If you want the small groups in your church to stay together longer, here are some practical steps to take:
INDENTIFY THE LONG-LASTING SMALL GROUPS THAT ALREADY EXIST. Start your search with senior citizen Sunday school classes. In some churches they're remarkably stable, and their relationships extend outside the classroom. Talk with class members. What insights do they have about creating community? Why are they close? You're likely to find they have shared history, they rely on each other for practical things, and they feel free to talk about current life issues. Their relationships are relevant and vital.
FOCUS ON SHARING LIFE, NOT LESSONS. "In our church we have lots of groups based around activities and very few based around life together," says Greg Sanders, a Colorado associate pastor and worship leader. "I don't need another activity. I need life."
So Greg put out the word that anyone interested in a small group that leaned more toward experiencing life together and away from quarterly Bible study should meet for a potluck on a Friday night.
Enough people showed up to launch two groups.
Greg is deliberate in his "no lesson books" approach to his group. "We need to talk and pray together," he says. "I don't want to sound snobbish, but the last thing I want is to be all churchy in our small group. I want to know what is happening in lives. I want to be close enough to people that they know me and can hold me accountable for things in my life and marriage."
ENCOURAGE MEMBERSHIP, BUT PROVIDE AN EXIT. As people cycle into a group, build in opt-out moments. Some group members have no idea what it means to share their lives, to speak honestly to each other, to be accountable. And when they make that discovery, some of them want out.
Rather than putting people in a position in which they feel compelled to make excuses, clearly mark the exit ramps. Moving out of the country is certainly one, but there are others.
"We don't want small group to be a burden," Greg says. "But they shouldn't be something you can just walk away from, either. It's important toknow that someone's not running away."
Roy thinks it's important to give new people time to see if the small group is what they truly want.
"Whenever someone new joined our group, we met together for a month and then talked about whether the group was meeting everyone's needs," he says. "By then everyone - including the couple deciding whether to join - knew if the group was a fit."
HELP NEW PEOPLE FIND A HOME. To help new people make connections within an existing group that's been together for years, do the following:
- Clarify expectations about confidentiality. Maybe the need for confidentiality is understood by veteran group members, but the new people need to know that their vulnerability is as valued as that of veterans.
- Stick with your regular format. During times new people are considering making a committment to the group, do what you normally do. New members need to see what kind of life group they're joining. What's safe to discuss? What's unsafe?
- Tell your faith stories. It may be group that's been covered among the veterans, but even they will be encouraged to hear again what God's done in the lives of others.
FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT...HOW THE CHURCH CAN HELP. The forces that shorten small-group life are alive and well. Group members move away. People change churches. A shift in church focus might urge church members to meet in groups designed to support outreach or missions or parenting or marriage, Groups disband when a quarter's curriculum is completed.
To survive for years, what groups most need from the church is for the church to pray for them but to otherwise simply leave them alone. To honor their desire to live honestly and with integrity in full view of others. To do peer ministry that can only be done by trusted friends. To be there for each other in times of trouble and moments of joy. To be the church.
"A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you today just the way you are. A friend is someone with whom you dare to be yourself." - C. Raymond Beran
Excerpt from Group's Body Building, Guide to Community, Chapter Eight, Implementation pg. 92