Living in the Tension of Small Group Ministry
If you’ve been involved in a church before, you may have some experience with small groups ─ or life groups, or Bible studies, or missional communities (the list goes on). Churches use different names, but I’m referring to any small-sized group ministry that a church facilities. Chances are, if you have been involved in these groups, you also know that (for some reason) Christians can’t seem to agree on how they should work. :)
In my experience, we may use different language to describe them, but there are basically four values that churches try to prioritize within these groups: the Word, community, prayer, and mission. Most Christians would agree that all four of these values are important ─ and even essential ─ to true discipleship. But our visions for small group ministry tend to vary quite a bit depending on how we prioritize theses values.
Some people will be disappointed if their group doesn’t devote enough time to studying and discussing Scripture. Others will be disappointed if the group is merely content-driven, and there is no opportunity to share in the ups and downs of life together. Meanwhile, others will be concerned if the group only gives a few minutes to prayer at the end of each meeting. And some may complain that the group is too “inward” ─ not concerned with engaging our community and reaching those who are far from Christ.
The tension is real! And sometimes within groups, it can even cause conflict as people disagree over how to prioritize these values. To be perfectly honest, at Redemption we don’t have a special way of resolving this tension. Instead, our goal is to live in the tension together.
Living in the Tension Together
We’re convinced that all four of these values are essential to discipleship ─ the Word, community, prayer, and mission. We want to cultivate well-rounded groups that truly value each one of them. We’re also convinced that if we try to resolve this tension by prioritizing one value over another, we’ll end up missing the mark. So instead, our goal is to create a network of small groups that live in the tension of these four values rather than trying to resolve the tension.
Not every small group will use the exact same format from week-to-week. However, every group will be devoted to studying Scripture (Word), sharing in the ups & downs of life (community), crying out to God together (prayer), and helping others know & follow Jesus (mission). Our goal is to equip small group leaders to use wisdom in prioritizing these four values, without devaluing any of them.
With that beautiful tension in mind, here is how we’ve decided to structure our groups...
How Our Small Groups Work:
Three different types of small groups
We believe that God uses the gospel to redeem all kinds of different people and gather them together as a new spiritual family ─ the Church. This is a beautiful thing that we want to celebrate! Therefore, we don’t organize small groups based on a people’s life stage, marital status, or interests. We want groups to be made up of people of different ages, cultural backgrounds, personality types, and interests.
At the same time, because God has designed men and women in unique & distinct ways, we do see value in having some groups that are designed for either men or women.
For these reasons, we have just three types of small groups at Redemption: General groups (for everyone), men’s groups, and Women’s groups.
Ongoing groups that multiply
Temporary groups that meet for a season and then break up can be great for Bible study and prayer, but typically not for long-term community & mission. It takes time for people to settle into a group and build lasting friendships! For that reason, all of our groups stay together indefinitely. Some groups may opt to meet less frequently during the summer months, but they don’t necessarily have to. Essentially, each group will continue to meet as long as there is a qualified leader whose willing to oversee it.
The goal of having groups meet indefinitely is not to keep the same people together forever, though. As we make disciples and groups grow over time, every group’s goal is to develop new leaders and multiply more groups. Therefore, even though a group may stay together indefinitely, the hope is that the group will look quite different over time as new people join, new leaders are developed, and new groups are formed along the way. Our prayer is that God will raise up a network of healthy small groups that share the same vision to make & multiply disciples together.
Ideally 12 people or less
Once a small group reaches a certain size, it becomes much more challenging to develop deep and lasting relationships within the group. Group discussion also becomes more difficult since there is limited time for everyone to share and we tend to be less open around people we don’t know very well.
For this reason, when a group grows to 12 people, we will begin praying and planning for that group to raise up a new leader and multiply. However, this 12-person guideline is not a hard and fast rule. If we don’t have a qualified leader whose prepared to start a new group, some groups may grow larger than 12 for a time. But once a group has 12 people on a regular basis, we do ask them to actively pursue multiplication rather than just growing larger.
Some flexibility with content
As a default, every small group spends part of its meeting time discussing the passage and sermon that was preached the Sunday before. This gives the whole church room to dive deeper into a sermon text and apply it together with close friends. However, groups can take a break from this rhythm to go through a separate book study from time to time. Our only requirement is that groups study content that is recommended by the elders. For that reason, we’ve developed a library of pre-approved books that small group leaders can choose from. With input from their group, small group leaders will work with an elder to discern if/when their group should take a break from sermon discussion to study a separate book.
Some flexibility with meeting frequency
We’re convinced that small groups are for everyone in the church, regardless of life stage ─ but we also realize that people’s schedule & capacity may vary from season to season. In general, we’ve found that meeting any less than twice a month is too infrequent, especially if people miss one or two meetings in a row. However, meeting weekly can be too much for some, especially couples/families that need to arrange a babysitter. For that reason, we allow groups to meet either (a) weekly, or (b) twice a month. With input from their group, small group leaders will work with an elder to discern how frequently the group should meet.
This definitely is not the perfect solution for small groups; we may need to make adjustments along the way. But we do hope that God will use this vision to cultivate well-rounded groups that make disciples & glorify him. In the meantime, as we follow Christ alongside of each other, we want to commit to living in the tension of small group ministry together.