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Extension or Foundation?
By Dan Vis
September 24, 2018
Comments: 15

As our theme this month is on ministry, and small groups are an essential building block in our Unleashed Ministry Model, I thought I'd share what may be the most serious obstacle to running an effective small groups program...

Small groups are sometimes promoted as a magic bullet for church growth. And they do have great potential. A quick survey of the top 10 fastest growing churches in the world, and the top 10 largest churches in the world show they have one thing in common: they all give heavy emphasis to small groups. Plus, the book of Acts clearly indicates homes were one of the primary places evangelism happened in the early church (Acts 5:42And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ., Acts 20:20And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,). If it worked in New Testament times, and it works today, it will work in my church too--right?

Not necessarily. Not every church that tries small groups has great results. In the church I pastored, we gave small groups a serious, sustained effort, but only had limited success. Most of our growth came through other systems we had built up. Many times it felt like trying to push an impossibly large boulder uphill. It left me wondering, more than once, what makes small groups so hard?

After a fair bit of analysis, I came to the conclusion that the problem, in at least some cases, is the place we give small groups in our church structure.

A Peripheral Program

You see, most churches wanting to introduce small groups already have an established program with lots of active ministries. If someone wants to give small groups a try, they can usually get permission--and then proceed to get a group or two started. This small group ministry then becomes just one more program among many. It is another "extension" added on to the periphery of the existing church structure.

It's tough to make this approach work, however. Our active members are already involved in other ministries--and all the committees and planning sessions that go with it. To add one night a week for small groups, to their already busy church schedule, especially when they have a full-time job and family, can be asking a lot. And because they are already involved in another ministry "option", they may not feel any need to get involved with anything more. And if they do happen to join a small group, it can lead to a situation where there are divided loyalties!

And of course, if you can't get your leaders to buy in, it's not likely to spread through the rest of the congregation!

To create a vibrant small group ministry in an already crowded environment like this, is an extraordinarily difficult challenge...

The Organizing Principle

The other option is to make small groups the "foundation" of church ministry. In churches that run small groups successfully, this is the consistent pattern. And it certainly seems to be the role small groups played in the early church. It wasn't peripheral, it was central.

In other words, small groups need to become the organizing principle around which the entire church is structured. Rather than small groups being one ministry among many, the ministries of the church become projects of one small group or another. Each small group organizes its own outreach activities, events, and programs. Each small group becomes a ministry team. The ministries of the church are funneled through the small groups.

It's a radically different approach.

But it has some surprise benefits. Because each ministry becomes the "project" of some small group, it becomes easier to launch new ministries (or terminate ministries that are no longer working). You simply organize a team around the new ministry idea, and redeploy workers as needed. Gone are the days of running a lecture, or concert, or cooking school with no follow-up in place. Because each event is closely linked to a small group, there are always team members on hand to invite contacts to join their group. Infrequent and often ineffective committees are replaced with small, nimble teams that meet together outside church every week already.

And by encouraging more members to participate in small groups, the church as a whole realizes some additional benefits. A natural communication network forms. Relationships deepen, and fellowship sweetens. And gradually, congregational support transitions from the busy pastor, to the various small groups. Active ministry hubs are established in multiple locations, and a greater percentage of members become involved in frontline evangelistic ministry with real, live seekers.

All this becomes possible when small groups become the foundation for ministry, rather than an extension off to the side.

Doing the Impossible

To transform an established church, however, is not easy. But without this transition from annex to foundation, it will be difficult to realize the full potential of small groups. So how do you do it?

First, lots of education. To persuade a church to make a major change like this, you are going to have to invest a lot of time with key leaders to help them see the biblical case for and benefits of a small group model. I've covered these topics in other places so I won't repeat that information here. But to get a church to shift, you have to convince the leaders first.

Second, restructure existing ministries. Once church leaders are committed to making this change, look for ways to link existing ministries with new or existing small groups. In some cases, a small group may choose to adopt a certain ministry of the church (like a correspondence school, or tract distribution). In other cases, a ministry may wish to organize a connected small group (like a cooking school or foodbank ministry). Aim for seamless connections--so every ministry has a corresponding small group.

Third, make an all out effort to recruit every member to join one small group. The more you can do to channel communication, support, activities, and ministry through the small groups, the more incentives people will have to participate.

Fourth, ensure good leadership training for the various small groups. As more functions are transferred to small groups, structure should be created in the local church to support them. And small group leadership positions should be brought under the purview of the normal officer selection process. The more central your small groups become, the more important organization becomes.

Last, find ways to constantly improve your small groups ministry. You will want to be on the constant lookout to find new ways to streamline your processes, empower your leaders, and involve more members. Because we are talking about a whole new administrative approach, there will doubtless be kinks along the way you need to work out. Just keep moving forward!

