leader), prayer (we learned how to pray following the ACTS pattern), giving testimony (we were required to write our personal testimony of salvation to use as a tool for sharing our experience in faith), Scripture memorization (I believe we memorized 60 verses and organize them by topic so that we could draw them out of our memory to defeat temptation.) These aspects of the cirriculum were practiced as well as studied. In addition to this, we studied how the believer is supposed to live in faith, how the Body of Christ (Church) is supposed to operate, how to study the bible. We learned about spiritual gifts and stewardship. We learned how to evaluate preaching or other christian materials against biblical truth and sound doctrine.

I’m not saying that the NAV 2:7 cirriculum is unique, or perfect. What I am saying is that for me and my wife, it was very effective at getting relatively new christians to go much deeper in the faith. Since then I have been in other types of groups, some that were mostly social, others that were mostly bible study oriented. I have been a part of a community group where the membership was somewhat transient and I have been part of short term groups and more permanent groups.

Discipleship groups are different from community groups. Mark Howell is right – depending on who you see as your customer, and what you think the purpose of these groups are, you will tune the groups differently. If community outreach is your number 1 as it is in many fast growing churches, you will have one kind of cirriculum and committment and leadership training around your group ministry. If your number 1 is discipleship or spiritual formation, you will have completely different cirriculum, committment and leadership training.

There is no good reason other than planning and mission, that a church cannot have both types of groups. However, the discipleship or spiritual formation oriented groups will be disruptive to the community outreach groups – because of the higher committment, people will not want to be in both types at the same time. Also, I recommend having some “bar” that small group leaders have to climb/leap over – in terms of their own spiritual formation. It is one thing to form groups quickly, but it is completely another to have people whom you haven’t “qualified” leading others. I still see group leadership as a first order shepherding role and as such requires minor qualifications of “elder”. I recognize that in order to “scale” group formation to meet the demands of rapid growth, many churches have found it necessary or beneficial to have a lower bar for leaders, making them less facilitators and more hosts.

This brings me to a suggestion: The Small Group Continuum!

  • introductory groups (short term or transient membership) – has a low committment bar, and can help the unchurched get comfortable with home groups.
  • the host led group for community outreach – long term connection and community with a low leadership bar and a reasonable committment bar for participants
  • the facilitator led group for beginning spiritual formation – can be shorter term – 3-6 months, but leadership bar is high.
  • the teacher led group for bible study – usually long term, high committment, high leadership and are a path for growth from host led group as the group grows togther in Christ
  • the discipleship group lead by a fully qualified leader/coach – part of a leadership development process, leaders are teacher/elder candidates committment is high – formation rate is low.

For this to work, you need a way to help leaders to level up to qualify to lead each level of group. As people become more comfortable they move into inner rings of spiritual formation and accountability. I think that most churches (and small group ministers) see the need for one or two types of groups. Churches that default to a higher bar for leaders miss the growth oriented groups, and churches that default to a lower bar for leaders tend to miss the formation oriented groups. We all understand that larger churches need ministry programs that scale beyond their facilities. Small group ministries are a common answer to that need. But the one size fits all group ministry that most churches establish, misses a point – which is: one size rarely fits all.

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