A few months ago, I got a call from my wife, Jill, who was at the tail end of a five-hour road trip with my daughter. Jill told me the truck was “acting funny” and then suddenly shut off, and she had to coast it to the shoulder. I was able to meet her and swap vehicles so I could limp the truck home. Turned out the battery had gone bad.
There was no warning, even though there’s a spot on the dashboard to indicate the problem. I’m handy with cars, but I rarely drive this truck, and it had been a while since I’d given it a checkup. I could have identified the problem and changed the battery long before it gave us trouble, but it took a disruption from the norm for me to focus on this important part of our family fleet and get it running again.
I see the last two years as a similar disruption. The pandemic came without warning and forced our church to think about how we call our people to participate in small groups. If you’re in a similar place and have discovered a need to jump-start your small group ministry (or if you’re about to start one for the first time), here are three principles I’ve found helpful.
1. Draw straight lines from theology to practice.
Most small group ministries suffer from a lack of clear vision. You may have developed a mission statement and set big, audacious goals, but has that translated into clear direction for your leaders? Can they see that what you’re asking them to do with their small groups is rooted in theological convictions?
You may have developed a mission statement and set big, audacious goals, but has that translated into clear direction for your leaders?
If you can draw a straight line from why we gather in groups (one reason is for gospel proclamation) to the outcome (making disciples), you can invite leaders to use their own creativity in determining how their group will live this out (e.g., by throwing a block party or meeting outside their small group time for a book club or seeker Bible studies).
I recommend the following resources to help you clarify the big theological whys of a small group ministry:
- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Community by Brad House
- The People of God by Trevor Joy and Spence Shelton
- Life-Giving Groups by Jeremy Linneman
- Saturate by Jeff Vanderstelt
2. Be clear that life together is both joyous and challenging.
Cultivating a thriving experience of community in your church depends more on aligning our hearts with God than on executing a playbook. We shouldn’t frame participating in a small group as a mere Christian duty or coerce God’s people to participate through shame. Instead, we must follow Jesus’s example and invite our congregations into the challenging yet joyful life of community.
As God’s image-bearers, we can experience a shadow of the joy God has eternally shared within the Trinity (John 15:10–11). Within the community of the church, we participate in his cosmic plan for redemption (Eph. 3:10). We shouldn’t sell these benefits short.
But I’m also amazed at how comfortable Jesus was with people declining his invitation to discipleship (John 6:60–70). He didn’t soft-sell the Christian life but clearly communicated the challenges that come with the reward (John 10:9–11). He invites us to follow him while being frank about the demand.
Communal life requires sacrifice and will often force believers into discomfort. This might mean sitting with a friend who’s lost his job (even if it was his own fault) or showing up to the hospital while a group member gets chemo treatment. It may also just be the mundane awkward moments of sharing your doubts or confessing your sin. Yet within these uncomfortable moments, community also draws us closer to Christ and one another, producing a joy in us that can’t be found elsewhere.
3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
God’s people often flourish and grow through risks and missteps. Think about all the mistakes the Corinthians made. My instinct would’ve been to chastise the church for making me look bad or even to shut down this foolish church to avoid embarrassment. Paul’s response is different (1 Cor. 1:1–9). He corrects the Corinthian church’s mistakes and encourages them to continue in areas where they’re already growing.
Paul is secure enough in Christ to know the Corinthians’ failures don’t diminish his standing with Jesus. We must have the same security (Phil. 1:6). When a small group fails to launch, or an outreach program fails to gather interest, our standing isn’t diminished.
If we let fear of failure motivate our leadership, we’ll be controlling, and we’ll stifle creativity and passion. Such an attitude can hold groups back from the amazing work the Spirit wants to do through them. But if we lead without fear, we’ll inspire small group leaders to do the same.
If we let fear of failure motivate our leadership, we’ll be controlling, and we’ll stifle creativity and passion.
The small groups I’ve belonged to over the years haven’t been immune to the need for disruption and the occasional jump-start. In a recent group, I was getting a little too comfortable and saw our group growing in passivity. I proposed a few ideas such as a street clean-up to engage our neighbors, which were received lukewarmly. So we took a few weeks to talk through the whys of community and how outreach connects to the priorities of our group.
I was surprised at the effect. We saw a deeper commitment to one another and group members were empowered to serve. One member noticed the number of moms with strollers in the neighborhood and rallied the group to start a mom’s meetup at the neighborhood center. This act of outreach led to new relationships in the community and two new couples joining our group.
It was just the jump-start we needed.