As with most things, change requires slow, steady leadership, and a church willing to embrace new possibilities. But having a clear end destination in mind is the first step. To run a small group ministry that truly changes your church--you will need to transition your small groups from being a peripheral extension to your central foundation.


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Comments

How important is it to make small groups the organizing principle of a church, rather than a peripheral tangent? How easy is it to make that transition? Share your thoughts in the comment below...

Posted by Dan Vis on 10/22/18
Appreciate you sharing our Memos! We'll see about that printer icon now...
Posted by Qing Ling on 10/22/18

Totally enthusiastic Dan. You know upgrades that result in less work excite me. This speeds up my ability to print/pdf n share. Can build a library now. I know it's best to direct ppl to actual webpage/link, but often ppl won't make that second step, so having the memo in hardcopy /attached pdf ready to pull out is actually really useful.

Bring on the printer icon:) the bold blue print button is already great by itself though. No rush

Posted by Dan Vis on 10/21/18

Those caps sound like you're shouting Qing! :) I can hear the enthusiasm all the way over from here.

Pretty soon that button is going to step up to a printer icon!

Posted by Qing Ling on 10/20/18
LOVE THAT PRINT BUTTON Dan
Posted by Dan Vis on 09/25/18

Thanks Sunny for the great post. So many good insights into what it takes to make an effective small group ministry, and get the results we all want. Makes me want to write a whole other post just with the points you made!

I too was so impressed with the Care Groups at Gateway, but didn't fully grasp everything going on behind the scenes. Hopefully we can encourage more people to give small groups a try, or to try it again, by pointing some of the things that can hinder success.

And if you ever want to fix a post, click the 'Edit recent comments' link in the comment box. :) You have a couple hours to fix your posts up before they become permanent...

Edil, great to hear some of the ministries in your church have small groups connected with them. It's always a step by step process of moving toward our very best. The key is just to keep moving!

Posted by Edil Gordon on 09/24/18
I agree with the small group idea,our soup kitchen exist on a small group ministry,I find our group is very close, we depend on each other, we call one another to make sure everyone is well and ready to go for Wednesday morning when we go to prepare the meal,we arrange for pickup so no one will be late and there is a good cooperation between us, someone brings something special for tea, we have worship with special reading from Ellen white's community service for encouragement and we go visiting one member who needs help every week where possible.We have a seniors group/men's group/women' group but the focus is internal.to make our group official we would have to get permission from the board and the pastor.we will pray that our ideas received with enthusiasm and the other groups will start their own ministries/outreach.
Posted by S.O. on 09/24/18
Oops it was posted by mistake, when I haven't finished yet. Was going to delete some part.
Anyway, it was good to read the observation you made, of which one cannot see it unless he gets involved in the leadership team of those successful churches. And also the solution to it as well how a church could change it to that structure. It'll be great if the leaders see the vision for this care group ministry, but individual members can still do their best to lias with the church as much as possible and Dan's guidelines on those steps are very helpful. It has been also my study as to how to help those who wants to start up care group ministry.
You gave me part of the solution I was seeking.
And I hope many discouraged people who tried to run the small group on the side can get help.
Posted by S.O. on 09/24/18
Wow it's so good to hear someone else also saw that point, how this care group ministry should be founded on the entire church structure. I struggled too my self with my groups, when I first learned about small groups and tried to get those going. I didn't know how it needed to be connected to church structure.
But when I went to Gateway church after that, the format was totally different. Like Dan said, the church was totally run by those groups, and there weren't anyone who does not belong to one group or the other. And the monthly leadership meeting was done by not only the usual core workers like church treasurer, secretary, etc. but also with every care group leader attending. In fact, those care group leaders were the main part of the church leadership. And the church was running programs and evangelistic series based on the need of each care groups. And like he said, the individual care groups were running the bite size ministry as they see it fit for their own care group contacts, such as cooking demo, picnic day, happy exam lunch box delivery etc. as the core members get together to plan. If there was any big event needs for harvesting the souls, then the leaders would discuss with the church leaders to run it.
The prayer meeting was done by each care groups, where the members get together through skype meeting online, sharing the praise and prayer request from each member's own life as well as the prayer needs of each seekers(contacts), therefore everyone's personal need was taken care of, as well as planning for the coming care group meeting. All within an hour online at home, though they got together one a month face to face.
So there were meetings with care group members, and there were meetings among the care group leaders with care group coordinators. Here they would discuss for the ministry for similar groups, and planting of the new care group, when the numbers out grown. And there were meetings with all the leaders of the church, like the other churches, but with the care group leaders included as main.
There are many meetings but all enjoyable, as the Spirit works in the heart in unity to press forward. Every members of the church are all involved in ministry actively, all through the care groups they belong, except for when there is a big evangelistic meetings. Bible workers excepted, as they needed to provide contacts to all different care groups, and each care group will look after them. Such powerful model. But if someone who doesn't know this structure wants to start a group by itself, it'll be very challenging, so hope we can find a way to help those individuals. This article is a great solution for the core leaders of the church to make a change. And it is very helpful, as I never thought through this steps. Praise God for this.
Posted by Dan Vis on 09/24/18

Hi Carole! The model we're talking about here are small groups organized for evangelism and ministry (care groups)--though prayer bands are certainly important too.

