Thursday, June 23, 2011

Encouraging Great Small Groups

Last time I posted on some powerful research results on the factors that correlate with healthy growing small groups, shared by Rick Howerton about Elgi and Marble's new book "Small Groups, Big Impact."

In a nutshell, a leader's prayer time trumps prep time, and the dominant factors for a group are: leaders who connect with God, pray for their group and empower others to serve and lead; and group members who reach out to others outside the group and who love one another. (Doesn't that sound Biblical?! :)

Top 10 Implications for Small Group Ministry
  1. Our church must see small groups as relational environments for community, spiritual growth, and outreach (not just an assimilation structure or a means to carry out church priorities)
  2. Our church should visibly pray for groups and celebrate small group successes - people cared for, coming to Christ, stepping up to lead, and groups multiplying.
  3. Our small group coaches must encourage, pray for, and support small group leaders in a way that is meaningful to the leader (different leaders and groups can have vastly different needs)
  4. Our coaches must listen more than they talk, and when they do talk, encourage prayer, care, outreach, and involving group members in ministry (mechanical issues can be handled on an as-needed basis)
  5. Our small group leaders must pray regularly for and with group members
  6. Our small group leaders must intentionally share the load, inviting others into ministry and leadership
  7. Our small group members should be encouraged to care for one another, do things together outside of the meeting, and reach out to others in a natural way. (Hanging out trumps Homework)
  8. New leaders must be chosen on the basis of their love for God and love for others (not their gifting, personality type, or experience).
  9. New leaders should focus more on who they invite (leveraging existing relationships) than what they study.
  10. Our ministry team leaders need to pray for their team members, encourage them personally, build a sense of community, as well as equipping them for the task.

............ Appendix ............ (I'll bet you didn't think a blog post could have an appendix did you?)

I've been chewing on how these results support or work against what I've seen in various small group ministry models and books. Several of the resources below seemed completely contradictory in their outlook and advice, but what do they have in common (with each other and with Egli's findings)? This may not interest every reader, but if you're a small groups geek who has spent any time struggling with the 'right small group model' I hope you find these reflections worthwhile...

Saddleback's Host Strategy. If leadership gifting, teaching and facilitating skill, and lots of up front training were critical for a small group leader, how does one explain the great success of Saddleback's "HOST" strategy. They use DVD-based teaching, minimal training or experience, and will let almost anyone lead a group. Yet notice the tie-in with Egli's results: while the leader is not necessarily gifted or trained, they care enough about people to invite friends and family for a group. They invite people they already are in relationship with (increasing the 'care for one another' factor), and are usually reaching out and inviting people not already connected to a group (strong outreach factor). Typically, enthusiasm and prayer run high for such new Host leaders too.

Small Group Coaching. It's rather well known by those working in the area of small group ministry that the effectiveness of small group coaching and training systems varies tremendously. Sometimes they flop miserably, other times they can be quite effective. Why is that? The results here suggest that it will not be very effective when 'coaching' that focuses on how to facilitate a group, trying to be a leader who is the expert and does it all, or looks for certain giftedness to put someone in leadership. Instead, coaching would be expected to be most effective when it is relational, models prayer and the heart of a shepherd, models and encourages caring for one another, and that encourages a leader to share the load and keep a missional or outreach mindset. Mark Howell has this one-sentence definition of a small group coach: "A Small Group Coach needs to do to and for their small group leaders whatever you want small group leaders to do to and for their members." What does that suggest in Egli's paradigm? A small group coach should pray often for his leaders, care for them, empower them, and be on the look-out for new leaders who love God and can do likewise.

Simple Small Groups. One of the most interesting books I've read on groups in a while is Simple Small Groups by Bill Search. It doesn't present a new 'model' for doing groups, rather it focuses on what a group leader can do practically to help group members (and the group itself) to grow. Search looks at three vital dimensions to group life: connecting, changing, and cultivating. The connect continuum moves from meeting to connecting to belonging. To help people connect he suggests sharing leadership responsibilities, praying for one another, and hanging out together. (Sound familiar? Egli would agree!) The changing continuum spans learning to growing to transformation. Key factors here include sharing honestly, applying the Scriptures, and really listening to the Holy Spirit and each other. (These are factors that would be critical for the growth of the individual - the health rather than the growth of the group.) The cultivate continuum is about exploring, applying, impacting, and is fostered by establishing a missional pattern in the lives of each group member. Reaching out to others and caring in a practical way are essential - another tie-in to Egli's findings. I think this is why the book struck such a chord with me; it focuses a lot more on factors that matter rather than mechanics or models.

Small Group Leader's Toolkit (Dave Earley) - starts with a story of a small group pastor expecting a quiet new leader to fail, but shocked at his success. On asking his coach what made this leader different he heard "he does everything we ask him to do like other leaders, but what sets him apart from others is that he prays a lot. He prays for his group and with his group every day." The author concludes "Prayer is the most important task of a spiritual leader." He shares ten 'power tools' for small group leaders. The very first is prayer, and others include things like personal integrity, modeling love for one another, and a commitment to developing others.

The Naked Truth about Small Group Ministry (Randall Neighbour) - rails against much of what is going on in the American church and its small groups. Interesting, a main theme in the very first chapter is the lack of prayer and a recommendation for prayer groups and for small group leaders to get serious about prayer. In the second chapter he highlights relationships as paramount, and the need for small group members to truly care for one another. Also very interesting - he cites research by Jim Egli showing that "the practical, proactive coaching of small group leaders does more than anything else in a church's small group system to promote health and growth." (So - both the system and the groups need a leader/coach who prays and cares for those they lead.)

So Much Noise and Debate. There are so many different models for doing small groups, and even more books telling you about these models. For every model you will find some churches in which it's working well, and others where it fails. Within any given church you'll see the same thing whenever the emphasis is on the model - some groups do well, others don't. Why is that? We're focusing on the wrong thing! It's important to have a structure, a plan or model for doing small group ministry, but when all our mental energy and training goes into following the model we fail to promote what really matters: praying, caring, reaching out and inviting others to serve and share. This also explains why I can read several books promoting different models and finish them with a sense that half of what they're saying is great but other aspects don't appeal at all (sermon-based groups, semester-based groups, or neighborhood groups). When most authors pitch a process it's very hard for the reader to differentiate between what is essential (a practice that fosters caring, outreach) and what is strictly pragmatic (topic, length, format, how groups are filled...)

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