Sounds like you are doing something right though, if you have been able to keep things going for 7 years. Keep praying for your church! :)

Posted by Carole Bliss on 09/24/18

The small group I am involved in, has met for over 7 years.
We are not as many, as in the beginning, but we are still focused on the reason for the group.That is praying for each other, everyday.
We know the power of prayer, and know how necessary it is in our lives and in behalf of others.
We just need to structure it better. Too much talk, and not enough time for prayer.
We do pray daily, for one another, which is so important.

We have another group that meets each Sabbath right after church. They form a circle and pray together. As our Pastor has said, prayer ministry is vital for the church. Therefore, our little groups have the same goal, and that. is prayer. They meet at different times, with different people.

I went to a class at the conference talking about small groups this week-end. How to get to know people. Were are they coming from. Learning who they are, and what will meet the needs of the group.

Blessings,
Carole

Posted by Dan Vis on 09/24/18

Thanks Paul for your feedback. You are right, small groups can go off on tangents--which is why it is important to bring the leadership of these small groups under the church officer selection process. Especially if you are going to organize your church around them. It becomes more of a risk with peripheral groups left to themselves.

And yes, finding ways to link ministries and small groups together is so important. A trained Care Group leader will naturally want to build ministries in connection with that small group, because that is part of the Care Group model. It's less common for existing ministries to think about adding a small group to their strategy--but with a bit of vision, these can be some of the most powerful funnels for souls. Good post!

Glad this made sense Berith! And yes, that's the challenge--shifting the thinking of existing leaders. It's easier in a church plant where you can set things up around care groups right from the start. But through prayer all things are possible, amen?

Love your analogy Dan of nailing jello to the wall--with one hand no less! And thanks for emphasizing the importance of keeping every small group centered on evangelism. It was kind of implied above, but not stated. It is what we call the foundational rule in the Care Group model--and the reason why Care Groups should connect with active ministries to help with the soul winning process. I'm just not sure if I'm ever going to be able to get that image you painted out of head...

And thanks also for mentioning that the success of even a single Care Group can help inspire the transition. Probably should have stated that more clearly as well. Rather than insisting on the whole church changing at once, it may be better to pursue establishing one or two care group/ministry pairings and get them successfully winning souls. Then those groups becomes the argument for reorganizing more and more of the church. That's what I was thinking in step two above--but you stated it much better!

Glad you found this helpful Lynn and thank you for sharing, as always. Did you notice the new PRINT button at the top of the page? I added it just last night to make these articles easier to print and share. I'd be curious to know what the feedback is. We have another related Explosion Factory article coming out soon that would go well with this. There's a chance I can get that done by Wednesday...

Posted by Lynn Badger on 09/24/18
This is excellent information and timing is perfect for our church. We are having an elders meeting on Wednesday and I will share this with them. Great ideas and ways to help make it work. Thanks
Posted by Dan Pratt on 09/24/18

Great article, Dan. A church organized around small groups usually signifies an active and growing church, whereas a church with a small group or two functioning on the periphery usually struggles, and often so do the small groups. But small groups that only exist as a "country club" for believers tend to wither and eventually die. Crucial to keeping them alive is the stated and pursued goal of outreach. Without active "seekers" in a group, its purpose ceases to exist and often soon does the small group.

Making the transition from small groups being a peripheral tangent to being the organizing principle of a church is too often about as simple as trying to nail jello to a wall--with one hand! However, when a church makes reaching out to non-members its goal, and combines that with CARE groups being the organizing factor of the church, the sheer success by God's blessing can inspire the transition to take place. You did an excellent job of explaining how to accomplish this in some recents post such as the one about Key to Target Grouping. Thank you.

Posted by Berith Bermejo on 09/24/18
I understand better. Thank you for the explanation of both approaches to care groups. The challenge now is to have the leaders on board with care groups as foundation rather than extension. Best to start praying.
Posted by Paul Carson on 09/24/18
Small groups can be influenced by individuals on a bandwagon. Also, a small group may not be supported where perceived power issues exist between leaders. The local church in this town has, with limited success, run one small group Bible study for several years. This year, however, a couple who came to us from a distant congregation established the CARE group model. Just recently this couple extended that to a Sabbath day class to transition guests to Bible study using prophesy studies. One reason that this is working well for us is that there is really nothing much else happening. So in a sense we can establish the purposeful ministry of the congregation around small groups, and, as you have suggested Dan, individual ministries can dovetail together effectively. We are a small congregation with many attendees but relatively few committers. So there are systemic issue to be dealt with. I very much value the practical work of ministry that you are sharing. Thank you.

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